Reviews — From the June 2014 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online

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.

This article is only available to magazine subscribers. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share

More from Joshua Cohen:

New books From the April 2015 issue

New Books

New books From the February 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content