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Metaphors and Paranoia: Two Approaches to Contemporary American Fiction

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2002
pp. 480-485 | 10.1353/mfs.2002.0035

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 480-485



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Metaphors and Paranoia:
Two Approaches to Contemporary American Fiction

Philip Nel


Timothy Melley. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. ix + 239 pp.
Arthur Saltzman. This Mad "Instead": Governing Metaphors in Contemporary Fiction. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2000. xiv + 232pp.

The books reviewed in this essay examine authors whose formal innovations are as intriguing as the ways their fictions respond to the conditions of their production. To say that Saltzman focuses more on stylistic innovations and Melley more on socio-historical conditions risks reducing one to "form" and the other to "content." Though such a statement would be an oversimplification, it would be fair to say that Melley and Saltzman are complimentary opposites who, taken together, offer keen (if contrary) analyses of the ways in which—to paraphrase Saltzman—words render the worlds of contemporary American fiction.

Timothy Melley would likely agree with what Don DeLillo wrote in an essay on the Kennedy assassination: "paranoia in some contexts is [End Page 480] the only intelligent response" ("American Blood" 24). Melley's Empire of Conspiracy investigates why and how paranoia has become a central metaphor of American fiction and culture during and after the Cold War period. Taking as its central literary figures DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, Kathy Acker, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Diane Johnson, and Thomas Pynchon, Melley's is an exemplary "cultural studies" text that grounds its readings historically, while extending analytical trajectories to post-World War II social critics, psychologists, and filmmakers. We learn, for instance, that William Whyte's Organization Man and Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man share an inability to recognize the ways in which they have been ideologically conditioned, even though Whyte advocates a Protestant work ethic while Marcuse favors socialism. (For the record, Melley aligns himself with neither.) The central thesis of Melley's book is this: the "rise of conspiracy and paranoia as major themes in late-twentieth-century American culture" articulates fears about "changing social and technological conditions" and "new conceptions of human subjectivity" (44), and reasserts "the vitality of a more familiar and comforting model of self in response" (45).

Melley calls this fear "agency panic" because these narratives express "anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control" (12). What makes his book interesting is that he does not simply plug each author into this formula, but rather examines the different forms this panic takes and evaluates the relative effectiveness of creative responses to it. For example, in the fiction of Burroughs, "the paradoxical logic of addiction" (177) expresses anxieties about challenges to individualism while destabilizing the notion of an autonomous individual: addicts are people who have lost control over themselves, but addiction is also internal, a part of the self. As Melley says, Burroughs "attributes agency to nonhuman entities and depletes it from humans until it is no longer clear who, or what, counts as an agent" (173). Cleverly, Empire of Conspiracy shows that paranoia underlies not only addiction but also anorexia and even stalking. According to Melley, Atwood's Edible Woman demonstrates that both anorexia and paranoia share an "uncertainty about ego boundaries" (109). In the novel, Marian treats her body as external, something able to be starved into a social ideal of femininity, precisely to uphold a strong (internal) self in control of that body. Her "eating disorder registers the bodily harm implicit in her consumption of normative femininity" (123). [End Page 481]

If in some senses this analysis echoes R. D. Laing's notion that schizophrenia may be a sane response to a crazy society, Melley—unlike Laing—is more careful to note in which contexts paranoia may be, in fact, an intelligent response. In Diane Johnson's The Shadow Knows and Atwood's Bodily Harm, paranoia toward stalkers does make some sense, he argues. The trope of "anonymous stalking in the novels [. . .] stems from an apprehensive sense that any man could be a stalker—that stalking is, on the surface, inseparable from masculinity" (120...