Johanna Hedva’s On Hell does what others only speculate about. The novel ports into fiction the concern with the body that was central to their groundbreaking and widely shared essay, ‘Sick Woman Theory’. As with the essay, in On Hell, Hedva rearranges the components that make up our stories about how the world works, adjusts our vision. On Hell focuses on the body as a hackable thing, as limitation.
This is the first time I really thought about the word hacking it means to cut it the fuck up and leave it in slices like pieces of something ugly but in pieces like a ribbon something beautiful.
Hedva’s book is a pulsing work. It makes you want to delete all your social media, even as it recognises the internet as a potential space of freedom for those who understand its workings. In On Hell, Hedva identifies the effects of control on the brown body, bodies that are routinely subject to the violence of systematic oppression and incarceration.
The novel focuses on Rafael Luis Estrada Requena, sentenced to prison for attacking a CIA database and now released. He’s no longer allowed to use the internet. So he’s hacking his body, all that’s left to him, in an attempt to find the ultimate freedom – flight. He’s building wings into his bones, his skin.
Like Rafael’s changing body, the novel’s format is unusual: a 106-page book, dominated by unbroken speech. Description seeps in only at the end. Discussing the plot feels like it will give away too much – half the pleasure of the work is finding something to hold onto in the torrent, gleaning details about the story and the narrator from the way Rafael speaks to her. He calls her Motherfuck, Mama, tells her to raise her ‘Asian hyphen American’ eyes to the sky. Names aren’t important, but his was on_hell.
Most stories come off dorky and desperate to seem current when they represent the online space – italics, little speech bubbles, line breaks and character names like a play. Rafael talking about not being online feels more in tune with the pace and scope of the web. He’s:
banned from using the internet banned from asking anyone even you Motherfuck to use the internet for me like hey watch this funny video of a cat on a Roomba bam bam back in jail.
He begs the narrator not to use symbols when they talk about him, when they frame his story for a magazine or a book: ‘You gonna write some poetic shit about the sun the symbolic sun the new sun the sun quote unquote as.’ Hedva is well aware of the structures, especially in academia, that a created thing is sieved through to determine its value. Don’t use their language to get some of their power, Rafael tells the narrator. This is institutions as assimilation.
On Hell is obsessed with the body, as both a changeable thing and as determinant. ‘I mean is my money an extension of my body or or or what?’ Rafael uses the markers his body carries to acquire the painkillers, steroids, and tramadol that make his transformation possible. ‘Since it’s a clinic for poor brown people no one knows what the fuck is going on,’ he says.
We never hear the narrator’s interjections in the interviews with Rafael, only Rafael’s responses.
I’m trying to figure it out and it’s fucking hard and ya it hurts all the time but that’s why it’s a fucking project it gives you nothing but pain until it doesn’t.
While other writers (myself included) try to catch up with Hedva’s linking of chronic illness, intergenerational trauma and abuse in ‘Sick Woman Theory’, they’ve gone further here, into and out of the body. It’s not an Elon Musk-y transhumanist idea (that is, observation, control, putting your public transport card chip under your skin for maximum efficiency).
Rather, Hedva makes something new from existing forms, bypassing the structures that insist certain bodies live certain lives. The language is grotesque and tender – Rafael drilling into his bones, putting a towel down to soak up spattering blood. The metaphors all draw on sex, waste, death.
On Hell makes a good case for the supremacy of the real, or at least the non-digital: watching the pulse in the neck of a loved one, cleaning up your own blood, sensations that bypass words. Dealing with the body rather than the digital means that ‘this shit doesn’t have to go through cables and bounce around servers and shit it’s fucking immediately right there.’
But words can produce instant effect too, which is the only thing that makes any art worthwhile.
Words are like like a sort of motion in themselves they can move things around they can get high up there and you in fact don’t have to wait for them at all.
A hundred white-screen articles might never get in your blood like On Hell.