Tyler Hayden’s Ohmhole lives up to its name; it is a book full of bodily holes, secreting fluid and weeping blood; physical holes, pits where people are voluntarily gangbanged in a search for the Cure to AIDS, rumored to be passed through fluids; holes in history, society and, finally, memory and storytelling itself.
Hayden creates a bleak alternate future where the narrator, Elliot, lies in a government hospice dying of AIDS, a disease that has infected most of the North American population. People live for a while with HIV—kept alive with food and medicine from anonymous government operatives only referred to as “hes” and “shes”—then they die of AIDS, and the cycle is complete. Sometimes the cyclical nature of the narrative—the endless round holes, the repetitive lists of discarded items, the meticulous description of spaces empty of meaning—are almost maddening (and sometimes downright confusing) in their detail. At other times, I found pop culture references, especially the scene riffing off the movie Top Gun, were distasteful and fell flat (“Mauvedick”, “Liceman”, “Anger Zone”—Really?). Yet, below the surface of devices that are wielded to an uneven effect lies an ambitious novel that delves into the muck of human existence.
At its surface, Hayden’s experimental novel is about people dying of AIDS, but after a while that seems barely important, just as the rumored cure becomes beside the point. In a world where everyone dies the same death, where this certainty has emptied life of its possibilities, living and dying don’t seem all that different, and, for Elliot at least, neither seems that important. At one point, a doctor he meets, Karms, says, “Death spread over a lifetime incrementally is still death” (39), and that seems to be the point of the narrative: even in life, Elliot is already death. His antagonist becomes not death, but boredom, an interesting conceit I would have liked to see further explored.
By redrawing the line that separates life and death, Hayden creates an opportunity for his characters to evaluate the world from a new perspective. What happens when it is no longer death but boredom that is the enemy? What is the point of living when life is pointless? At its strongest, the novel delves into these questions with poetry that slaps you in the face with its despair, even while recognizing that despair itself is pointless, powerless. Hayden wields language like a weapon, creating images that are both beautiful and grotesque: “The sun leaves thick smears wherever it lands: pale blue and yellow” (149). Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these moments. Most of Elliot’s reflections seem empty of emotion or narrative purpose and, as a reader, I was left without any real investment in his story or clear idea what, if anything, is at stake. Instead, I felt as if the book had sucked me dry of any feeling for these characters, leaving behind just another hole to be filled with whatever came next. Though, come to think of it, perhaps that was the point.
By Tyler Hayden