A snitch jacket is a term for a technique used by the intelligence community to discredit a person (or at times groups) by portraying them as an informant. Len Bracken’s novel Snitch Jacket tells the story of Alex, a young radical potentially unfairly portrayed as a snitch. Throughout this piece paradox is played with in order to explore crucial areas and questions within a radical struggle and theory. A pataphysical orientation is adopted, a method of attempting to understand reality through the exploration of paradox. Through the use of seemingly contradictory and paradoxical ideas binary opposition is exploded, assisting in an escape form the two sides of the same coin.
The novel begins in a most paradoxical way, with an assault upon the printed word. Just before Alex commits arson in the Library of Congress, we are told that “the library around him and the library in his mind gave him a suffocating sensation. He felt imprisoned by the books.” In this way Bracken continues a tradition of using language to fight the constraints and grids created by language. Yes, this is seemingly contradictory, but attempts to use “chaos linguistics” to regain our autonomy may be our best option.
History, as a constructed narrative, creates a perspective for our worldview by forming a model. Our vision goes through this lens. The imagined contradiction between class war and conspiracy models of history is assaulted. These two positions are often portrayed as mutually exclusive. In their simplified versions, one model is based upon the idea that larger social and economic factors control the behavior of individuals, while the other holds that covert cabals secretly manipulate the masses. The novel presents these two forces as interacting with each other, forming a complex dynamic. The emotional plague presented in Wilhelm Reich’s sexpol theories interplays with HAARP mind control. Social factors form the world in which conspirators function. Conspirators are not portrayed as evil, but as more complex, trapped within their own oppression games. Agent Hamilton is portrayed as struggling to maintain himself, preserve himself and the social order that he exists within against the outsiders who threaten it. Authoritarian personalities are a defense mechanism, a psychic armor, created to respond to the individual’s own insecurities. Still, they are not excused, radical struggle is still presented as necessary. Radicals are given the same complexity, never fully good.
The dynamics of sexual liberation are one way in which this is presented. The radical is complex, not an idealized hero. Alex is portrayed as potentially both sexual liberator and sexual conqueror, follower of both “sexual imperialism and self-professed feminism.” This is particularly relevant due to the use of Reich’s sexpol theories throughout the novel. This sexual revolution has always been threatened by the possibility that those who struggle against patriarchy will have their efforts funneled into mere playboyism. As Alex attempts to break from established roles, we are made to question in which ways he is still grounded in the old. The struggle is not merely against external forces, but against aspects of one’s self.
A conspiracy of radical sex workers involving “more than a sex strike, this was a quiet castration riot that made eunuchs of rich men by thwarting their ability to buy sex’ encourages the radicalization of an unrespected segment of the oppressed, as well as functions as a metaphor for sex as a commodity in capitalism. Bracken, speaking through the mouthpiece of Alex, may be revealing how his anarchist sex novels work when we are told that ‘what I wanted to show, among other things, is how sex is as alienated, reified and commercially exploitative as banking—a pay-as-you-earn striptease.’
Methods of resistance are examined in binary distinction, between reform and revolution. This distinction is then blurred. There seems to be a necessity to both work within and without the system. Alex is both lobbyist and rioter. If we do not attempt to work with the current system, we risk utopian otherworldliness, in which change can only occur after a mythical revolution. If we refuse to ever assault the system, then we risk acceptance of its flawed assumptions and half measures when full ones are possible. At one point Alex states that “the arms of art...will never replace the art of arms.” As important as paradigm shift is as a goal, when divorced from the harsh reality of our political system it becomes a merely escapist concept, an excuse. Possibly a bit more hidden is the opposition between the covert action and the frontal assault of the vanguard.
The concept of the snitch jacket becomes particularly relevant at this point. When the radicals have gone deep enough into parapolitical terrain they are sometimes forced to deal with hidden machinations of power. At times some collaboration with the dominant power structure may be justified. At this point the radical runs the risk of being perceived as a state asset, a snitch, or even worse, a COINTELPRO agent. Alex is drawn into this parapolitical game. He tells a coconspirator that “The important thing is that I was paid to entrap you, only I won’t do it. Do you understand?” He attempts to save face by being upfront, but this does not solve the problems. He is seen as a snitch nonetheless. He argues “What did they tell you? Did they tell you I told them right up front? That I didn’t snitch on anybody. I only said I would.” By being portrayed as a snitch there is leverage to discredit his ideas and goals. This is what happened to Timothy Leary when facing the threat of spending the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary. At this point he collaborated in some ways with the state. A fact which is periodically brought up to discredit his legacy. In desperate times ethics become less distinct. These actions can then be turned around, as in the case of Leary, being used to place the victim within a snitch jacket. This jacket is still being used on occasion to discredit his work and activism. This is a much easier tactic than confronting his actual ideas.
