Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers. This from Chekhov. But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.
The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary? The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?
Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards. Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries. However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity. At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it. In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”. The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.
If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem. Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message. The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted. He says:
This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing. This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved. Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smoothes everything over.
While commonly accepted distinctions boil down to the commercial novel’s quick pacing, emphasized plot, simplified characters, and satisfactorily resolute ending, Wallace highlights a more essential component of the writing itself, a linguistic and thematic discourse that presents the reader more agitation than alleviation, more questions than answers.
This aligns with Russel Nye’s claim, in The Unembarrassed Muse, that “Elite art[‘s] aim is the discovery of new ways of recording and interpreting experience. Technical and thematic complexity is of much greater value in elite art than in… popular art; in fact, technique may become a vehicle for thematic expression, or may simply become an end in itself.” In other words, one factor distinguishing literary fiction from commercial fiction is the author’s textual awareness, proclaiming often subversive intentions. The Ministry of Fear, one of Graham Greene’s Entertainments, has all the apparent markings of commercial fiction. And yet, it metafictionally speaks to its own making, pushing it into the realm of literary art as defined by Wallace, Nye, and Greene himself.
So far left out in the definition of commercial art is its regard for readership and financial viability. The Ministry of Fear was preceded by Greene’s most acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory, which, released during World War II, was financially unsuccessful. In The Life of Graham Greene Normal Sherry recounts the writer’s sobering realization:
Unless books…provided information about war or spies, the chances of their becoming bestsellers were remote…Greene’s brilliant novel had to compete with…titles such as I Was Stalin’s Agent or Hitler Versus Germany…or the Gestapo in England…There was a thirst for secret intrigues and the calamities of war; there was no interest in faraway Mexico or the tribulations of a betrayed whiskey priest.
The Ministry of Fear was Greene’s attempt at providing what his greatest literary achievement hadn’t—a thriller which speaks to the political reality from which it sprung. This is where writers in 2018 come in. Though we aren’t living through a world war, we are living through a world event, one which dominates public media, harnesses public fear, and encroaches on our private thoughts. To address it might seem overkill, but to not address it, to not situate our work within this new and strange world might seem naïve or negligent. But because this is an event so unprecedented, it presents a number of new questions. How can we write anything that addresses the political reality of our times, when so much of what defines our times boils down to an unstable and unreal reality? How do we address an administration and president that seems just as much an aberration of democracy as it seems democracy’s death-rattle? How do we write truth, when truth seems lost? How do we tell intelligent lies when stupid lies have become our national discourse?
These are the questions for which I, the writer, have no answers.
But I can say the reason fiction so often eschews providing answers is that the questions in which fiction deals are often inherently unanswerable. In attempting to address the unanswerable, most writers generalize the act of writing fiction to two things: the story, and how the story is being told.
The story of The Ministry of Fear is at its barebones level an obvious attempt at a commercial thriller—Arthur Rowe is swept into espionage, accused of murder, outcast, and on the run. But amid this action are quiet moments where the book breaks from its quick pace, such as in a chapter that sees essentially no plot-level movement.
Rowe wanders the rubble of bombed London. As he passes others, he makes observations but concludes that “None of these things mattered. They were like something written about: they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention” (61). This is the first acknowledgment of literature’s sudden impracticality, as well as the fact that the events of Rowe’s life have departed from his once secure perception of reality. It is followed by further recollections of a past Rowe simultaneously longs for and fervently rejects, saying “People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month. But it’s not there anymore.” Then, in an address to his deceased mother: “It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it—but the thrillers are like life…You used to laugh at the books…about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died.”
How the story is being told is where the complication of classifying the novel as either commercial or literary enters. And with this complication comes the complication of deciding whether Greene, writing through and about World War II, is attempting to situate a thriller within it, or using a thriller to comment upon it.
The election of Donald Trump was a moment in which, for many of us, the ground of reality broke apart. But it’s important to remember that all of the major events in human history had seemed, in the present moment, like the end of reality. A single election, a single war, a single bomb, a single personal tragedy, can have this effect. It’s a defining trait of traumas big and small—the world as we know it is no longer the same.
And when reality breaks, when trauma invades, as it always does, unexpectedly, we often question the value of all that we previously held dear. For Greene, this dearly held thing that seemed suddenly, amid the trauma of the war, impractical, was literature.
In The Ministry of Fear books represent paradox—their attempts at instruction become futile in times of true danger. At one point, Rowe waits for his hired detective, someone he hopes may provide guidance in the quickly evolving conspiracy of which he finds himself at the center. He waits in a bookstore, noting that:
Here was pornography—eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches; here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century…There was a smell of neglected books, of the straw from packing cases and of clothes which had been too often rained upon.
