In 1994, the fiction writer Charles Baxter published “Dysfunctional Narratives,” an essay in which he claims to have uncovered “the greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years.” His argument is an unorthodox one: Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Beckett, Kafka, Hemingway and Faulkner aren’t mentioned at all, and the person in question, it turns out, isn’t even a novelist, though he did write books (ones full of sentences that are “leaden and dulling, juridical-minded to the last, impersonal but not without savor,” and that “present the reader with camouflage masked as objective thought”). This person’s influence on America fiction, however, is traceable neither to his books nor their prose style, but rather to his apparent addiction to deniability—that noxious brew of disavowal, compartmentalization, structured ignorance and deception-as-policy through which negative outcomes become all but impossible to blame on anyone in particular. The person Baxter has in mind is none other than Richard Nixon, who brought the rhetoric of deniability to the public stage as no one had before, and who made its quintessential phrase—“mistakes were made”—a staple of American discourse about decisions and their consequences.
Baxter goes on to argue that widespread narratives of disavowal “humiliate the act of storytelling”: “You can’t reconstruct a story—you can’t even know what the story is—if everyone is saying, ‘Mistakes were made.’ Who made them? Well, everybody made them and no one did, and it’s history anyway, so we should forget about it.” Without motives, agency or resolution, our national story becomes “dysfunctional.” So too stories about the self, which attempt to address unhappiness but are ill-equipped to do so, at least when unhappiness results from the actions of governments, corporations or banks, all of which have become deniability experts. Authors create characters who are unhappy, confused or trapped—and looking for answers why. But because the misdeeds of banks, for example, are fiendishly hard to understand (often by design) and not easily shoehorned into the conventions of realist storytelling, novels are more likely to point the finger at something close by and easily named. Family life works well as a cause of unhappiness, and so does childhood trauma (even better if its memory has been repressed and the narrative can trace its recovery). “That’s the whole story,” Baxter writes glumly. “When blame has been assigned, the story is over.”
By his own description, Baxter is an author committed to fiction where characters take actions and live with their effects. “Mistakes and crimes tend to create narratives, however, and they have done so from the time of the Greek tragedies,” he notes. Consequently, the “culture of disavowals”—which Baxter sees everywhere, from talk shows to graduate fiction workshops to the acclaimed novels of the day—strikes him as a defeat: the domestication, in the most pejorative sense of the word, of life and literature by the powers that be.
Timothy Melley, a professor at Miami University, is also interested in how American fiction has been influenced by institutionalized deception from on high, particularly with regard to the covert sectors of government that came into being during and after World War II. But his account—which he eventually frames in explicit opposition to Baxter’s—locates the origins of deniability much earlier than Nixon. If deniability has an author, Melley argues in The Covert Sphere, it is George Kennan, who in 1948 penned National Security Council directive NSC-10/2, the document that changed the CIA, then barely one year old, from a purely intelligence-gathering outfit into an agency charged with “propaganda, economic warfare, preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage” and so on. Crucially, NSC-10/2 ordered that these operations be implemented in such a way that, if discovered, “the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility.”
More than sixty years later, the American covert sector is a thriving, many-tentacled monster of deniability funded by at least $75 billion per year, consisting of at least forty-five government agencies, 1,271 smaller government organizations and 1,391 private corporations. Thanks to the occasional revelation by investigative journalists or congressional committees, most Americans have a vague idea that the covert sector exists, that it has a great deal of power, and that it has in the past resorted to surveillance, kidnapping, torture and assassination in the name of protecting American interests. But what people know best about the covert sector is that it remains mostly unknowable by design: it lies, it keeps its past and future plans secret, it spreads misinformation both abroad and at home, and it shrouds its every move in a thick haze of overlapping cover stories and disavowals. It is the massive “known unknown” of American life, the supreme dysfunctional narrative, doing its business somewhere out of sight while we eat breakfast, or sleep, or read about it in the news without learning what it is. “Mistakes were made” implies a corollary, unspoken but I think widely felt: more mistakes are being made right now, and will remain unknown until long after the damage is done.
