the paranoid style in American literature

One of the reasons I enjoy crime fiction as a genre is that it serves as a mirror of our times through exploring the things that frighten us. These are not, of course, always the things we should be worried about, but it’s still interesting to know what gets our attention. I like to ponder what’s going on in society from a safe distance, and the crime fiction I enjoy most helps me figure difficult things out while also telling entertaining stories about people who I come to care about. George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, David Corbett, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis – they write these kinds of stories. There’s also the satisfaction of resolution. Not all crime stories have happy endings, but they do have endings, unlike most social problems. Some readers prefer to avoid stories “ripped from the headlines” – if they want news, they’ll pick up a newspaper, thanks all the same – but instead seek The Circleout stories about good and evil in more enduring (or even mythic) forms, without a lot of moral ambiguity. Bad guys do bad things, but good guys can show us how we wish we could be.

Whether you see the genre as a place where social issues get a workout or as a (for the most part) reassuring morality play, or even, in the case of noir, a stylish slalom toward a nasty end, fear is one of its pleasures. We get a kick out of being anxious: what will happen next? Wow, I didn’t see that coming! How will the hero get out of this scrape? No, really, you shouldn’t go down to the basement in your nightie to investigate that noise, bad idea, really bad idea. Fear is the crankshaft of the narrative.

But that’s not just a quality of mysteries. For whatever reason, I chose something other than crime fiction last month to crank my fear. I read The Circle, Dave Egger’s new dystopia about what our socially networked, data-mined world could look like if we aren’t careful, and two young adult books by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother and Homeland, which tackle technology and surveillance from another angle. They got me thinking about a lot of things, including the difference between calling out a warning and doing something about it, or perhaps a difference in genres – one of these dystopian worlds is not like the other.

Thinking about these books, I was moved to read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, published in Harper’s back in November of 1964, reflecting on political rhetoric leading up to the 1964 election which at the time was associated with a far-right minority but which, he pointed out, could also be also found in late-19th-century populist rhetoric and by anti-Catholics of the mid-19th century. This paranoid style is a kind of story-telling that pulls together disparate things into evidence of a vast conspiracy of which only the minority is aware. It thrives on ethnic, religious, and class conflict and is particularly likely to flourish when a group of people feel shut out of the political process. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions,” he writes, “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” Being shut out of the system is a feeling familiar to members of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And, let’s be real: in an era when those elected to office spend most of their time raising money for the next election, which will cost millions, hardly any of us feel truly enfranchised. In these situations, it’s weirdly comforting to find a narrative that explores what’s going on and which suggests good guys are those who see what others don’t, who are fighting to preserve something enduring that is threatened. They can also tell us what we have to lose.

That partly explains the pleasure I took in reading these three books. In The Circle, Dave Eggers gives us a story about a very recognizable near-future in which a Silicon Valley powerhouse (a cross between Google and Facebook) offers a worker’s paradise to a young, desperate woman who needs a job and who wants to help her parents, who are frazzled over medical bills they can’t pay. A friend gets her a position in everyone’s dream company, where all the cool kids work, where the perks are amazing. She’s grateful for the job and willing to work gruelling hours in what amounts to a tech sweatshop, one that expects here to keep up with an unendingly increasing workload, her performance constantly measured, her private life never private, never off the clock. She also is seduced by the company’s benevolent desire to make everything transparent, every thought shared, every impulse metered and tallied for the good of society. It’s a disturbing, funny, all-too-recognizable near future that extrapolates the way we live now into a society that is controlled by those who want to have ALL the data.

I wonder how Eggers felt about Edward Snowden’s bombshell – that everything we give to Google (and pretty much everything we share with other technology corporations, including where we go and who we communicate with) is rendered unto Caesar just in case the state decides it needs to investigate us. It’s like Google and Facebook and every other data-sucking tech company bureaucratized and made monolithic, incredibly arrogant in its ambition to have every piece of data captured and programs that can mine it in a variety of ways. In Egger’s dystopian vision the corporation essentially takes over the role of the state, but as things have unfolded since he turned his manuscript in, the state has embraced everything tech companies collect and, if thwarted, simply taps directly into the arteries of the Internet to suck out everything it wants – which seems to be everything. The NSA embraces the logic that infected the Internet – providing platforms for sharing that seem free but are actually fed by constant micropayments of personal information which can be aggregated, mined, used and sold – in order to know everything about anyone. It also can use these algorithms to predict, like targeted advertising’s evil twin, who might be a threat and should be stopped in advance of a crime. (This is a variation of an FBI practice of coaxing naive and gullible people into terrorist plots that they can foil.) I found Egger’s vision of a society that reduces itself to the insecure infantilism of middle school as a way of life incredibly disturbing, but what we’re learning about how all that personal information is being used by the state is far more worrying.