The books are cast under a grotesque light, impractical to the point of being perverse. It is far from the last time Greene uses books for thematic effect. They become integral to the plot in the following chapter, “A Load of Books,” in which Rowe finds himself next to a man who carries said load. At first, the bookseller seems a pitiable character. Rowe notes that “The weight of the suitcase cramped him: he looked very old under its weight,” shining light on the antiquity of the man and the books. All of this is hammered home by the bookseller himself, who says “There’s nothing so heavy as books, sir—unless it’s bricks.” Rowe agrees to help the man unload his books to a prospective buyer. But the hand of the genre is visible when he marvels at the ease with which he is being pulled into the plot: “He felt directed, controlled, moulded, moulded by some agency with a surrealist imagination.” The surrealism of commercial fiction is most often seen in the character’s easy acceptance of the environment’s absurdity. They are dropped into worlds of excessive violence, espionage, conspiracy, and they face it all with the studied pragmatism of native inhabitants. The Ministry of Fear takes great aims to measure its absurdities, to call them what they are to the average reader, deviations from real life, or deviations from pre-war real life.
Rowe finds himself in a hotel room while unseen forces of harm linger outside. The case of books, as well as its symbolism, is nearly forgotten as Rowe scrambles for a weapon, only to reappear when he finds nothing else. He opens the case, thereby ending Part One of The Ministry of Fear, with books, the symbol of rich antiquity, bringing the scene to unexpected conclusion. It is a metaphor not only of the way the world has changed in times of war, but of the culture’s expectations from its literature: where was assumed books, turns out to be a bomb.
In the second half of The Ministry of Fear, Rowe has completely lost his memory of the past two decades, thereby returning to the childhood innocence he longed for in the opening lines. The return streamlines Rowe’s character. Unburdened by the complexities of his experiences, he fully inhabits his role as a commercial protagonist. The idea of innocence being bound to narrative simplicity is touched on in an earlier section:
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality—heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.
Both innocence and narrative simplicity are longtime staples of commercial fiction. According to Nye “there are certain themes in popular fiction which seem to maintain perennial interest. One is nostalgia, the appeal of ‘better days and simpler times,’ the pervasive memory of the past, of childhood, of innocence not yet lost, of times free of the taint of contemporaneity.”
It’s just as easy to situate these sentiments into the Trump platform—a great America which can be had once again—as it is to situate them into the resistance—an American reality that once had, at its foundation, some semblance of truth. Our heroes, or more accurately “leaders”, are no longer brave, nor are they honest. Just as World War II turned reality into a wartime thriller (thereby turning the wartime thriller into Realism) so has the election of Trump turned reality into a piece of absurdist fiction.
Perhaps like many writers, I’ve wondered what a piece of fiction set within the current administration might look like. I started thinking about this before Trump was elected, when it seemed his run would end in a tossaway joke. Imagine the chaos of a reality TV star, an idiot, a narcissist becoming president. Imagine the damage he could do, someone with such a fragile ego, someone so brash and unqualified. A writer of fiction could do wonders with material like this. It would, of course, be a work of satire, one which comments upon the potential failings of our democracy and discourse, which remind us that there is only a thin line between our functioning, flawed system and overwhelming chaos.
But then it happened. And while the novel I imagined was an exaggeration of reality, the reality of what happened became an exaggeration of the novel never to be written.
Greene lived through a wartime thriller as he was writing a wartime thriller. And while a wartime thriller can be considered, on its own, a piece of commercial art, the fact that it was written during the reality of war, and the fact that Greene seems textually aware of this, at the very least distorts an easy classification.
Rowe learns he is wanted for murder, a murder he doesn’t yet know was staged and for which he is therefore innocent, and turns himself in to the police. After telling his story to one policeman, he is passed to another, Prentice, who the first calls “the surrealist round here.” As Prentice fills him in on the details of what has taken place in the first half of the book, Rowe is flabbergasted, asking “Is life really like this?” to which Prentice responds, “This is life, so I suppose one can say it’s like life.” In this sentiment, the story acknowledges its deviation from real life, while also asserting its responsibility to do so as an adherence to Realism. If war can so drastically shape experience, then it requires a new Realism to speak to that experience, which, according to the novel, is better aligned with commercial fiction. If literary fiction speaks to the complexities of character, the infinitely-faceted spirit of the human condition given free rein, it is starkly out of place in a world of severe reductions, of rations, of time compressed by daily bombings, of motives good and evil, of Hitler and Churchill, of existence polarized to alive and dead.
However, as Rowe and Prentice head to the next scene of the plot, the novel draws attention to Rowe’s pleasure:
It was a long and gloomy ride, but all the time Rowe repressed for the sake of his companion a sense of exhilaration: he was happily drunk with danger and action…none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending. And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side.
