[OR Books; 2019]

Writing in the seventeenth century, English antiquary and natural philosopher John Aubrey described a peculiar practice in Herefordshire which poor people were hired to attend funerals “to take upon them all the sinnes of the party deceased.” The process, reported in various counties across the English and Welsh marches, is known as sin eating — the designated person eating the sins of the departed so that they might arrive in heaven spiritually pure. Aubrey describes how bread and ale were passed over the corpse and then consumed by the sin eater, thereby “[taking] upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and free[ing] him (or her) from walking after they were dead.”

Sin eater Richard Munslow forms the centre point of “Who Eats the Sin-Eater’s Sins?,” an essay in Luke O’Neil’s collection Welcome to Hell World. Not exactly compatible with the teaching of the church, sin eaters were “shunned as foul pariahs for their trouble,” O’Neil explains, adding insult to the spiritual injury incurred as “each bite of bread and each sip of ale further curdled their own load bearing souls.” You might assume that only the most destitute signed up, but Munslow was different. He came from a successful background in farming, only turning to sin eating upon the loss of his children to whooping cough. Desperate he might have been, but not for money.

Across the essay, O’Neil casts himself as a modern-day Munslow. His book, adapted from a popular newsletter of the same name (and carrying the subtitle “Dispatches from the American Dystopia”), collects a deluge of horror stories from the American present — opioid addiction and police brutality and crowdfunded healthcare and rampant racism and literal “baby jails” and everything else — injustices that O’Neil takes it upon himself to consume. “Most people do not attend hourly to the sins of the world in its perpetual cycle of grief and misery on Twitter,” he writes, but he is not most people. Rather, O’Neil subsists on a “Clockwork Orange eyeball torture feed,” wired permanently into the digital mainframe of 24-hour news so that he might share the very worst of it with us.

Perhaps, he wonders, we expose ourselves to violence and sadness online as a kind of deluded self-flagellation, as though a complete awareness of suffering can serve as a strange penance for our own failings. And, if we consider ourselves writers, we might be able to scrape some money from the practice too. “Sometimes I think like the destitute sin-eaters that I behold the grief of the world without respite because I have no other choice,” O’Neil says. “Each sin I consume I can turn into a living.” But then as writing is at least as precarious as any other occupation, perhaps the aim of the exposure goes deeper still. Maybe O’Neil, and by extension we for picking up a book like Hell World, are more like poor old Richard Munslow. “We’ve been driven mad with grief and we know nothing else but to continue to compound it in a gluttonous feast,” O’Neil concludes. “We gorge ourselves on the sins of others until it sickens us hoping without any sort of reliable proof that in the end it might help someone but knowing nonetheless that it won’t.”

Welcome to Hell World is the menu for such a feast, written in a conversational, stream-of-consciousness style that manages to be at once scathingly ironic and disarmingly sincere. Like a relative of the edgelord hipster who has grown all too aware of how dumb and empty his cousin has become, O’Neil drops the aimless and adolescent transgression in favor of something more human and vulnerable. Readers familiar with the Tyrant Books catalogue might recognise the tone, O’Neil possessing the same penchant for black humour and self-deprecating honesty that marks the work of Scott McClanahan et al. Indeed, O’Neil cites Nico Walker’s Cherry as a direct influence, a novel written in a similar style that Tyrant’s Gian DiTrapano encouraged before passing on to Knopf. Many books take big issues like war and addiction and attempt to portray the everyday humanity within them, but with Cherry Walker reversed the trick, taking everyday humanity and casting it into the big issues of opioid addiction and the Iraq War, resulting in the funny and sad and utterly bewildered voice of a kid never quite accustomed to the violence around him.

