I think we may have come to a fork in the road where conspiracies are concerned. For many years, conspiracy fiction and conspiracy theories travelled happily together. There was a degree of synergy between the two. They interacted and kept each other in check. I grew up in the golden age of conspiracy fiction, which roughly went from, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 to Don Delillo’s Underworld in 1997. During this nearly twenty-five-year period there was balance and even a sort of harmony. Naturally, the theories came first, and the fiction, in its inimitable, maximalist way, followed, creating space, providing cover, elucidating, explaining. But in recent years things have gotten out of kilter. The conspiracy theory, as a form, has been weaponized, and it is very hard now not to question its function, and its usefulness, in fiction.
There have always been conspiracy theories, and the paranoid mindset in America is certainly not new. Jesse Walker’s 2013 book The United States of Paranoia and Kurt Andersen’s more recent Fantasyland both brilliantly chronicle the American tendency to believe the unbelieveable – from the colonial era right up to the present day. They also make it clear that what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics” is not limited to the fringes, but is, in fact, and always has been, about as mainstream as you can get.
When Hoftsadter coined his famous phrase (in a lecture delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), his point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all, that you really were being paranoid. But within ten years, by the mid-1970s, this paradigm had pretty much been turned on its head. Now, it seemed, they really were out to get you – whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late. So what happened? And why did the works of fiction that reflected this paradigm shift resonate so deeply with people – both at the time and since?
Hofstadter wrote that American politics was often “an arena for angry minds” and that “much leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority”. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the paranoid style was then, and still is today, both a mindset and a playbook, something innate, unruly, driven by demons, and at the same time something eminently exploitable, and usually by those with cynical political ends in mind. The dial on it goes up and down, but the style is always with us, and there’s always a target, or a scapegoat: the Illuminati, international bankers, Catholics, Communists, liberals, immigrants, the Deep State.
But maybe a case can be made that the 1970s were a little different. Is it really so surprising that the collective trauma sustained during Vietnam and Watergate should lead to a national mood of such unrelieved suspicion, disillusionment, and dread? It has often been said that the assassination of JFK marked a loss of innocence for America, or that at the very least it started a slow-burn process that continued with the assassinations of MLK and RFK, with the Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, Manson, the Pentagon Papers, and, eventually, the resignation of Richard Nixon. James Ellroy disagrees. He introduces his great 1995 novel American Tabloid with this bold statement: “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” He’s right, of course, and later, in an interview, he added, “America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy . . .” But he then went on to characterize the period between 1963 and 1968 as “the last gasp of pre-public accountability America”, and I think this is crucial. Ellroy calls his Underworld USA trilogy a “sewer crawl through history”, but the point is, not everyone lived in the sewers. Most people didn’t, in fact, and while Ellroy does a good job of taking the pre- out of prelapsarian, the reality is that for most Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s finding out that their presidents had lied to them was so profoundly shocking that it did constitute a sort of fall from innocence. You can argue about the nature of that innocence – maybe it was more infantile than pure – but it was undeniably there, and it took a serious beating.
Naturally enough there was some explaining to do, and a good deal of this came in the form of conspiracy thrillers, the best of which included Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), as well as Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976). In their different ways, these movies charted the gradual disempowerment of the individual in modern society and basically confirmed our worst fears: that we don’t really know what’s going on and we don’t really know who’s running things.
When J.J. Gittes is handcuffed to a car at the end of Chinatown, rendering him powerless to affect the outcome of events, a strange psychological shift occurred in American cinema and it mirrored the one going on outside in the wider world. Because here was a familiar character – a private detective, effectively an avatar for rugged American individualism – who no longer had a reliable moral compass and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.
So these conspiracies weren’t a weapon, they were a form of public accounting – and it seemed that the paranoia was justified, because with the Watergate, Church and Pike Committee hearings of the mid 70s, the curtain was finally pulled back and the fairly nefarious inner workings of both the U.S. government and its spy agencies were revealed. The novels and movies of this period were fiction, and mostly popular entertainment, but they packed a considerable punch – and not by stoking unrest or leveraging animosity, but rather by floating the modest idea that corruption and greed, however deep they go, can sometimes be exposed to the light.
The conspiracy-theory aesthetic in fiction had a pretty decent half-life, but it mutated along the way and by the late 1990s had more or less run out of steam. This was, in part, because people no longer found it shocking that those in power might be bad actors or that institutions, in the service of their own preservation, might routinely and reflexively work against the interests of individuals. In two late-stage conspiracy thrillers, Tony Gilroy’s movie Michael Clayton (2007) and Peter Temple’s novel, Truth (2008), the focus is less on the fact of corporate corruption being uncovered than on the toxic moral fallout it generates for those caught up in it.
But it was also, in part, because the conspiracy theory itself had become a devalued currency. Thanks mainly to the internet, the paranoid style was now back in force. Information overload led to a sort of heat death of what we know and understand, that point of entropy at which, if a conspiracy theorist believed one theory – chemtrails, say – they would most likely believe all of them . . . the moon landings, fluoridation, Waco, Lady Diana, the New World Order, WT7, take your pick. It was then only a short step to the situation we find ourselves in today, where conspiracy theories are customized to achieve desired political outcomes and are then injected into the news stream via social media. (This itself may sound like a conspiracy theory, but only if you’ve forgotten what an inveterate and transparent fabricator today’s Theorist-in-Chief is). No, with swiftboating, birtherism, voter fraud, anti-vaxxing, Pizzagate, crisis actors, false flags, and other so-called “truther” campaigns, the conspiracy theory has clearly been weaponized in the most cynical and partisan way.
So where does this leave conspiracy fiction? Well, pretty much in the lurch. But that’s okay, because really, we’ve moved on. It’s not that people don’t conspire anymore. We take it for granted that they do, and that they’re probably doing so on a scale previously unimagined. The new challenge is to catch them at it – to identify the truth of any given situation, to back it up with evidence, and to inoculate that evidence against the twin viruses of perception management and narrative bias. A tall order. But that’s just what lots of investigative reporters are now doing, many of them inspired to become journalists in the first place by the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. A seminal text of the paranoid style was John Stormer’s self-published bestseller None Dare Call It Treason (1964). This was followed some years later by Gary Allen and Larry Abraham’s even bigger hit None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971). Perhaps now it’s time to round off the trilogy with None Dare Call It Truth. On the fiction side, it’s a bit less clear what the exact brief is, what the label or sub-genre should be, but no one need worry. Fiction will figure that one out for itself.