This is an important theme right now, as COINTELPRO has seemingly become active again. It has been reported that the state has currently infiltrated to some extent both the Earth Liberation Front and CrimethInc. This has forced radicals to reevaluate the security measures they take. It has also placed everyone in the role as potential infiltrator. There is a contradiction between the needs of covert security and open fluid organization. There themes are played with in the novel, such as in the case of a “high-tech urban commune with separate living quarters [that] was a CIA-funded operation that recruited fools looking for adventure and provided emergency services to world-class intellectuals.”
Bracken’s efforts explode these contradictions, attempting to explore new areas for resistance. In the spectacular world of late capitalism, old modes have been co-opted, and new forms of coercion and control developed. No singular answer is presented, instead a multifaceted examination of potential techniques and dangers. In this way Bracken within the tradition of predecessors such as Burroughs, Acker, and Pynchon, refusing the singular message or answer. This point of distinction can be contrasted to Ayn Rand. Unlike Rand, the inclusion of heavy theory does not interfere with the narrative, nor transform the novel into a morality play. Instead, it is used to extend the depth and relevance. Theory is used paradoxically to not provide answers, but a framework in which to explore questions.
Jason Rodgers, Media Junky
Cracking the insta-novel
A new breed of savvy self-publishing companies is leveling the playing field for fringe writers, such as Len Bracken. ZACH DUNDAS infiltrates the scene. On his own terms—which, really, are the only ones that matter—Len Bracken is a highly successful author.
The writer from Washington, D.C., has a series of novels and arcane nonfiction books to his credit. He wrote the first biography in English of French radical Guy Debord. That and other writings on politics and culture found homes with small-but-hip indie publishers like California’s Feral House and Illinois-based Adventures Unlimited.
But Bracken’s first love is fiction, and there lies the rub.
His novels are weird—some would say, intensely weird. Take the opening scene from his latest, “Snitch Jacket.” An anarchist activist makes passionate love to a glamorous TV anchor. On the floor of the Library of Congress. While they’re both drunk on coca-infused wine. And a blaze they started begins to consume the national landmark. From such startling material, Bracken builds a bold fictional universe in which he mixes extreme politics, conspiracy theory, obscure cultural movements and—oh, yes—lots of explicit sex.
While his style attracts admirers (“When it comes to mixing sex and politics, Bracken is king,” opined D.C.’s weekly City Paper), it’s a tough sell to publishers.
“This book had some interest in a New York house,” Bracken says of “Snitch Jacket, his third published novel. “One of the editors there was really pushing it, but the acquisitions editors just wouldn’t bite. He told me, ’Y’know, it’s just a little too radical.’”
“My stuff is going to be hard to market. I don’t want to think too much about that aspect of the book business. I just want to write these books that I believe need to be written.” And Bracken doesn’t mind taking matters into his own hands. In the late ’80s, he produced 300 copies of his first novel, a tale set in glasnost-era Russia, by hand, using an old daisywheel computer printer and a binding technique invented by Eastern European dissidents. (“A very soulful process,” he recalls.) But in the age of Amazon.com, that ultra-DIY, low-tech approach doesn’t quite cut it. So Bracken followed a path that’s attracting more and more authors whose work is too strange, too specialized or too obscure to win the hearts and wallets of the New York publishing elite. He contacted iUniverse, an eight-year-old Lincoln, Neb., company that’s using technology and marketing sophistication to revolutionize self-publishing—a field that used to be called the “vanity press.”
“For about $300, you can have a book out in 30 days that’s available basically everywhere,” Bracken says. “And I have readers in France and the U.K., so to be on the Amazon sites for those countries gives me a chance, at least. I know it’s never going to be a huge readership, but it can be something.” Bracken is far from alone. Founded in 1998 and backed, in part, by mega-chain Barnes & Noble, iUniverse cranks out about 400 titles a month. Technology makes that volume possible: Print-on-demand equipment can produce a single copy of any book virtually the moment it’s ordered by a store or an online buyer. Until an order is placed, iUniverse books exist only as digital files. That eliminates print setup and warehousing costs, and ensures that only copies that sell get printed.
It’s a big leap from how mainstream publishing works; even the most successful conventionally published books generally end up in the remainder stacks at some point. And with its connections to Barnes & Noble, it’s instant accessibility from online sites and a staff of publicists, editors and designers who will work with authors (for a price), iUniverse has little in common with the shabby vanity press of yesteryear.
“It used to be that you could never sell a single book if you weren’t in bookstores,” says iUniverse CEO Susan Driscoll, herself a 20-year veteran of New York’s publishing scene. “The only way to get distribution was through mainstream publishers. So ’vanity’ books were just that—people would pay to have 300 copies printed, then give them away to their families.”