Adopting a similar tone, Luke O’Neil takes us by the hand and walks toward the violence. Indeed, the first essay takes us to Iraq via Chris Hondros’s iconic photograph of Samar Hassan, a young girl travelling with her family in the north of the country when US troops opened fire on their car. As their parents died in the front seats, the children spilled onto the road and Hondros was on hand to snap a wailing Hassan, impossibly small and dripping with blood. O’Neil holds up the image in response to the reputation rehab now underway for the like of the Bushes and John McCain. How can we betray ourselves so easily? he asks. How can one dangerous buffoon in office wipe out the memories of every other? Because, as O’Neil makes clear, it’s not as easy to forget for some people. “I will never forgive them,” he quotes Hassan saying in a documentary about Hondros released in 2017. “I will just leave it to God. God will punish them . . . If they were in front of me, I would want to drink their blood.”

The piece is a neat encapsulation of Hell World’s central concern, revealing not only the brute force of power but also the insidious campaign to mask its destructive force or else spin it into something fair and just. Like how Amazon celebrated the fact that a fifty-year-old arthritic woman lost one hundred pounds while working on their Flex programme, a gig economy role where workers deliver parcels for what amounts to $5-11 an hour once expenses have been paid (“People Tend To Like It She Said”). Or how Florida start-up Papa charges lonely elderly people $17 an hour so that a college kid (who gets a cut of $10) will go and sit with them and talk to them and convince them there is more than one person on this earth (“We Pretend We Don’t See Each Other”). Or how prisoners are not always evacuated from hurricane zones in the interests of “safety,” and sometimes get handcuffed to the cells as the waters rise and maybe even get shot if they manage to escape (“He Is Nothing Less Than a Traitor, A Monster”).

The stories just keep on coming. Green Choice programs at Marriott hotels putting their cleaners out of jobs in the name of saving the world. Gravely ill people making their own way to the emergency room because the ambulance ride would bankrupt them. Suicide epidemics among overworked doctors. Diabetics dying after missing their GoFundMe goal for insulin by $50. A whole heap of people shot dead because the police are scared of the general public or the politicians are scared of the gun lobby. The take away from every essay is not merely that life is terrible, but that powerful people choose to make it so for their own ends. “I don’t really know what hell is but I don’t think it’s a place where bad things happen to people randomly such as natural disasters and death because that’s just what the regular world is,” O’Neil writes. “I think it’s probably more accurate to say it’s a place where bad things happen because someone wanted them to happen to you or just let them happen out of negligence and indifference. Where bad things happen and they didn’t have to but your life was less important to someone else than what they thought they had to gain.”

The problem with hell is that it is unending. If O’Neil presents us a feast then it is an eternal feast that will defeat any glutton. Since I started reading the book the US news has reported homeless people set on fire and homeless beaten to death and a woman in Glendale, CA who said into a microphone that she didn’t care about homeless people and that she hoped somebody would burn their shelter down, triggering mass applause at the town hall she was speaking at. Splinter and Deadspin became the latest victims of the private equity firms dismantling the media like Tony Soprano in a sporting goods store, and Mark Zuckerburg said that “on some level” no-one deserves to be a billionaire because such wealth accumulation is “unreasonable.” The FBI confirmed fifty of the alleged ninety-three murders of what would be the most prolific serial killer in US history. But then I suppose that depends on your definition of a serial killer because the Oxycontin-inventing Sackler family are in court still/again and their company Purdue Pharmaceuticals has filed for bankruptcy. Also the Sacklers took something like $13 billion out of the company already. Oh and also someone revealed that the president has some ideas for stopping migrants like digging a moat along the border wall and filling it with alligators and snakes and/or just shooting them in the legs.

Writing in 2009’s Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher used the Disney/Pixar animation WALL-E to argue that some forms of social critique can be counter-productive. The film, he argues, demonstrates what Robert Pfaller termed “interpassivity.” “[Wall-E] performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity,” Fisher writes. “The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” Criticisms of capitalism, be it WALL-E’s post-apocalyptic trash world or Ken Loach’s pre-apocalyptic hell world, risk creating an ironic distance in the audience that lets them feel a part of the dissent with no subsequent action. “So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in the capitalist exchange.”

