Writers go Down in the Hole with Victorian retelling of The Wire

The book expansion of an online serial transplants The Wire to a Dickensian setting

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Down in the Hole: The UnWired World of H.B. Ogden

Down in the Hole: The UnWired World of H.B. Ogden Illustration: Courtesy powerHouse Books


Though parodies of the epic HBO crime drama The Wire abound, few have attempted to tackle the show’s themes of institutional corruption and the futility of the drug trade through the appropriately bleak lens of Victorian literature. But with the blog-turned-book Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden, authors Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson have done just that. The duo used the Dickensian aspect frequently cited by critics in reference to the show as the inspiration for text and illustrations by fictional author H.B. Ogden, which correlate to scenes from the Baltimore-set series. They answered a few questions about the new book.

Were you both fans of The Wire before conceiving this project?

Robinson: We first watched the series together and enjoyed it immensely. A few weeks after we finished, I was asked to participate in a roundtable on The Wire at the [cultural criticism blog] Hooded Utilitarian. Since it’s primarily a comics site, it made sense to talk about the show from the angle of serial fiction. It was a short jump to the thought that The Wire could literally have been an unpublished novel by Dickens. I talked about the concept with Joy, and she insisted that the concept would work better were the novel to be penned by a contemporary of Dickens instead.  

The Dickensian comparison is often made about the show. As aficionados of Victorian lit, do you think this is apt?
DeLyria: Dickens tends to have some more ultimately positive views about humanity. The outlook in The Wire is a little more bleak—it’s not that nothing good can ever happen, but rather that we can have little impact on our fates as individuals.  

Were you inspired by any specific authors while trying to find Ogden’s voice?
DeLyria: I confess to using quite a bit of Dickens. However, since Ogden was supposed to be more harsh and realistic, I also used Thackeray, whose Vanity Fair was criticized for being too cynical at the time of publication. I also used Brontë and Gaskell, and even though the period is wrong, Jane Austen. I’m a fan of these authors and very familiar with them, so turning to them was instinctive.

How did you decide which scenes to include?
Robinson: We made a list of the most iconic scenes in the series, and then selected the ones that could help us make larger points about the show’s themes, or issues of class or culture. Even though it’s only 200 pages, the book feels really dense, and I think that’s partially due to how each of these different sections are speaking to each other. We did have to eliminate some scenes based on the lack of a strong visual moment, as we wanted to illustrate most of the excerpts.

The book functions both as a retelling of Ogden’s stories and as criticism of them—and therefore, a criticism/explanation of the show itself. Was that intentional?

DeLyria: Definitely. At its heart, Ogden is a joke that can easily be taken too far. We do believe that The Wire is a serious piece of fiction and deserves serious treatment. We used the analysis portions not only to address that but to continuously prompt the reader to question why we elevate textual literature but tend to treat television as throw-away escapism.
Robinson: A lot of the delight of the book comes from the friction between these elements—a piece of criticism about a book that doesn’t exist, which resembles an unacknowledged television series that actually does exist, which is therefore actually criticism of the television series. And of course the excerpts are another kind of criticism entirely, about the show and popular media and both cultural milieus.

Do you know if David Simon, the show’s creator, has seen the work or if he’s commented at all?
Robinson: We heard indirectly that he was amused by the initial article. I get the impression from interviews that The Wire’s transformation from somewhat obscure critical darling to commercially successful cultural product has been a strange process for him, and whether we intended it or not, we were participants in that transformation. It’s certainly not our intention to lessen the work, rather we hope to treat it as the complex and nuanced accomplishment that it is; but I can certainly understand if someone would resent us playing in their sandbox—or possibly pissing in their sandbox. I don’t know.

DeLyria and Robinson will appear at Housing Works Bookstore Café Thu 27.

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