A lot of readers and critics have  faulted the book for being propaganda, treating social media with a lack of nuance, having shallow characters who are hard to sympathize with, and particularly for using as its primary narrator a young woman who not only doesn’t grow, but gets less and less reflective as time goes on. The other characters don’t get to provide much ballast, either, but it’s a cautionary tale rather than a realistic or novel or character study. And this is a deliberate choice. In terms of narrative arc, it’s backward – instead of self-discovery, we start with a naive narrator who like kayaking in the dark and is eager to join the culture of her workplace, but as she does that Eggers begins erasing the lines, making her less and less distinct, less a person with her own identity. The Circle will do that to you, he seems to be saying. His vision of the future is not optimistic.

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s two novels deal with surveillance in the context of post-9/11 America, but in a way that is equally disturbing but oddly much more enheartening. In Little Brother, he imagines how the state would react to terrorist attack on San Francisco and sees it through the eyes of a teenager who understands better than the adults around him what we have to lose when we give up privacy. He also has the tech skills to set up an alternative to the Internet using linked Xbox consoles, create a way to jam the GPS signals being used to track people’s movements, and launch a youthful resistance movement.

The power of the state is vast and blind. The narrator is picked up for no discernible reason, tortured, and scared out of his wits. He’s been issued a gag order, so can’t tell his parents what has happened to him. He’s impassioned, playful, absolutely sure of the importance of privacy and the Bill of Rights – but also frightened and traumatized. Overcoming his own terror (something all of his friends have to negotiate for themselves) is nicely depicted (and probably necessary, as without these moments of sheer terror and self-doubt, he might be a talented, overconfident and obnoxiously self-congratulatory geek). Homeland takes the story further. The fight isn’t over. The economy has collapsed. College is out of reach and debt is crippling young people before they start their lives. Our young hero gets a tech job for the campaign of an independent candidate he believes in, but he faces an ethical dilemma when he is given a trove of extraordinary documents about one of the contractors who detained and extracted confessions from teens during the events of the first book. The young woman who gave it to him asked him to release it if she is captured. When she is, he needs to weigh his own safety, the future of his promising candidate, and the need to get the truth out. It’s compelling stuff, and full of though-provoking dilemmas as well as high-tech adventure and a dash of YA romance, the kind that is as much about discovering one’s identity as it is about love.

These are not subtle books, and they don’t go out of their way to accommodate opinions that the authors don’t share. Eggers paints a frighteningly possible extension of the way we live now, and it’s a bleak place. Doctorow offers a dystopian take on our present political and legal situation and a spirited call to activism. Unlike Egger’s critique of our tech-saturated lives, in Doctorow’s world technology can be used for oppression, but also can be the hand-tools for building liberation. It’s an empowering, geeky, fun vision about how ordinary people can stand up to totalitarian impulses.


I do worry a bit when I read this kind of story about Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s so satisfying to see patterns in what otherwise seems disordered, to attach a narrative complete with good guys and bad guys to a series of troubling events. Eggers addresses this problem by making us think. Isn’t transparency in government a good thing? Isn’t sharing valuable? I found the book most interesting when it engaged my critical faculties, not just my already pretty well-established anxiety about the collection of personal information as a business model and my reservations about making ourselves into brands, always anxious for more attention. Doctorow’s books don’t hold back on the fear factor – the bad guys are really bad, and really powerful – but he adds enough food for thought to make it interesting. His hero is on a journey to becoming an activist, but he has to keep overcoming obstacles. What’s the moral thing to do when there’s no obvious right path? What if something you do hurts someone you care about? How can you avoid the trap of making your activism an ego-trip? Where do you get your courage?

These three books do appeal to my paranoid style of reading – but in a manner that I found both thought-provoking and entertaining.


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