The interpassive audience has more than a shade of Richard Munslow about them. Figures obsessed with the sins of the world yet doing nothing challenge them, instead performing impotent and often masochistic rituals to reconcile their own lack of action. However, Fisher’s reading raises an interesting question, and could liberate O’Neil from his own Munslow comparison. When merely bathing oneself in the tragedy beam of Twitter serves the purpose, why does O’Neil insist on writing this stuff out? There’s a new special edition steel book Blu-Ray of WALL-E in stores and probably a sequel in the pipes too so what’s with all the effort?

The answer is that O’Neil is no sin eater. He consumes sins, yes, and he might well carry this burden in his heart and mind, but the purpose behind his consumption is a complete inversion of that of Munslow. No matter of his personal motivation, Munslow devoured the misdeeds of others so that they might walk lighter into death, removing their sins and hiding them deep in his gut so that their souls were laundered back to their original bright white glow. O’Neil on the other hand does not hide the sins he consumes but vomits them at our feet, any chance of the sinner reclaiming their pristine soul lost as the black and acrid gloop splashes over our shoes and their shoes and maybe those of God and St. Peter too.

Of course, O’Neil’s act might be every bit as pointless and ritualistic as that of the sin eaters, but a recurring theme in the collection is how there can be hope in even the most fanciful ritual. Be it leaving messages for loved ones in the comments section of music videos on YouTube (“one of the most nakedly human and vulnerable spaces we have left,” he describes in “We Met by the Moon on a Silvery Lake”) or leaving voicemail messages for people long since dead or departed (for the podcast The One Who Got Away, as described in “You Should Still Be Here”) the very act of writing is based on the supposition that someone, somewhere, might be reading. “None of us are ever going to win the lottery but we still play anyway right because you never know,” O’Neil writes in analogy. “You do know but you never do.”

Welcome to Hell World spends over five hundred pages telling you how you’re not going to win the lottery and no-one will and yet despite the crushing nature of this truth here’s the funny thing. That someone is still talking about how we aren’t winning any lottery comes with its own strange hope. Is it a stretch to call O’Neil an optimist? Not because he thinks he can change this cruel world but that he at least still thinks the injustice is worth recording. Still worth marvelling over in total horror. Still registering surprise that some people, often through nothing more than by being born in a certain place to certain parents, get to weigh up human lives according to the money they stand to lose or gain.

I didn’t want to write a story from the neutered and dispassionate center that most mainstream publications require. I didn’t want to hear from a person suffering and then give space to the person who caused that suffering to explain themselves. Something I wrote in one of the first newsletters I sent out was that my only promise to the readers is that I will never hear both sides and I think I kept that one.

The result, if you really dig down to the very core of that what-the-fuck moment that happens again and again throughout the book, is not a sense of morbid delight or nihilistic surrender but rather a fragile, translucent shard of hope. It’s small and it’s tender and I certainly wouldn’t go digging around too hard just yet in the hope of holding it in your hands, but it’s there all the same. And at no time is this pathetic little scrap more apparent than in that brief moment when O’Neil lays out a story about baby jails or the Sackler family or fucking Amazon and it hits you, yes, this whole thing is unbelievable. You’re not weak or subpar or unfit for the game, it is being played under conditions objectively terrible and cruel. Moreover, the rules are designed to hide the fact, to pathologize the suffering as a failure of the individual. In acknowledging this, O’Neil opens up a space to redirect the energies of anger and guilt away from ourselves and toward the systems of oppression. Which is to say, O’Neil might have no answers here, but at least he’s figuring out what, and more importantly who, to ask.

Welcome to Hell World. It’s not you, it’s them.

Jon Doyle‘s writing has appeared in Necessary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Review 31, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames. He has just completed his PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University, where he worked on his debut novel. He tweets @Jon_Doyle.