Only Americans Burn in Hell is by Turkish-American writer, Jarett Kobek. It’s a second follow up to 2016’s surprise self-published hit, I Hate The Internet. Like that book, it is a scathing satire of contemporary society, institutions, and media.
Kobek’s Fans include the radical comedian Stewart Lee & the anarchist writer Alan Moore, and he describes himself as being far to the left – he is however cynical about prospects for change.
The plot of Only Americans Burn In Hell revolves around a fairy queen called Celia who comes to Los Angeles from Fairyland in search of her missing daughter Fern. Fern, along with her brother The Fairy Knight, has converted to evangelical christianity and is feeding fairy blood to the legions of LA Homeless. It’s nonsense but it’s entertaining.
Among the other characters are HRH Mamduh bin Fatih bin Muhammad bin Abdulaziz al Saud – a super-rich & super-trendy DMT smoking Saudi Prince with sadistic inclinations and a love of popular music and trendy liberal t-shirts. A brown-skinned American Pyscho, basically. Then there is Rose Byrne, Queen Celia’s fairy bodyguard who slaughters men by the dozen & really enjoys it.
This freaky adventure story takes up about half the book. Much of the rest is social & political critique of Trump’s post-truth America, a place where the distinctions between truth and fiction, politics and entertainment have collapsed. This could be dreadfully boring of course – a pointless & disjointed book about how pointless and disjointed everything has become, but is saved from being so by the often very funny and scathing way Kobek expresses his critique.
Kobek also does something which has a long pedigree in the experimental fiction genre – stretching back at least to Laurence Sterne – he interrupts the narrative to talk about himself and his books. During this he engages in maoist-style self-critique. His unsuccessful first follow up to I Hate The Internet, called The Future won’t be Long, was published by Penguin Random House, a gigantic conglomerate now controlled by an even bigger conglomerate called Bertelson, who were the official printers to the third reich. Kobek has therefore been published, says he to himself, by nazi money’.
It’s rare & refreshing for a writer to admit their own dependance on and profiting from the evil of corporate capitalism, & Kobek doing so adds authenticity to his broader critique, as well as reminding us of Adorno’s adage that ‘There is no right way to live a wrong life’ .
The targets of his critique are chiefly the media industry and the Silicon Valley tech industry. Hollywood relentlessly promotes genocide and constant imperialist war through the glorification of white warrior culture in superhero movies. Every other media acquiesces in this – serious journalism and literary fiction included, either by ignoring the disaster of contemporary existence, or distracting from it. But ignorance, distraction and ideology have been the gifts of literature since the days of Gilgamesh and The Illiad. It’s the mass distraction occassioned by smart phones, tablets, online pornography, and social media emanating from Silicon Valley that has brought the arts of social control to whole different level. Social media involves the bulk of the population in a slave economy whereby they provide free content and data to gigantic corporations. Google, twitter, facebook use this freely provided content and data to make untold billions in advertising, sharing absolutely none of that revenue with the masses who make it for them by way of content and data provision.
A permanent war economy based in large part on a new consumer slavery and ruled over by reality TV stars and Technotrillionaires whose greatest intellectual influence is Ayn Rand, the far-right novelist and philosopher. A worse-than-Orwell’s worst nightmare kind of world is what we are stuck with.
Kobek’s biggest targets are social media giants like twitter, instagram, and facebook. Twitter has, he repeats, ‘turned everyone into a whiney 15 year old’. Instagram is a ‘terrorist attack on the self-esteem of young women’. Google street view is invasion of privacy on a global scale. He is scathing about those who see twitter as a forum for progressive political change, pointing out that #metoo or indeed any other online campaign’s function in the real economy is to make money for billionaire white men through advertising revenue.
The more popular and content-generating a progressive hashtag is the more it makes for the least progressive, most powerful people in the world. This is an admirable position for Kobek to take – it puts him at odds with the overwhelming majority of his literary contemporaries who do use social media for progressive campaigning and self-promotion – to the extent that it’s not so easy to tell the self-promotion from the social campaigning in many cases. But is this the whole story?
Is there not a lot of truth too in saying that social media can have a real-world political impact in favour of good causes? Who can deny the importance of social media to spreading the word on important left wing causes like housing activism and pro-choicecampaigning? The activist left is almost totally excluded from mass media – we have no choice but to dance with the devil of social media.
Also how important is advertising to the real world economy? Not so much. It accounts for less than 1 per cent of US GDP and is declining. Plus many people use adblockers or are immune to ads. Kobek’s economic theories are not convincing.
And if truth has really been seen off by fantasy how come I still have to go to work? Why can’t I just imagine that I have gone to work and stay in bed instead? Despite the undoubted and terrifying rise in the influence of irrationality and untruth, of which social media is the vector, reality persists and certain stubborn truths are going nowwhere. Our manifold crises are not caused by social media – mussolini and hitler rose to power without the aid of youtube or the Iphone – so much as social media have become vectors of expression for crises.
It’s true also that many thousands of writers and intellectuals, who should have better things to do, waste their time talking crap online. But the root cause of this isnt moral failing, as Kobek implies, but underemployment of humanities postgraduates all over the west alongside vicious competition for the small ammounts of work available to intellectual freelancers like journalists, creative writers and so on. Talking crap about superheros and pretending to like everybody else’s book/film/play etc is a professional necessity for many. Although twitter is pathethic and depressing in large part, especially the badly misnomered ‘literary twitter’, you can’t blame the victims of neo-liberalism for what it forces them to do to get by.
Twitter & Facebook may be the trumpets of apocalypse, but they are certainly not the horsemen. The root cause of our cascading disasters is rapidly increasing inequality in the real-world economy, which leads many, out of ignorance and despair, to look for leadership from tyrants and maniacs, who are only too happy to oblige. Its an old story.
But there is another side to this old story which Kobek is largely blind to – people are also coming together to resist climate change, the alt.right, racism etc. And in some cases they are winning. Not all young women – not nearly all – are vulnerable or deluded enough to live for instagram likes alone. One shouldnt ignore the detrimental effects of social media, but massively overestimating them doesn’t help either.
Verdict – Only Americans Burn in Hell an entertaining story-polemic and Kobek is an important thinker for our times whose critique of social media and especially of the liberal intelligentsia’s blind enslavement to billionaire advertising magnates on Twitter is sharp and clear & hard to deny.
But ‘the philosophers have merely interpreted the world, the point is to change it’. Fiction might well benefit from Kobek’s astute and merciless critique of it’s role in creating and reproducing the unfair and frightening world we live in, but those who live in the real world will want more than mere interpretation. If you are wondering whats wrong with the world this is as good a book as any to get handle on it. If you’re wondering what to do about it, stick to watching Greta Thurnberg and any of the countless other positive progressive changemakers to be found online.