He becomes the fully immersed, complicit character of The Entertainment, as well as a mirror of its therapeutic effect. Commercial fiction is easier to digest than literary fiction; the reader of commercial fiction is not being asked to consider the unresolvable questions of real life, so is allowed a more strictly pleasurable experience. However antithetical this might be to Greene’s literary novels, which are characterized by meditations on the messy nature of morality, the second half of The Ministry of Fear finds morality streamlined—the bad are exposed and punished, the good are redeemed and go on. The novel ultimately follows the prescriptive course of commercial fiction, thereby preserving its “Entertainment” value.
Does this imply that commercial fiction in 2018 would be that that offers the reader an escape from the pervasive stories of the day? The type of work that either ignores the political and social climate or rewrites it with the happy ending the most optimistic of us have trouble imagining? And if this is the case, would literary fiction be that that fully embraces the challenge of speaking to a potentially aberrant reality, a reality that, if it isn’t aberrant, is unquestionably sad? By ignoring this reality, can we shorten its lifespan? Or by ignoring it, do we fail future generations, leaving out a part of our history that I’m not alone in hoping we will never repeat?
In any case, for Greene, the moralizing literary artist, the therapy of commercial fiction itself becomes an object of his moralizing. What makes The Ministry of Fear so difficult to classify is that its value cannot be contained to the plot. In literary fiction, the plot is only a part of the experience, which is often best exemplified by its linguistic intercourse. In the linguistic intercourse of The Ministry of Fear the claim being made is that while childhood equals innocence and pleasurable simplicity, it also amounts to ignorance. By the same turn, adulthood is not simply an immoral mess. And Rowe, embarked on his quest for justice, begins to realize the limitations of the story he has inhabited:
Over there among the unknown tribes a woman was giving birth, rats were nosing among sacks of meal, an old man was dying, two people were seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp: everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at forty-five miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.
If the Entertainments are, as Greene suggests, meant simply to entertain by immersing the reader in a message-less tale, this paragraph is a move in the wrong direction. The tragedy of Rowe’s past is that he killed his wife, a “mercy killing,” to spare her a drawn out, painful death. With his memory gone, this formative episode is no longer part of him. He regresses to a childlike innocence, but he is an adult. It is the adult in him that senses the emptiness of his hero-like bravado, which the surrealism of the Entertainment demands, yet which he is too Real a character to be satisfied with. Even prior to his memory being fully restored, he understands that, “Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… Knowledge was the great thing—not abstract knowledge…but detailed passionate trivial human knowledge.” The tension between difficult knowledge and therapeutic ignorance is hammered home in lines such as “The sense of adventure struggled with common sense as though it were on the side of happiness, and common sense were allied to possible miseries.”
The questions posed by literary fiction are rarely ingredients for pure happiness. The realism of literary fiction deals in the most irreconcilable facts of daily life. Happiness, on the other hand, according to Nye is a required component of popular fiction. He writes that “Since the popular arts aim at the largest common denominator…the popular artist cannot disturb or offend any significant part of his public: though the elite artist may and should be a critic of his society, the popular artist cannot risk alienation.” If commercial fiction is meant to promote happiness and not criticize society, Greene breaks both rules in the novel’s last line: “It seemed to him that after all one could exaggerate the value of happiness.”
Happiness is not a word that could earnestly be used to define our recent history or, I presume, the years ahead. In a deeply divided country, it’s possible the ultimate distinguishing trait between literary and commercial fiction will be whether that fiction attempts to avoid disturbing/offending or whether it embraces its critical impulse.
However, it might be difficult to write fiction that criticizes society when much of our current cultural dissatisfaction stems from the same sources. When this thought bothers me, I try to remember that art has always been an expression within a limited medium. Each medium has its own rules and functions. What has always been most interesting about great art is what the artist can do within these confines, how the artist conveys infinity within the finite. The writer of fiction should not attempt a fictional version of Fire and Fury. What the writer of fiction should do, I think, is what the writer of fiction has always done: look beneath the overarching problems of our day, where a woman is giving birth and an old man is dying. For all the helplessness we may feel, this is where narratives, real and imagined, begin. This is where the events of human history take shape.
Though the dual nature of Greene’s body of work is still preserved, it has become a less viable method of differentiating his novels. The Ministry of Fear invites classification, thereby making it difficult to classify. This difficulty is inherent in all discussions about Art and Entertainment. The fact remains that Art, the literary novel in particular, is not worth a whole lot unless it compels one to consume it. By that same token, Entertainment’s entertainment value is often a result of its bits of wisdom and confrontation that tease out an audience’s emotional and intellectual investment. And whether we’re talking art or entertainment, books are being read by people who live in a world besought by political turmoil, gender and racial inequality, devastating economic disparities, war, violence, terror. I don’t know what an artist does with this information, but I do believe an artist has a responsibility to keep this information in mind. Good writers, good readers, and good books do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is fiction obliged to be journalistic. Somewhere between these two facts exist the answers I don’t have.
