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Like the ever-present junkies on the TV show “The Wire,” fans of the acclaimed HBO series can never seem to get enough. Legions of viewers stayed glued to the tangled plot over five seasons — and their cravings were stoked for five years more through blogs, behind-the-scenes books, essays, college courses, and literally hundreds of scholarly articles and reviews. Now, on the show’s 10th anniversary, “The Wire” addicts can score a fresh fix with the arrival of the arch, smart faux-Victorian send-up of the series, Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, by Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson (PowerHouse Books, 2012), based on a blog that went viral last March.*
In this mash-up of 21st century Baltimore and 19th century London, Down in the Hole takes the form of a collection of essays and illustrations penned by DeLyria and Robinson posing as present-day Victorian scholars who discovered a forgotten book called The Wire, which mirrors the plot and characters of the TV series.
The ersatz novel was written by the fictional Horatio Bucklesby Ogden and published by Foxe, Warner, and Cable in 1846. Ogden, according to the scholarly duo, enjoyed “a spirited if primarily imaginary rivalry” with Dickens. The narration has a stuffy, academic tone that pokes gentle fun at the mounds of scholarly attention that “The Wire” generated, riffing off the popular and strongly disputed claim that “The Wire” was like a Dickens novel. It’s a self-mocking conceit that gives the authors license to indulge their admiration for the show, making an otherwise obsessive scholarly dissertation fun and entertaining. (Well, it’s still pretty obsessive.)
For those like me who lived under a rock and never watched “The Wire” on HBO (I borrowed DVDs to write this review), the show followed the entwined lives of everyday people across social and economic lines in contemporary Baltimore – from junkies, cops, and dealers to factory workers, teachers, and corrupted politicians. The through line was of a team of detectives struggling to nab a drug ring with the help of wiretaps (thus the name). The show was lauded for realistically depicting the entrenchment of inner city inequality in drugs, political exploitation, bad schools, and the prison system.
“The Wire” is often described as Dickensian due, in part, to its long narrative arc across episodes and its unvarnished, pixel-sharp study of people across class structures. In Down in the Hole, DeLyria and Robinson run with the Dickensian description, reconstructing “The Wire” in a Victorian setting. Here’s how the fictional H.B. Ogden’s Wire casts a scene of dealers eating McNuggets from “Book I, Chapter II. ‘The Detail.’ (June 9, 1846)”:
Dipping the nugget into the sauce, which waited in its chipped ramekin no doubt purloined from a china shop, Poot eagerly sampled the awaiting succulence. “This shit is right, yo,” opined Wallace, also partaking of the meager yet piping hot feast arrayed upon the sofa…”Man, whoever invented these, he off the hook.”
Besides being hilarious, this parallel universe is a stroke of literary genius that goes beyond the Dickens connection. The construct of embedding modern characters in Victorian England amplifies one of The Wire’s core questions about human nature and society: Can we ever really change ourselves or our institutions? Even with the social reforms of the 19th century and beyond, we still face many of the same problems of poverty and corruption we did 150 years ago — we’re just eating different food.
In comparing The Wire to a Dickens novel, the scholar-narrators write that Ogden “never descend(s) into the divisions of ‘lovable rogues’ and purely evil villains of which Dickens makes such effective use.” However, without these clear-cut divisions of good and evil, neither can prevail, and lasting change is virtually impossible. This notion is explored in the chapter “The Middle Ground,” in which the narrators equate the contained violence of the boxing ring with the hellish, legalized drug zone called Hamsterdam (a mispronunciation of Amsterdam) — a confined area of bombed out buildings designed to corral the drug trade, an experiment created by a cop pressured to lower murder stats in his district. “Perhaps we are never meant to triumph,” they write, “but rather to accept that triumph will never come… that the darkness of our deeper selves will never be defeated, instead it will only ever be contained.”
Weighty stuff for a self-proclaimed parody.
Then again, you have to be a very serious fan (or two, in this case) to create 145 pages of literary, social, and historical commentary, scene rewrites and scrutiny, illustrations (by Robinson), and an invented biography of the fictional Ogden — all with Victorian trimmings.
You might also need to be a fan get through it. On one hand, the commentaries can be fascinating (you’ll learn about post-industrial social reform, Charlotte Bronte, Marxism, and more), and the writing can be sharply witty. But the mock-academic tone does grow tiresome and the conceit can sometimes feel overwrought. More importantly, DeLyria and Robinson don’t give plot outlines, so non-fans will be pretty lost: It’s no fun reading a satire if you don’t know the object of the joke.
Admirers of “The Wire” will find these points surmountable. Down in the Hole will give you plenty to chew on about “The Wire” and the world it portrayed, and the authors have crafted an entertaining way to explore them.
To all of us hard-core “Wire” addicts, our dear Wallace might have said, this book is right, yo.
Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael’s Down in the Hole is available from powerHouse books and online book sellers.
*So just to keep the sequence straight: first there was the HBO series “The Wire” by David Simon (2002-2008); then the blog post by DeLyria and Robinson, When It’s Not Your Turn: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s ‘The Wire (2011) in The Hooded Utilitarian; followed by the fictional novelization of the blog in Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, by DeLyria and Robinson (2012). And that’s not counting the fictional novel of “The Wire” by Ogden, called The Wire.