This is the sort of impotent half-knowledge that Baxter bemoans in “Dysfunctional Narratives.” Melley agrees that repeated exposure to lying-as-policy has been bad for everyone. Citizens have been pushed into a state of “radical unknowing,” or knowing for certain only that they really don’t know. But unlike Baxter, Melley thinks America’s writers, or at least a few of them, have risen admirably to the challenge—not by constructing narratives that Baxter would ever call functional, but by playing dysfunction for all it’s worth, the better to pinpoint its effect on the national and individual consciousness.
This is a familiar argument: radical new times have rendered obsolete familiar literary modes and pleasures. Paeans to an art that revels in its own instability, uncertainty or inconclusiveness—its intentional, self-aware dysfunctionality—are as old as literature itself, as are conservative laments such as Baxter’s. But Melley isn’t interested (or at least not exclusively so) in cheerleading for the postmodern. What makes his argument fascinating is his attention to the actual history of America’s relationship to the institutions that house its official open secrets, and to the special place in that relationship occupied by fiction.
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As the first-ever government agency with deniability written into its charter, the CIA was from the beginning a storytelling machine. It was no coincidence that in its early days the organization was full of literature students and writers recruited by influential scholars of English, or that for decades it operated as perhaps the most generous literary patron in the West, funding scores of novels, translations and literary journals. And so it is oddly apt that most Americans know most of what they know about the covert sector—or, more accurately, half-know most of what they half-know—not from fact-oriented discourses like journalism, history and the law, but instead from novels, films, TV shows, comic books and narrative video games: in other words, through fictions, some of them quite outlandish, some chock-full of accurate information and insight, most somewhere in between, and all of them more or less dismissible as “just fiction.”
Melley’s boldest suggestion is that fiction about the covert activity assumes an outsize role not only for members of the general public, but also for most individuals within the covert sector. This is, he argues, a natural consequence of the secret government’s size and “hypercompartmentalization,” itself a natural outcome of its foundational obsession with deniability. The covert sector is so large, so fragmented into agencies, subdivisions, private contractors and shell companies—often competing with each other for funding and operational jurisdiction—that it can be difficult, if not impossible, for any one of the beast’s many tentacles to know what the rest have in their clutches. This is exacerbated by complex classification schemes that parcel out information—even of a single operation—piecemeal on a “need to know” basis, a process that can leave even those with high-security clearances in the dark. Often, Melley claims, those at the top of the totem pole are the most ignorant of all, because what is required of them is not knowledge but its opposite: public expressions of shock when, against the odds, this or that unsavory activity comes to light. Even if those technically “inside” the covert state know a bit more than John Everyman, it is certainly plausible that they hanker to know more—to view the monster from above, and to see its many tentacles writhing at once. Like the rest of us, some often have nowhere better to turn than fiction.
Such a proposition is difficult to prove, but Melley attempts to marshal compelling evidence. In the 1960s, he notes, CIA employees reportedly watched Mission Impossible each week in search of ideas for new gadgets. JFK loved Ian Fleming novels and wanted America to find “our James Bond.” The “ticking time bomb scenario,” so endlessly invoked in recent debates over the efficacy and morality of torture, has apparently never occurred in real life but famously first appeared in Les centurions, a 1960 French thriller in which French soldiers use torture to extract information from Muslim members of the Algerian resistance. Today, the book is a favorite of US counterinsurgency professionals, including (by his own admission) David Petraeus, until recently the director of the CIA. After 9/11, the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security started recruiting artists— including thriller author Brad Meltzer—for Red Cell, a project dedicated to imagining how the terrorist attacks of the future might play out. The Pentagon ran a similar program. And in 2008, Defense Intelligence Agency recruits started training on Sudden Thrust, a video game written by a Hollywood screenwriter.
As has been more widely observed, the television show 24—an eight-season ticking time bomb scenario—has figured prominently in decidedly nonfictional decisions about the treatment of Muslims in US custody since 2001. At a 2002 gathering of government officials charged with cooking up new approaches to interrogation, the assembled experts concluded that one useful thing they could do was to watch 24. The show’s hero, Jack Bauer—who gets the job done by beating, drugging or electrocuting someone roughly every other episode—has been cited with approval by (to name just a few) Bush administration legal counsel John Yoo, Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who proclaimed: “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles…. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives…. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” After Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs, “Jack Bauer” became a trending topic on Twitter, with many people tweeting their thanks to this nonexistent man.
