Elevated to a principle of national policy in the McCarthy years of the Cold War, and then reappropriated as an indispensable attitude of the counterculture in the 1960s, paranoia has become one of the defining characteristics of postwar American politics and culture. In the words of Don DeLillo (once hailed as the “chief shaman of the paranoid school of fiction” [Towers 6]), this is the period in which “paranoia replaced history in American life” (qtd. in O’Toole). As many commentators have pointed out recently, there are very good reasons why conspiratorially infused paranoia should no longer have a hold over the collective imagination, not the least of which is the end of the Cold War and all its attendant anxieties about communist infiltration and mutually assured nuclear destruction. Yet in the last decade it has come to seem that paranoia and conspiracy theories are everywhere: a brief sampling from the last couple of years might include the Oklahoma bombing; the crash of TWA flight 800; the runaway success of The X-Files; the self-consciously titled summer 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Conspiracy Theory; the inclusion of the very term “conspiracy theory” for the first time in the 1997 supplement to the OED; the public declaration by Martin Luther King’s family that his death was part of a government conspiracy; and even Hillary Clinton’s assertion on [End Page 811] national television that “a vast right-wing conspiracy” was against the President. Elaine Showalter’s recent book Hystories speaks to the common perception there is a “plague of paranoia” spreading through western society. Just when you thought it was safe, the emergence of new fears and fantasies (summed up by President Bush’s infamous announcement of a “New World Order”) has paradoxically meant a return to the dominance of conspiracy thinking in American life.
A similar conundrum arises in the new world order of American fiction. On the one hand, as Michael Wood suggests, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon and DeLillo’s Underworld are “post-paranoid” epics: DeLillo’s Libra, Wood pronounced, was “perhaps the last really good novel of the great age of American paranoia,” an age that “faded away somewhere in the early nineties” (“Post-Paranoid” 3). On the other hand, other critics accused Underworld of having an unnecessarily paranoid structure, of hinting at connections where none exist; for instance, James Wood, writing in the New Republic, declared that Underworld “proves, once and for all, the incompatibility of paranoid history with great fiction” (“Black Noise”). So, just when we might expect paranoia to have gone beyond its sell-by date in that six-floor book depository of postwar American literature containing Pynchon, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and DeLillo, it seems that Underworld has brought the topic out of storage and back onto the shelves.
How can we explain what looks like the simultaneous disappearance and recrudescence of paranoia, in both American literature and society? In this essay I suggest that DeLillo’s monumental new novel presents the materials for constructing a secret history of paranoia over the last half-century, which in turn can help explain some of these paradoxes. In brief, Underworld revises the anatomy of popular American paranoia that DeLillo has conducted in his previous novels, pushing back the inquiry before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which had previously served as the watershed event in his work, and reaching ahead into the as yet unconfigured world beyond the end of the Cold War.
Plotting the Assassination
The assassination of President Kennedy and its surrounding culture of conspiracy have haunted DeLillo’s career as a writer. Its influence [End Page 812] and iconography are present in one form or another throughout his work, from the drive through Dealey Plaza in the final scene of Americana, to the underground screening of the Zapruder footage in Underworld. He admits that “it’s possible I wouldn’t have become the kind of writer I am if it weren’t for the assassination,” but its influence remained subterranean until addressed directly in Libra (qtd. in DeCurtis 47–48). For many Americans a conspiratorial worldview came to...