There are also signs that iUniverse (and competitors like Lulu.com) are chipping away at the stigma attached to going it alone. iUniverse books have appeared on major best seller lists, and reviews occasionally surface in tony periodicals. Last fall, for example, People magazine staffer Champ Clark faced an author’s nightmare. He’d written a book about Steppin Fetchit, the black actor seen by many as a symbol of discrimination. But because a major publisher already had another Fetchit book in the works, he couldn‘t get a deal.
“The other book was coming in October,” Clark says now. “At this point, it’s September.” He contracted with iUniverse and got his book into the market at the same time as the rival title. Clark’s book was reviewed by the New York Times and New Yorker. He’s sold a few hundred copies and been contacted by a potential documentary producer. And because iUniverse contracts are non-exclusive, he’s free to pursue deals for a conventional reprint. “It saved the project,” he says.
For his part, Len Bracken is still counting sales of “Snitch Jacket” in the dozens, rather than hundreds. (But when a copy does sell, he bags 20 percent in royalties, a far higher rate than mainstream publishers pay.) For him, iUniverse offers more than a potential pay day. “I’m just trying to write about my time, my journey through history,” he says. “It would be great to talk about my fiction with a larger audience. And one of the great things about iUniverse is that they want you to get a better deal. They want you to get the movie deal. They want you to make the leap.”
Zach Dundas, AP
Len Bracken’s “Snitch Jacket” examines the inner phantoms and outer realities of full-time anarchists and dedicated revolutionaries of the anti-globalization movement.
One of the novel developments coming out of the famous Battle for Seattle at the 1990 World Trade Organization talks was the resurgence of anarchists and the prominent role its rank-and-file, popularized through the image of the black bloc, played in the street skirmishes there, and in later protests across the world.
Bracken takes us inside that movement.
“Snitch Jacket” concerns itself with the longings and angers of Alex, whose nature and actions are most characterized by an outsized incisor that makes him look like a wolf. Drunk on Situationist strategies and something called Vin Mariana, a wine either distilled from coca or made something else by the infusion of coca leaf, Alex is a guy for whom crossing over the line is the test to living in truth.
The book opens with him seducing an attractive young media magnate in the Library of Congress, which he sets on fire in the process. During the escape, Alex kills a guy; not his first murder, either.
The setting is Washington D.C. on the eve of George W. Bush’s first inauguration. The anti-global set has gathered to make as much of a mess as possible. Alex serves as a literary tour guide through the local group of anarchists, and other things; the rank-and-file made up of drifters, folks with an axe to grind, former criminals, and journalists who don’t know where the ethical line of their profession lies.
To a certain extent, nobody is completely what they portray themselves to be and, while everybody’s goals are pure and noble, their means are another matter altogether. Some are spying, might be spying, are converted over form the enemy, and there is not structure other than the sex and beer bash through which they might be sorted out.
There are three beautiful women, Chilean, Chinese, and Russian, all with murky backgrounds and deadly dangerous with whom Alex spends of a goodly portion of his time mixing revolution and seduction; later wrestling (but not much) with the friction between his anti-paternal politics and the pull of his prick.
Anyway, these are folks on “the list.” There are no angels and the authorities know of and about them. And for all that, as mentioned, they spend a lot of time partying. Bracken’s portrait of the easy-come-and-go world of true relations between true leftists, influenced still by hippie codes, are lively and enthusiastic and you can feel yourself in the warm spring air of colonial region at an indoor/outdoor beer party.
This has always been one of the left’s downfalls visa a vis conservatives and fascists. They like to party and talk a lot about discipline. The enemy doesn’t and are truly disciplined. The eternal question, of course, (from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective) is who do you want organizing the whole big shindig?
Bracken, a resident of Washington D.C., knows the city well and details every moment of transit with a dissection of what is being seen. Not so much the monuments everyone knows, but the buildings housing lesser-prominent bureaucracies where, the author gives us a sense, less virtuous goings-on are being concocted.
Throughout the street roaming and street life of his protagonist the author tells some of what our government is up to, and where it is done, achieving a sinister portrait of what (and the why) his angry anarchists are up against.
Bracken goes farther along in weaving the sexual lives of his characters into the larger yarn than most writers, dishing up detailed imagery of the numerous couplings not only between Alex and his paramours, but for the uber-kinky, girl-on-girl and all that. The overall achievement is clear as, by mid-book, the sex scenes are really read with a curiosity about whose using what on whom. Sex as part of the story, as opposed to a forced extraction from the story that says, the story’s stopping here for that great an universal timeout that is “SEX.”
And that’s from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective, too, which is to say Bracken is in friendly territory at highwayscribery.
He is a self-published authored in the same way the scribe is. Like the scribe he also self-brushes his teeth, self-bathes himself, and takes responsibility for himself; all of which makes self-publishing that much easier.
Stephen Siciliano, highwayscribery.com