While plugging away at a novel in some dark corner or café table, a writer can only hope and trust that following the energy of obsession will lead the narrative to a vital destination. And yet when the novel’s timing and focus coincide with significant events on the nation’s stage, there’s also some serendipity involved. And so it goes with Nicholas Mennuti, whose fiction has long been preoccupied with the new forms of Internet surveillance. Mennuti’s story “Connected,” which was published in Agni in 2008, told the story of an intelligence agent who becomes obsessed with the subject he’s monitoring. This summer Mennuti’s first novel, Weaponized, written in collaboration with screenwriter David Guggenheim, proved to be all too prescient in its imagining of government surveillance systems in place. In the novel, Kyle West, a government contractor and genius programmer, hides out in Cambodia after he’s outed as the mastermind who devised the U.S.’s secret surveillance program software. At the time of Weaponized’s publication, Edward Snowden had just released classified documents revealing the extent of PRISM and other U.S. Internet surveillance programs and was still holed up at the Moscow airport seeking asylum. And regardless of chance, it seems that in this case Mennuti had his finger on the pulse of the techno-zeitgeist.
Weaponized, too, has its own pulse and inner rhythm: this thriller pulled me in and kept me turning pages with its quick pacing and intelligence. Mennuti and I corresponded during the summer months about the Snowden scandal and just what makes him weary regarding Internet surveillance and personal privacy, the burdens and pleasures of writing genre (vs. literary) fiction, and what he’s learned from masters like John le Carré and Graham Greene, as well as the perpetual issues of exile, identity, public versus private, plotting, and pacing that inform his writing.
The Millions: Surveillance and, specifically, surveillance states figure prominently in your fiction. In your story “Connected” an intelligence agent becomes obsessed with the woman he’s monitoring, and now in your novel, Weaponized, the programmer Kyle West has created advanced surveillance software that the U.S. government uses to spy on its citizens. Can you talk more about your interest in surveillance and how (as we’ve recently discovered) events in your novel parallel the government’s existing surveillance programs, specifically with regard to Edward Snowden and the US PRISM program?
Nick Mennuti: I think my ongoing relationship to surveillance themes stems from two factors. First, there’s my love of ’70s and early ’80s Hollywood paranoid thrillers like The Conversation, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Blow Out, Prince of the City, The Parallax View. And some of the ’90s versions like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days too.
But, and this is probably the bigger one, as writers, we really are essentially voyeurs, so commenting on surveillance culture allows me to sort of auto-critique my own psychopathology. I’m a voyeur who is writing about other voyeurs. Clearly, I find this far too comfortable, because I’ve mined the hell out of it for fiction, as you’ve noted.
I used it in “Connected” and now again in Weaponized, but I did switch around their relationships to the surveillance state, per se. In “Connected” my protagonist is inside the system. In Weaponized, he’s running from the system he helped create. Kyle’s scenario is slightly more ironic and certainly less tragic.
Regarding PRISM and now XKeyscore and all the other code words that Snowden has revealed — it didn’t take Cassandra to see that one coming. Our government never stops using a program if it’s working for them, no matter what the outrage. All they do is take it further underground and go off the books.
That’s what I posited in Weaponized, after the whole Bush uproar that we would further privatize wiretapping and rely less on the NSA, which has partially happened (Snowden worked for Booz Allen after all). What’s going to happen next is further automation and less relying on humans to monitor all of this, and that’s what Weaponized was kind of getting at. Eventually, the machines will watch us. Because machines can’t defect to Russia.
I don’t think I have an overriding interest in Internet security/surveillance; I just think it’s the new telephone. It’s the new bug on your car’s dashboard. If you write tech thrillers, you have to use the tools of the trade, and the Internet was a gift to all of us.
And of course, I’m going back into surveillance again. My new book is all about East Berlin in the ’80s. So I’m pre-Internet this time.
In fact, I’m beginning to worry that surveillance for me is what psychiatry and discipline were for Foucault. The themes that dog your career no matter how hard you run. Although, I’m not sure how hard I’m running — or that Foucault did, for that matter — it’s just that this societal shift really got under my skin that I can’t shake.
TM: You have a mixed background of training as a screenwriting, as a fiction writer with high literary aspirations, and now as a thriller novelist — who just sold the film rights. Would you talk more about the difference between writing genre fiction and literary fiction as well as the commonalities that you perceive? I recall you once said your genre fiction has a literary sheen. Please divulge.
NM: Did I say my genre fiction has a literary sheen? I can sure be pretentious! And thanks for exposing The Millions world to it.
TM:, Is that really pretentious? I didn’t think so. I thought you were attempting to describe your authorial intentions. Honestly, I would prefer to read genre fiction with literary ambitions than genre fiction with a demotic sheen.
NM: I’m kidding. I actually think genre fiction could use a little more pretentiousness at times. I think the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction varies for a lot of people, but I’ll try and give you my own definition.
