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Conspiracy reading: New literary perspectives on paranoia in Thomas Pynchon

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“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”(Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961) Thomas Pynchon’s earliest novels – V. (1963) The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – were fictions which overtly addressed ideas of plot and history. Paranoid characters encounter multiple possible conspiracies, complots and possibilities of sinister networks in control of the world in which they live. At a time where conspiracy theorists were still considered part of a subculture, initial literary criticism of Pynchon’s conspiracy literature was successful in pursuing narratological and philosophical readings which interpreted those novels as postmodern lessons in paranoid reading styles, author schizophrenia, subjective erasure and ontological doubt. On this basis, for many, Pynchon was enshrined as one of the great postmodernist writers of the USA. Pynchon’s critique of late capitalism and the conspiracies in politics and history which continued to be central to his later literature – Vineland (1990), Mason & Dixon (1997), Against The Day (2006) – was long overlooked, I would argue, because conspiracy theory itself could not be taken seriously within academia. Plot is a respectable object of literary study; complots are more problematic and in Pynchon’s case would be subsumed by the former, especially because he was taught for the narrative style rather than the content of his writing.In the 21st century, marked by 9/11, a number of things have changed, however. On the one hand, Pynchon studies has taken a turn towards history and politics and while conspiracy theory methods or topics have not become respectable to academics, they now reside in the mainstream of American culture and politics: A good story seems to carry more weight than facts in a post-truth society. Academic readers are starting to recognize the extent to which Pynchon’s fiction has always been fact-based and reflected historical, social and political contexts. What is troublesome about this new angle is the fact that paranoia, conspiracies and sinister plotting are no less prevalent in Pynchon’s latest novels – Inherent Vice (2009) and Bleeding Edge (2013).A conspiracy theorist is a person who claims to be an authority in possession of (alternative) facts: an author of an unwelcome truth. At one end of the spectrum is Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, at the other end is March Kelleher’s “Tabloid of the Damned” blog. In the current climate, the dilemma for respectable academic analysis has now become what perspective to put on a paranoid authorship at a time where our culture at large seems to be losing its grip on reality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPlots : Literary Form and Conspiracy Culture
EditorsBen Carver, Dana Crăciun, Todor Hristov
Number of pages17
Place of publicationAbingdon
Publication year1 Jan 2022
ISBN (print)9780367500696
ISBN (Electronic)9781003048657
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2022
SeriesConspiracy Theory

    Research areas

  • conspiracy theory, paranoia, narratology, methodology, literature, Thomas Pynchon

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