Wednesday’s Book Review: “Empire of Conspiracy”


download (3)Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. By Timothy Melley. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Americans, certainly, and perhaps all the cultures of the world, love the idea of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened. Timothy Melley makes clear in this heavily academic work that it plays to their innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear. As Melley makes clear it is the paranoid loss of agency that motivates much of this thinking. In all cases these tend to be exaggerated, expanded, and complexified with every retelling.

Melley is less concerned with the public explication of conspiracy theories than in the manifestations of this mindset in literature. He explores this in various genres and themes in contemporary American fiction. He emphasizes the place of the anonymous and seemingly all-powerful corporate entity, governmental or commercial or religious, in forming these perceptions. He has specific chapters relating to stalkers, abductions, and female paranoia; conspiracies of government and others in such areas as the Kennedy assassination of 1963; and the nature of addiction and viruses great and small.

In every case, Melley’s analysis is based on literature with frequent discussions of the work of Joseph Heller, Margaret Attwood, Diane Johnson, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. He even offers an interesting analysis of the “Unabomber’s” manifesto as an exemplar of this literature.

This is very much a work of literary criticism. It is not overly theoretical in focus, although theory informs every aspect of it. At the same time, it is not for the casual reader. There is a world of difference between this analysis and that that offered in such books as Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999) by Mark Fenster, which takes a much more historical approach to the subject. Empire of Conspiracy is good for what it attempts to be, but be aware of what that is before taking it on.

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