Melley devotes an entire chapter to the notoriously muddled notion of “brainwashing,” a nonsensical term for a process of total thought control that has never really existed outside of novels, movies, and hysterical think-tank studies and news stories about the Communist threat. Much of the hysteria about brainwashing was stirred up by government PR specialists: Edward Hunter, the first journalist to use the term, was a former employee of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II forerunner of the CIA. The propaganda affected not only the public but also the compartmentalized covert sector itself. While one tentacle cooked up stories about brainwashing—which inevitably seeped into thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate—the other sank millions of dollars into the search for its antidote, or better yet, a counterweapon. Again and again, researchers were forced to conclude that there is no such thing as brainwashing, just old-fashioned torture, most useful not for changing someone’s mind or turning them into a sleeper agent, but for the age-old purpose of making someone repeat whatever story you want (or, put otherwise, for producing fiction under extreme duress).
The findings of this “Manhattan Project of the mind,” as the historian Alfred McCoy has called it, were collected in the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, used for years as the basis for the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program. After 9/11, the KUBARK manual’s list of torture techniques was mined no less assiduously than episodes of 24 for ideas about how to torture men who, ironically, were often described by Western academics and journalists as having turned to terrorism as the result of some unbelievably potent, almost magical form of indoctrination. In 2004, a remake of The Manchurian Candidate replaced the Commie “hypnosis” of the original with a suitably futuristic “nanochip” that makes Denzel Washington do whatever his global overlords say.
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When fact and fiction crossbreed this promiscuously—especially within a powerful, weaponized bureaucracy—all manner of disasters are possible. President Eisenhower was on to something when he complained that intelligence briefings from Tehran sounded “like a dime novel”; much the same could be said for the scores of kooky terror plots cooked up by FBI agents for the purpose of entrapping Muslims. But for fiction writers, Melley argues, the state’s reliance on stories offers a way in. He quotes E.L. Doctorow approvingly: “The novelist’s opportunity to do his work today is increased by the power of the regime to which he finds himself in opposition.” The inaccessibility of key facts is a deep obstacle to journalism, history and legal inquiry, but not to novels, for which complex realities built from lies plausible enough to believe in, and rich illusions shot through with facts, are old news. As Norman Mailer put it, defending his qualifications to write fiction about the CIA: “It is a fictional CIA and its only real existence is in my mind, but I would point out that the same is true for men and women who have spent forty years working within the Agency.”
The literary stars of Melley’s account—the authors he identifies as best understanding how the nature of the covert sector creates a particularly “puzzling relation” between representation and reality—are a familiar bunch. Mailer gets credit for stressing, in Harlot’s Ghost, the deep affinities between spycraft and literature, and for explicitly trumpeting fiction’s unique virtues over journalism in his novelistic memoir Armies of the Night. Denis Johnson is praised for recasting the Vietnam War, in Tree of Smoke, as first and foremost a series of propaganda fictions. Doctorow and Robert Coover receive high marks for their perceptive novelistic treatments of the fiction-laced “spectacle of secrecy” that was the Rosenberg trial (retold in Coover’s The Public Burning and Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel).
The more a work is, like our public sphere, scarred by radical unknowing, the more Melley praises it. His favorite sections of Don DeLillo’s Libra are not the detailed reimaginings of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life (or even of his love for James Bond), but instead the descriptions of Nicholas Branch, the fictitious CIA analyst brought out of retirement to write the agency’s internal report on the Kennedy assassination. Day after day Branch sits in his office, paralyzed by the mounting stacks of papers around him. He has access to any agency document he requests, but he also knows that a good deal of agency work goes into destroying some documents and forging others; plus some of his requests go unanswered. He should know more than anyone else about the Kennedy assassination, but in an important sense he knows less, having lost all ability to distinguish coincidence from significance, real documents from forgeries, and actual forgeries from forged forgeries—that is, forgeries deliberately designed to look like forgeries to an analyst, and so send him down the wrong path.