Genre fiction frequently relies on well-mined archetypes both on a character and narrative level. Even the best genre fiction is mining the same tropes. Guys like John le Carré and Graham Greene, even at their most trenchant and deconstructive, retain certain genre tropes. One man against the system. Usually a romance with someone from the other side. And narrative momentum really is the essential thing in genre.
In literary fiction the archetypes still exist, but you have more to choose from and they’re far more malleable. Plus, people are willing to tolerate more experimentation and purplish prose in literary fiction (and I mean “purplish” in the best way possible). Genre fiction is meant to be very accessible and sort of shorn of linguistic personality. Even at its best, the prose is supposed to be very workmanlike. The author is supposed to disappear in service of the story.
And that’s where I sometimes get into trouble and where I think my “literary sheen” comes into play. I have trouble staying the hell out of my work. I’m all over the place. I’m not deliberately trying to alienate the reader, but I think both my genre and my literary fiction aren’t designed to lack personality. And this is way, way more of a problem in genre fiction.
TM: Your shelves are filled with books of serious philosophy, European history, literary fiction — for example, the contents of just one stack include Aristotle’s Poetics, Bataille’s Visions of Excess, Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, Fritz Lang’s Interviews, Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Genet’s Querelle, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, Martin Amis’s House of Meetings, and Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Times. Even in this fast-paced thriller you’ve dropped in ideas from Cioran and Freud, among others. And you’re probably even better versed in film than you are in literature. Could you talk about the books and films that have most influenced your own writing, and specifically what you channeled for Weaponized?
NM: I’m kind of a sponge. I just look for what fascinates or inspires me, and there’s no plan. There’s no strategy to my reading or my watching. That said, once I decide what I’m going to work on, my reading and watching become very focused. They have to — otherwise I’d never start working. I’d just keep going through the shelves.
Cioran and Freud both spent significant time as exiles, so that was important to me for Kyle in Weaponized. I wanted to draw upon the literature of the exile. So you end up with Highsmith, Conrad, Greene, Hemingway, Duras, and that ilk. They’re all part of the literary DNA of Weaponized.
For movies, I really studied Michael Mann and Hitchcock very closely. Mann in particular because he knows how to use landscapes and architecture to express psychological states — and that was key for me in Weaponized. I wanted you to experience the state of being an exile in Cambodia in a subjective way. Mann and Hitchcock really are the kings of subjective cinema and to be more specific—subjective thriller cinema, which obviously Weaponized owes a great deal to.
When I’m not in depth on a particular project my reading is all over the place, but it’s usually going to contain some liberal dose of J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Martin Amis, Alan Glynn, William Gibson, Thomas Mann. And then I do like cultural theory, science, and politics a great deal. I’m also an avid consumer of what Ballard called “invisible literature” (internal documents from corporations and PR firms, filled with awe-inspiring statistics and data-analysis) and the Internet is really a great place for that. I spend far too much time every day searching out esoteric ramblings and numbers online.
TM: I’m interested in the idea of identity and the disintegration of the public / private dichotomy, with regard to your novel. In Weaponized, it’s evoked with the surveillance program that Kyle West creates. However, despite having developed the U.S. government’s surveillance software, West shuns revealing personal information about himself. He hates appearing on the television news and having information about his personal life disclosed publicly. His foil, Julian Robinson, seems quite the opposite, charming and comfortable in his own skin despite his chameleon-like ability to transform his identity. And of course, the two end up trading identities. Could you talk more about this paradox in relation to the book, and what identity means now, and what it will become?
NM: Identity is a huge concern for me because it really is the common human denominator. No matter what advances we make in technology, it’s going to stay the same. Humans crave recognition. And we construct ourselves through the eyes of others. We become who we are by how people see us, recognize us. So no matter how diffuse we get socially — we’re still going crave this. What I think we’re seeing now is people negotiating the new boundaries of recognition and some really kamikaze it.
I sometimes think the amount of social media is really just a sign of how desperate for interpersonal recognition we really are. And it’s become a sort of cultural blackmail. If you want recognition, you have to use it. I’m not even sure if exhibitionism as a psychological trait really exists anymore. I think we’re all exhibitionists now whether we want to be or not. I mean people are posting amateur porn and their deepest thoughts and anxieties on a 24/7 basis with no let-up. But it’s not exhibitionism, really, and it’s not over-sharing. It’s just trying to construct a self in the new digital era. It’s a constant process of negotiation and whatever application allows you to best construct a self survives. It really is like Darwinism in that sense. Poor MySpace.
I think one of the reasons literature has been having so much trouble is that maybe we need new words. We have new numbers to express the new world. We have quantum numbers. No one can understand them except a few, but we have those numbers. But do we have those words yet? Can we get them? And maybe the new literature will have to be a formal creation instead of a lexical one. I don’t know.
Robinson is uniquely qualified to live in a quantified world because his identity is fluid. He’s able to adapt to whatever the form requires. Kyle has adapted technologically — well, he’s done better than that — but he’s still living in the 20th century in regard to identity, to the sovereign self. He’s fixed. He’s rooted. And of course that’s probably how he ended up on the run in the first place.
