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Edward Snowden’s Novel Makeover

How a fiction writer transformed the NSA whistleblower into a tragic hero

Zhang Fan/Xinhua /eyevine/Redux

Edward Snowden’s new memoir, Permanent Record, wasn’t eagerly anticipated. That’s only because hardly anyone had heard about it before Snowden’s publisher, Macmillan, announced in August that it would go on sale in 20 countries on September 17, Constitution Day. To keep the project covert, even from Snowden’s many hard-core admirers, publishers had reportedly used code names in their internal documents, and at least one of his literary assistants traveled to visit him under a cover story.

The memoir is far from the first major project to showcase Snowden’s life and work. Since fleeing the United States in 2013, he has collaborated on Glenn Green­wald’s tell-all book No Place to Hide. Snowden was also the subject of Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt played him as a moody antihero in Oliver Stone’s 2016 big-screen docudrama, simply titled Snowden. Yet this book stands apart, not merely because of its author, but also because of its guiding hands. Permanent Record isn’t just an internet-age manifesto or a screed about government overreach. It’s a bildungsroman crafted with the expert aid of a novelist.

Despite Macmillan’s black op to keep the book under wraps, over the past year, New York literary circles have buzzed with the news that novelist (and a contributor to The New Republic) Joshua Cohen had signed on as the famed whistle-blower’s literary interlocutor, traveling to Russia over the course of eight months to help Snowden, now 36, organize and improve his narrative. As book gossip goes, it all seemed a bit amusing; to cover his tracks, Cohen took to telling friends that he was ghostwriting a memoir for Elizabeth Warren. Cohen confirmed those rumors—over an encrypted phone app—to The New Republic in August, not that anyone expected his participation to be much of a secret after publication: Snowden thanks Cohen in the book’s acknowledgments.

Enlisting a noted fiction writer to tell his life story might strike casual observers as odd, but Snowden and Cohen are both obsessed with the ways in which tech has transformed self and society. Cohen, who has published eleven books since 2005, has elicited comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon, expansive, digressive writers who, much like Snowden himself, have enjoyed praise, weathered backlashes, and garnered cult followings. Both Cohen’s and Snowden’s gregariousness can shade into garrulousness; their writing and speech teem with grandiosity and introspection, a combination that appeals to their admirers and grates on their critics. (Cohen’s best-known work, Book of Numbers, follows an author named Joshua Cohen who has been hired to write the memoir of a Silicon Valley CEO who is also named Joshua Cohen.)

Cohen declined to talk on the record about his participation in Permanent Record because, as his friend Ben Wizner, Snowden’s ACLU lawyer, put it, “This was always going to be Ed’s book.” But Snowden “was persuaded that people would be much more interested in his story than in his manifesto,” Wizner said. The manifesto is in there, but “the way the book is written, it could be assigned to 16-year-olds as a classic coming-of-age memoir and the autobiography of a conscience.” Hence the title: a reference to the grade school threat of being forever dogged by one’s mistakes in the age of Big Data.

Cohen still believes, as he wrote in 2014, that Snowden is “a character so decent that John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth would have blushed before conceiving him,” but most Americans still seem eager to see Snowden as either a Pollyanna or a cynical grifter; bookstores and news sites have scads of hot takes alleging he’s a Russian plant, a Chinese spy, a self-aggrandizing anarcho-libertarian crackpot, or just a bread-and-butter traitor. It may take more than a coming-of-internet-age confessional to soften those perceptions. But if you’re seeking proof that he was right about our insecure techno-dystopia, all you have to do is look around.