Postmodern Paranoia

Paranoia, or the threat of total engulfment by somebody else’s system, is keenly felt by many of the dramatis personae of postmodernist fiction. It is tempting to speculate that this is an indirect mimetic representation of the climate of fear and suspicion that prevailed throughout the Cold War. The protagonists of postmodernist fiction often suffer from what Tony Tanner calls in City of Words (1971) a ‘dread that someone else is patterning your life, that there are all sorts of invisible plots afoot to rob you of your autonomy of thought and action, that conditioning is ubiquitous’.

Postmodernist writing reflects paranoid anxieties in many ways, including: the distrust of fixity, of being circumscribed to anyone particular place or identity, the conviction that society is conspiring against the individual, and the multiplication of self-made plots to counter the scheming of others. These different responses are immanent in three distinct areas of reference associated with the word ‘plot’. The first meaning is that of a piece of ground of small or moderate size sequestered for some special purpose, such as a plot for growing vegetables or building a house. A stationary space, in other words, intimidating to the postmodern hero. Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Yossarian in Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 (1962) and Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are each confined to their own ‘plots’ in this sense by the authorities. McMurphy is committed to a mental hospital, Yossarian is conscripted to the air force, and Billy Pilgrim is interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp. A vindictive bureaucracy controls these mavericks by medication, red tape or the force of arms.

In each instance the imprisoning of the individual by outside powers propagates a panic of identity. So McMurphy‘s protests that he is sane prove his insanity. Pilgrim‘s belief that he is the subject of an experiment is belied by the offhand way his German captors treat him. To compensate for the hopelessness of their predicaments, these paranoids long for a state of complete fluidity and openness. However, their impulse towards freedom is tainted both by their terror of the actual open road and their cynicism about possible escape. McMurphy, Yossarian and Pilgrim are simultaneously safe and insecure in their ‘plots’ of the Oregon Asylum, the Pianosa air-force base, and the Dresden slaughterhouse.

A second meaning of ‘plot’ is that of a secret plan or conspiracy to accomplish a criminal or illegal purpose. The protagonist of the postmodernist novel sometimes suspects that he or she is trapped at the centre of an intrigue, often with some justification. McMurphy is right to be afraid of Nurse Ratched and the Combine, who eventually force him to undergo shock treatment and an unwarranted lobotomy. Yossarian‘s parachute is stolen by Milo Minderbinder and replaced by a useless M&M Enterprises voucher. General Peckham sends Yossarian‘s squadron out on dangerous bombing missions simply to obtain decent aerial photographs for the magazines back home. Nately’s whore stabs Yossarian, in the belief that he killed her lover. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim also correctly perceives that others wish to control his welfare. His daughter commits him to a mental institution and Paul Lazzaro later kills him as a revenge for allegedly allowing Roland Weary to die.

There’s but a small step from these private apprehensions to a more distressing speculation. Perhaps the whole of the society is a plot against the citizen. What if all the major events of history are really side-shows orchestrated by unseen ringmasters for hidden motives? This is known as paranoid history. Thomas Pynchon is enthralled by the topic. Herbert Stencil in V. (1963), Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Prairie in Vineland (1990) each stumble upon subterranean schemes and cabals which threaten the rights of the individual. As Pynchon remarks in Gravity’s Rainbow, their multiplying anxieties are triggered by ‘nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation’.

The third, more mundane, meaning of plot is, of course, that of a plan of a literary work. In an interview, John Barth called this ‘the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium’. This humorous definition suggests that a plot has a particular shape: somebody is challenged, certain obstacles are overcome, a new state of affairs is reached. Plot is shape, and shape is control. Several postmodernist writers proliferate plot, as if to prove through zealous mastery that they are free of the strait jackets of control by outside forces. The best of these maximalist works are Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco, Life: A User’s Manual (1978) by Georges Perec and Letters (1979) by Barth himself.

 

 

Source: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism Edited By Stuart Sim Routledge  London and New York 2001

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