To be honest, I’m way more Kyle than Robinson in those terms. I’m not ready to surrender my identity to a bunch of pixels.
TM: You’ve said elsewhere that with Kyle West you inadvertently created a pseudo-doppelganger for Edward Snowden, as both are seeking to escape the consequences of their actions with regard to their government’s surveillance system. The greatest difference is the offence — Snowden merely leaked the information about the secret surveillance programs to the public while West created the software that made this kind of government surveillance possible. It seems that you were rather prescient in this respect, so I’ll ask, what do you think is most important to keep in mind both with regard to the Snowden case and the government’s ability and willingness to eavesdrop on every part of our lives?
NM: The first thing to remember is that the government has never, ever respected your privacy. At least not since post-WWI and the Communist threat in America. They’ve been opening your mail for years. They’ve been wire-tapping without warrants for years. The only difference is that it’s easier now.
The Internet was created as a doomsday device for Continuance of Government. It has always had a military function, just like the highway system in the U.S. The Internet may seem like the Wild West, but I don’t think it’s ever been as free as people would like to think.
I think we’re going to see more and more Snowdens and Mannings because the government classifies SO MUCH these days. You’re a leaker if you divulge classified information — well, what do you do when most things are classified? Manning just did a data dump on WikiLeaks. Half that stuff should never have been classified. Some of it deserved classification, but a lot didn’t. So I think the culture of leaking has been facilitated by a government that’s more and more reliant on classifying everything in its path to punish people.
I chose to make Kyle the victim of a leak as opposed to the leaker because as a writer I found that more provocative. How do you get people to feel for that guy? As you’re well aware, I love ambiguity in my characters and to me Kyle is more ambiguous than Snowden. I can make a case for Snowden. It’s harder to make one for Kyle and that excites me as a writer.
TM: The question of a disregard for ethics is central to the narrative, too. Kyle West and Julian Robinson and Andrei Protosevitch are all powerful men who do what they do because they can. Protosevitch says that he’s ruthless because no one has ever stopped him. The same applies to Robinson and West — they readily remove themselves from the ethical equation and personal responsibility in the ways they pursue power. West is perhaps more self-aware and conscious of an ethical imperative than Robinson — it seems to be both his downfall and his redemption. Do you see a need for a stronger ethics of accountability? Or is it a lost cause at this point?
NM: I certainly see myself — as clichéd as this sounds — as an ethical writer. I hope that ethical accountability isn’t a lost cause, although it depends on what day of the week you ask me.
In my opinion, the problem is that the people who need to be held accountable — we know who they are, thank you — are not. And that is a habitual matter of process. So if the people we expect to be held accountable escape responsibility, then what are all of us regular folks supposed to think? And I’m not just talking about our government. I’m talking about religion. I’m talking about finance, the law, all of it. All of the purported moral barometers have proven to be naked underneath and we can’t find a reason to be good — for lack of a better word.
At the same time, we’ve never been more self-entitled, and I don’t blame us entirely. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that we have to happy. We are almost demanded to be happy unless. And we are largely not. And I think people began to assume that leading an unethical life may provide a shortcut to at least short-term fulfillment. It’s working for our leaders. It’s a vicious cycle. We’re desperate to be happy and no one is giving us any guidance as how to behave.
I agree though. Kyle, at bottom, is an ethical human being. Flawed, but trying. And I choose to think that’s how most of us really are.
TM: I thought I’d introduce something Evgeny Morozov wrote into the equation. He argues: “NSA surveillance, Big Brother, Prism: all of this is important stuff. But it’s as important to focus on the bigger picture — and in that bigger picture, what must be subjected to scrutiny is information consumerism itself — and not just the parts of the military-industrial complex responsible for surveillance. As long as we have no good explanation as to why a piece of data shouldn’t be on the market, we should forget about protecting it from the NSA, for, even with tighter regulation, intelligence agencies would simply buy—on the open market — what today they secretly get from programs like Prism.” Morozov also states that ethics is removed from the equation — that market forces have replaced morality.
What is your response to this, with regard to the previous question on ethics, and also his argument that information consumerism is a greater danger than government surveillance programs?
NM: I both agree and disagree with his diagnosis. You cannot separate the military-industrial complex, surveillance, and capitalism. Because the thing is that surveillance is the newest notch on the military-industrial complex. The twilight is coming on traditional means of warfare. Unless something utterly catastrophic happens, I just can’t see another ground invasion occurring.
The military-industrial complex is tremendously adaptable. They can see the writing on the wall and they know that Systems Intelligence is going to replace traditional Human Intelligence and also standard means of warfare. It’s why the CIA has transformed itself from an intelligence gathering organization to an international hit squad. They are getting with the program. Systems Intelligence finds the target and the CIA whacks them.