Similarly, in each of Joan Didion’s three novels about the security state (A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted), a narrator sets out to tell the story of a citizen caught up in the workings of the covert sector and, inevitably, “instead narrates her own failure to tell the story she meant to tell.” Like Branch, Didion’s narrators fail in part because they don’t have access to certain data, in part because they have access to more potentially relevant data than they could ever sort, and no clue how even to begin telling the story. The fear is that filling in the covert sector’s narrative gaps—writing a speculative key to its coded maps—might only serve to obscure the truth. “I still believe in history,” says the journalist-narrator of The Last Thing He Wanted, then instantly doubles back. “Let me amend that. I still believe in history to the extent I believe history to be made exclusively and at random” by men shrouded in “entire layers of bureaucracy dedicated to the principle that self-perpetuation depended on the ability not to elucidate but obscure.” In the looking-glass world of the covert sector, functional stories of cause and effect too easily become part of a cover-up built on false understanding. The narrator of Democracy (one “Joan Didion”), surveying the story she is in the middle of telling, puts it bluntly: ”I am resisting narrative here.” Charles Baxter, we can assume, is not a fan.
For Melley, this mode finds its purest expression in Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. The main character, John Wade, is a Vietnam veteran traumatized by memories of the wartime atrocities he has witnessed, participated in and covered up through alterations to the record. Decades later, he wakes up one morning and discovers that his wife is gone. He remembers little of the night before, but does recall standing over her sleeping body holding a pot of boiling water. The journalist-narrator is another Vietnam vet with problems of memory and guilt. Early on, he announces that he has never figured the case out and that Wade’s wife was never found. Like DeLillo and Didion, O’Brien dramatizes the public’s relationship to the half-known goings-on of the past (“a handful of splotchy images” from Southeast Asia), but he also gestures toward more recent events, the events of (literally) last night—events more difficult to name because we experience them, if at all, only as a queasy awareness of what they might have been. Mistakes are being made. “Who will ever know?” says the narrator. “It’s all hypothesis, beginning to end.”
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I admire these books; indeed, some I love, in part for the virtues Melley catalogs. And his account of their spawning ground—the “known unknowns” of the covert sector—is fascinating. But his response to Baxter’s argument in “Dysfunctional Narratives” is deeply dissatisfying. Baxter’s essay explores how large dysfunctional systems might influence fiction about subjects other than systems: how distortions of power subtly discourage artists from writing about power in the first place, whether or not their subject is explicitly political. To respond, as Melley does, by noting that an extremely small handful of authors have successfully written about systems is almost a non sequitur.
What Melley’s account reveals most about his favorite books is how dismayingly similar they are—and not just in their self-aware “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” approach to storytelling. Almost every book he discusses has at its center a character drawn by circumstance into the dysfunction of the covert sector. In The Last Thing He Wanted, the narrator discovers that her father is an arms dealer. In Democracy, the main character is having an affair with a CIA agent. Both main characters in A Book of Common Prayer are married to prominent players in the secret government. John Wade, the amnesiac veteran from In the Lake of the Woods, is a direct participant in a military atrocity and the cover-up. The principal narrator of Coover’s The Public Burning is Vice President Richard Nixon himself. DeLillo’s Nicholas Branch works in the belly of the CIA, and his Lee Harvey Oswald is, well, Lee Harvey Oswald.
This relative uniformity of approach is evidence of a shortcoming at least as significant as the type pinpointed by Baxter. It may seem natural that fiction hoping to plumb the conceptual depths of the covert sector should involve its biggest institutions. But one of Melley’s central claims is that the nature of the covert sector has contributed to postmodern shifts in the nature of all public knowledge—not just knowledge about CIA coups, for example. The authors he spotlights are similarly obsessed with the idea of the secret services as pockets of the national unconscious. Here’s the narrator of DeLillo’s The Names, a man who works for the CIA but doesn’t know it:
If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth. All the themes are there, in tiers of silence, whole bureaucracies of silence, in conspiracies and doublings and brilliant betrayals. The agency takes on shapes and appearances, embodying whatever we need at a given time to know ourselves or unburden ourselves.
But doesn’t the unconscious find expression in daily life? By which I mean: Shouldn’t it be possible to write an essentially realistic novel that contains not a single secret government plot but nonetheless makes contact with the scars those plots have left on the national psyche? Other than a few halfhearted pages on John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, this possibility merits no real consideration in The Covert Sphere. In this regard, the book operates in ignorance of one of its most important insights: that the work of the covert sector extends far beyond the confines of the CIA’s offices and involves the uneasy acceptance of radical unknowing, which comes in an ever-multiplying number of forms and is a presence in all our lives—even if we’re not paranoiacs who work in the CIA archives or write newsletters about how 9/11 was an inside job, even if our fathers are not international arms dealers, even if we are knowing readers of high-concept novels. Not only that, but Melley’s way of thinking about the relationship between literature and politics leaves little room for the possibility that the best novels about 9/11 or World War I or Vietnam could be ones that do not mention or even bear direct traces of these conflicts.
