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Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction

The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy

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Steffen Hantke

Under the influence of Thomas Pynchon, a generation of postmodern American writers has explored the theme of conspiracy and paranoia, its origins in contemporary American culture, and its political and ideological ramifications. This intense preoccupation with paranoid forms of conceptual organization has helped critics to represent postmodernism as a coherent phenomenon and define it as a period. While for many readers the assumption of periodic homogeneity is still valid, postmodern fiction has, in fact, been diversifying rapidly in the course of its development over the last 20 years. In the works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy, a new set of narrative premises, which mark a significant paradigmatic shift within postmodern American fiction, has begun to emerge from the dialogic interplay with Pynchonesque paranoia.

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I. Introduction 1

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I. Introduction l. Toward a Morphology of Conspiracy Fiction Culture needs to stage spectacles in which it recreates its own practices and conven- tions, to enter into dialogue with itself, interrogate itself, and understand itself better. These spectacles are reflections of conscious and unconscious knowledge; their size and relative accessibility make this knowledge visible and tangible. Cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz have elaborated on the fact that these spectacles are necessary because they resolve conflicts within the culture, at least on the level of their conceptual intricacies, with- out recourse to open aggression. Addressing the sophisticated and mystifying network of metaphoric correspondences surrounding the cockfight in Bali, Geertz remarks that, like any art fonn ... the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in tenns of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances. I In this sense, a spectacle like the cockfight, which remains morally reprehensible or cul- turally mystifying for most outsiders to Balinese society, fulfills a function that Western society has largely focused upon all those elements within culture that are clearly identified as representations. Geertz himself, however, who is mostly concerned with cultures other than his own, is hardly aware of the possibilities of his approach. Elsewhere, he asserts that the whole point of a semiotic approach to culture is, as I have said, to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live...

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