That said, I think Morozov has a point in that information overload and market forces have rendered us basically morally agnostic.
Ironically, both our culture and the NSA — and this is something I tried to get at in Weaponized — have the same problem. We have lost our moral compasses because of filtering issues. We have too much de-contextualized data and no way to process and filter it all. You end up with everything being weighted equally. Which produces an utter vacuum.
So, although I agree with Morozov philosophically, I disagree with his separation of government surveillance from capitalism. And I think he knows you can’t, which is why he decided to put the burden on us. You can argue that point; you can’t really argue the other one.
TM: Plot, pacing, and structure are central to your fiction as well as to your conception of what makes good story. You could probably teach a semester-long class on this, but let’s say you have to compress the lesson down to a two minute craft talk on how these elements function within a story and how to approach them as a writer — what would you advise?
NM: I think those factors are what make a good genre story and also what makes a certain “type” of literary fiction story work. And if you can write like Amis or Nabokov you can get away with certain things that us lesser mortals cannot. We lesser mortals need to follow some rules.
My first rule is just to outline. Outline. And then do a little more outlining. I know some people feel that it kills the spontaneity, but I find it frees me up. If I know the story when I start in, I feel like I can really concentrate on the characters, the prose, the mood. If I know where I’m going, I can really play on the margins. And I actually love the margins more than the meat sometimes.
Plot, structure, and pacing are all interrelated. Plot is clearly the first thing and needs to be differentiated from story. Story is — what is this thing about? Plot is — how am I going to get there, to tell this story in individual beats. Structure is — the most effective means to do so, to maximize drama. And pacing ties into structure. You just need to make sure there’s room to breathe between the big story beats.
Really most writing just comes down to one thing: What is the most effective way to dole out the pertinent information for this particular scene or moment?
I can be obsessive about construction, but I secretly think it’s because I don’t like to rewrite. I like to rewrite prose and dialogue — but I HATE having to rebuild a story from the ground-up once I’m halfway through the book.
I’m not offering any of those tips as a panacea. I’ve just seen too many writers get 2/3 of the way into a book and realize that the plot is not working. And you lose a year trying to save what you love, while reshaping the whole thing. That’s my nightmare. And I’ve been there.
After Hugo Chávez’s death, it certainly didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to surface, or indeed resurface, about a United States plot to poison him. Then came Rand Paul’s epic filibuster, which fired up liberals, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists alike. The South American intrigue and vision of armed drones patrolling American skies almost managed to overshadow the upheaval at the Vatican, always good for a dose of real or imagined intrigue: Shocking Resignation! Papist plots! Female Popes! Borgias! Traitorous butlers! The past month has been particularly rich in conspiracy theories, though as Richard Hofstadter notes in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the conspiratorial worldview, “while it comes in waves of different intensity…appears to be ineradicable.”
Explaining humanity’s endemic paranoia, Hofstadter concedes that broadly speaking, conspiratorial thinkers have it right: “All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial.” The paranoid mind, however, sees conspiracy as “the motive force in historical events” and imagines a vast, shadowy network of unlimited power working around the clock to sabotage, infiltrate, obfuscate and corrupt. This worldview spawns a style that is “nothing if not coherent,” blends a “seemingly coherent application to detail” and “the most fantastic conclusions,” is flexible enough to adopt the voice of a Dryasdust pedant or a lurid visionary, and finally projects its author’s desires and limitations onto a beguiling villain, a “free, active, demonic agent.” Hofstadter’s paranoid, it turns out, possesses many of the elements of a good novelist (save, crucially, irony).
Several years ago — when some of the finest paranoid minds were at work on Barack Obama’s birth certificate — I used this connection between the paranoid and the novelist to design a composition class on conspiracy fiction. I figured the flashy topic would be a good way to smuggle in a short history of Western literature from the Book of Revelations to The Crying of Lot 49. The nineteen enrolled students, many of whom were reasonably expecting to be enlightened about Opus Dei or the suspiciously decorated Denver International Airport, found themselves snared in an elaborate plan designed to make them read Richard III. I still remember their gasps when they realized that the deception went all the way to the top (or rather, all the way to their graduate instructor). By the time the add/drop deadline had passed, we were proceeding line by line through Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, that two-act conspiratorial joke played on a hapless couple, and there was, to quote Beckett, “nothing to be done.” Unless I could somehow be stopped, my dastardly, 12-week plan would soon culminate in a research paper on a topic of their choice.
In one of the odd ways that syllabi mirror life, one day after class I found myself in a strange discussion with a student’s father. He worked in the defense industry and was concerned that his son’s enrollment in a conspiracy fiction class might raise red flags. I assured him that while I was guilty of numerous pedagogical crimes, I had no intention of subverting the government. The course, I explained, was about the importance of “plot” in both fiction and conspiracy theories. We were less concerned with loosening the tentacles of our military industrial complex than in teasing out the literary implications of Hofstadter’s essay on the paranoid style, which argues that the distinguishing feature of a conspiracy theory is not “the absence of verifiable facts,” but rather the “curious leap in imagination…from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” Conspiracy fiction, and here I smugly quoted from my course description, reverses this process, imaginatively leaping from the unbelievable to the undeniable.
