A new anthology looks at surveillance and its effects through the lens of fiction.
In 2013, PEN American Center issued a report called “Chilling Effects,” tracing the influence of government surveillance on literature. Of the 500-plus writers surveyed, more than 25 percent had backed away from controversial material or “considered doing so.” Clearly, the 32 contributors to “Watchlist” didn’t get the memo. Gathering short fiction from, among others, T.C. Boyle, Aimee Bender, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, and Jim Shepard, editor Hurt offers an array of responses to our culture of snooping, from the fantastic to the mundane. In Cory Doctorow’s “Scroogled,” a man passing through San Francisco International Airport is greeted by a sign declaring, “Immigration—Powered by Google”: a terrifying conflation yet at the same time oddly credible. Juan Pablo Villalobos’ “Terro(tour)istas” begins with that most mundane of contemporary acts, the liking of a Facebook post, before spiraling dangerously out of control. Most trenchant, perhaps, is Charles Yu’s “Coyote,” which imagines an organization in which the watchers are watching one another, noting small talk and lunch options, “a prepackaged chicken salad from Whole Foods” or a glass of the house red. “Carol,” Yu writes, “if she is looking into your file, knows you are investigating Henry. And therefore investigating her, albeit indirectly. And now you know that she knows that. And you also know that she doesn’t know that you know she knows.” There you have it, the whole ridiculous loop in a nutshell, observation for its own sake, with no strategic goal. This is the world we’ve constructed, in which information is no longer power but a mechanism of social restraint. Or, as Hurt puts it, in a smart and personal introduction, “The more we know about each other, the less we actually know.”
Vivid examples of literature's power to help us understand our circumstances.