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There is a basic truth about the covert sector that is remarkably easy to overlook: however unknowable and mysterious it may be—however much it may seem to be a separate reality parallel to ours—it is not literally another world. Remote military outposts, for example, are buildings like any other, occupying space, requiring plumbing and electricity. Such banal facts are at the center of fascinating work by Trevor Paglen, whom Melley mentions only in passing, perhaps because Paglen doesn’t write fiction. His work is part investigative journalism, part geography, part art photography. Many of his projects have involved scrounging for information about where exactly in the physical world the work of the covert state gets done: its torture dungeons; the remote airports where planes shuttling from dungeon to dungeon land for fuel; the spots in the night sky where surveillance satellites lurk; the small offices in strip malls that house CIA shell companies. Then he gets as close as he can and takes photographs, often using an extremely high-powered lens. Paglen also trains his camera on smaller traces of covert activity: leases and purchase orders signed by nonexistent people; uniform patches for government programs mentioned in no congressional budget. Encountering these images for the first time, I felt a dizzying sense of revelation, all the more dizzying because I knew their central claim—that the covert sector exists in physical space—was completely obvious. I was, I suppose, metasurprised: surprised to find myself surprised.
There are many such moments in the British filmmaker Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson” trilogy. Each of its installments consists almost entirely of static shots of English cities and countryside accompanied by voice-overs from an invisible narrator who relates the observations of a London-obsessed loner named Robinson. Keiller’s camera captures lichen growing on roadway signs; supermarkets, busy intersections and freeways; spiders spinning cobwebs—and also the British covert sector, in the form of restricted-access military bases, some still in use and hidden behind fences and foliage, others deserted and weathered and beginning to be reclaimed by the land. Keiller is implicitly convinced that it’s all connected, but less in the manner of a DeLillo paranoiac and more like a nature writer describing a physical journey through an ecosystem.
Keiller has professed his love for W.G. Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, in which the anonymous narrator (a man not unlike Keiller’s Robinson) describes his walking tour along the southeast coast of England. In a memorable seven-page passage he recalls wandering Orford Ness, a small, narrow peninsula that for much of the twentieth century was owned by the British Ministry of Defense, which used it to test phosphorus shells, nuclear detonators and who knows what else. Today its barracks, bunkers, blast chambers and watchtowers sit deserted. Sebald’s narrator has heard many rumors about the base at Orford Ness and suspects that much of its past is unknowable, thanks to probable tampering with the records in advance of their declassification. He acquires no new facts on his walk. To the contrary: the more he walks, the less he feels he knows. “Where and in what time I truly was that day…I cannot say, even now as I write these words.” This sounds like an extreme version of Melley’s “radical unknowing.” But the passage is also a straightforward account of an afternoon’s walk, a walk that any Briton with a free afternoon and train fare could take herself. And so, however much remains hidden to the narrator, he also claims a modest knowing: he was there; he saw what he could see; he kept walking, kept thinking.
Whether this meets Baxter’s standard for functional narrative, I don’t know—but it’s surely at least a modest start. It seems clear that American letters could use a small army of Paglens, Keillers and Sebalds roaming our geographies of secrecy, pens and cameras in hand. In fact, one of the best living describers of the American landscape, John McPhee, published a fascinating book in 1984 called La Place de la Concorde Suisse, in which he travels around Switzerland with an army information patrol. In the process he charts the myriad ways the country’s military aims have shaped its social structures, economy and, most of all, land. Bridges are wired to blow, the mountains are full of camouflaged airplane hangars and cannon turrets, and almost every man of fighting age has a gun, ammo and a gas mask in the house. “There is scarcely a scene in Switzerland that is not ready to erupt in fire,” McPhee writes. “About this we don’t talk,” a colonel tells him. “But keep your eyes open. You may see something.”
Also in this issue, Marcy Wheeler inquires  into whether Congress can protect Americans against the increasingly invasive security state.