Couldn’t he see, I breathlessly continued, that the paranoid’s ability to weave each new piece of information into a growing web of deceit mirrored the novelist’s seamless construction of a fictional world? That the paranoid’s perverse faith in the unremitting power of his antagonist was similar to the reader’s faith in the novelist’s diabolical control over every character, detail, scene and plot twist? (Did I mention that a tendency to longwindedness was one of my aforementioned teaching faults?) For my peroration, I urged him to grant that conspiracy fiction modeled an intensified version of the same “blessed rage for order” that motivates all of our reading, from modern poetry to a lease agreement.
In short, I told him that my course was in no way jeopardizing his security clearance.
Looking back on that little chat with the military contractor, I believe that episode, and its attendant eeriness, gave me the fanciful notion that my students were in fact conspiring against me. It speaks either to my classroom management skills or to my paranoid disposition that I began to see every note passed, whispered comment, or mute response to my questions as a sinister sign of collusion. Moreover, when they did speak, they seemed intent on asking questions for which I had no answer. I felt like The Third Man’s Holly Martins, the author of Breakfast at Double Egg Ranch who must give an impromptu lecture on the crisis of faith in the modern novel.
The often naïve heroes of conspiracy fiction must quickly learn to read the signs of an increasingly sinister world, and read I did. The students’ papers were a source of constant paranoid speculation. I became convinced that after having encountered Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a meerschaum-infused tale of royal blackmail, they were employing increasingly cunning ways to conceal their thesis statements — those necessary MacGuffins around which all English papers turn — from my “lynx eye.” Were they perhaps hiding in plain sight like the missing letter, “thrust carelessly and…contemptuously” somewhere in those 2.5-spaced paragraphs?
No sooner had I given up the search then we moved on to Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” that marvelous tale in which a conspiracy is set in motion in the most public of ways: a newspaper announcement putting out a call to “all red-headed men who are sound in body and mind.” Suspecting that the students had drawn inspiration from the redheaded man’s mysterious sinecure — copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica for 4 pounds a week — I soon began seeing plagiarists everywhere scheming to dupe their hardly Sherlockian instructor. When we got to Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” I convinced myself that the students were merely crafting their papers to read like plagiaries, thereby mimicking the villainous trick played on Lönnrot, a detective who is lured into a trap through his “reckless perspicacity.”
A switch from literature to Machiavelli’s political science gave me a strategy for heading off the class’s conspiratorial fever.
…in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should examine all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke, so as not to have to renew them every day and, by not renewing them, to secure men and gain them to himself with benefits.
Acting more the lion than the fox, I didn’t even tuck my shirt into my khakis before bursting into the classroom the following day. I doled out pop quizzes, checked their books for marginalia, confiscated their phones and forced them to spend the remaining twenty minutes reflecting on Joseph K.’s unenviable, impossible task in The Trial:
…to meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be recalled to mind, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and examined from every angle.
It didn’t work. When we reached Pynchon, I predictably began to find curious graffiti around campus. I had taught the students too well in the art of conspiracy making, and by the end of the semester I was as besieged as Oedipa Maas with the “malignant, deliberate replication” of muted horns: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Of my end-of-term evaluations, it suffices to quote the first line of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.”
As the recap of my semester demonstrates, the conspiratorial thinker is also a pitiable figure, which Hofstadter points out in the oddly moving conclusion to his essay: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” That is, the paranoid believes in his fiction (which never ends well), and thus he fails to derive pleasure from the meticulously constructed plots in the way that the reader of conspiracy fiction can. (If only a work like Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which brilliantly and amusingly depicts the melancholic aspect of a police chief who has “nothing but the mirage of a conspiracy to fill his loneliness,” had been on my syllabus, I might have seen the error of my ways earlier.)
And yet my paranoid pedagogy was ultimately more comitragic than tragic, more Beckettian than Shakespearian. I came into the class like the emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted characters we would encounter and came out in considerably better shape than most of them. I should focus on the upside of conspiracy fiction, the way it offers perverse, often painful opportunities for entertainment, growth, introspection, and enlightenment: to improvise or “canter” like Vladimir and Estragon wiling away the time, to lose one’s childish illusions like The Ministry of Fear’s Arthur Rowe, to ponder one’s guilt, if only futilely, like Joseph K., or like Oedipa Maas, to discover fleetingly the “high magic to low puns.” Such is the allure of conspiratorial narrative; it invites a clarity, however illusory, amidst the very real and supremely readable distortions of the paranoid style.
Image via Wikimedia Commons