Reviews — From the June 2014 issue

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First, collect all the details you can on all the people you encounter — this will turn them into “characters.” Second, search this trove for the most interesting connections among the characters — links of behavior, temperament, vocabulary, and body — because it’s connections that make a plot. Third, settle on the character with the most links to narrate the plot, or to be narrated through by an omniscient third person. This is how you write a novel. This is also how you operate an intelligence agency.

The NSA is a thoroughly “modern” organization. Its techniques are those of Kafka, who anonymized his suspects under the alias “K,” and of Nabokov, who loathed psychology, venerated artifice, and insisted that the role of the novelist was that of a “wizard” or “puppet-master.” A more direct association might be made with Joyce’s Ulysses, which so deeply surveils Leopold Bloom that he seems less a person than a welter of metadata about Dublin, June 16, 1904. In the twentieth century, form, structure — fate — became something to be imposed, not something arising out of an individual’s essential “nature.” Today, we are nothing if not characters acting out our lives for the rewriting of our intelligence minders, but what makes our predicament “postmodern” is that we’re aware of it. Confirmation has come courtesy of the journalist Glenn Greenwald and his source, the NSA contractor of conscience Edward Snowden, a character so decent that John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth would’ve blushed before conceiving him.

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