Paranoia’s Pleasures

Zoë Hu
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I am a paranoid person, which, if we’re not going to be fussy about clinical definitions, means I feel a constant unreasonable fear, one ruled by no overarching logic or taxonomy. I am paranoid about my relationships and my work. I am paranoid about rising sea levels, air pollutants, tap water, dark parking lots, and the back seat of my car. I am paranoid about whether I’ve locked the door—really, properly locked the door. I experience frequent bouts of paranoia in regards to the men in my life—what do they get up to when I’m not around?—as well as to many men I do not know. I realize I don’t look like the paranoid type, which is culturally coded as someone white and male, so I am also paranoid about other paranoiacs, what they make of my face and my monosyllabic last name.

In other words, I am fixated on what I must regularly confront yet cannot control. It is a very human condition, if not the human condition. Philip K. Dick once said that “the ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you.” Who has not experienced this? It is, in a basic way that has to do with subjectivity and the limits of individual free will, the premise of existence, its inaugural bad deal. We wake up each day to find our environments aligned against us; whatever lies outside our bodies’ jurisdiction is evidence of the world’s ongoing disregard for our inner wishes and designs. We cannot assert our will on life, or move the furniture with our minds; we can only feel unease about the baroque and bewildering prearrangements of both. Why are things like this? And: Who put that chair there?

As Dick noted, everyone recognizes at some point that “objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own.” Paranoia turns this recognition into enmity, soaking the world in malignant animism, turning all the tables—literal and figurative—against us. This is what Thomas Pynchon acknowledges in the opening of his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49, a staple of paranoiac literature. Protagonist Oedipa Maas, a reasonably prosperous housewife who lives among all the comforts of Californian suburbia, has a dark thought about a deceased ex-boyfriend. She’s alone in her house, and the thought makes her laugh out loud: “You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.” 

The claustrophobia of “the room that knows” might connect Oedipa to her forebears, the mad wives and mistresses of Gothic fiction, but her paranoia is a product of her political moment—the social collapse of postwar California. It emerges when she’s asked to execute the will of Pierce Inverarity, the aforementioned ex-boyfriend (her dark thought was about his death; it was indeed pretty funny). Because Pierce was a rich and evil man with hearty investments in California’s defense industry, his accumulated estate is considerable. Sifting through it requires Oedipa to take a ranging tour of 1960s California, where she meets the state’s preeminent outcasts and kooks: John Birchers, retired anarchists, a suicidal playwright—all the people stuck, wriggling, to the underside of the rock of respectable society. The novel’s atmosphere strikes the dreamy balance between eccentricity and artifice peculiar to the West Coast. The college campuses heave with youthful radicalism, while the gay bars of San Francisco suffer, even then, from busloads of out-of-towners looking for some pre-authenticated thrills. Traveling through these circles, Oedipa learns of a secret, privatized postal service called WASTE; like a dream or an algorithm, her world auto-populates with symbols and messages in a “malignant, deliberate replication.” 

Oedipa is one of the few well-known paranoiacs of literature who is also a woman, and for her, WASTE is not merely an abstract conundrum. Her apophenia begins and ends at the personal terminus of her ex-lover. Every sign of or clue about the network’s existence is connected to Pierce Inverarity, to an industry or investment he once touched. Did Inverarity concoct WASTE to torment Oedipa, as “some grandiose practical joke” from beyond the grave? Paranoia, here, leads not to the government or the World Bank but back to Pierce’s bed. It bears the still-warm imprint of a single human body, which makes it all the more terrifying.

If we’re tempted to say that Oedipa represents a female brand of paranoia, that’s only to emphasize that hers is actually a realistic version of the condition. American culture so often construes paranoia as an intellectual—and thus masculine—problem, rather than an emotional one. The truth is that it’s both. Rather than the dry thought exercises we associate with male conspiracy theorists, Pynchon gives us, in Oedipa, a view of what true paranoia is: a gut response to society’s collapse, to the deadening force of American capitalism—a way, maybe, of thrashing about in one’s loneliness and alienation. Knowledge under paranoia takes on emotional dimensions: it feels bad; it feels addictive. This becomes especially true for paranoiacs who aren’t white men, because for them, conspiracies—if you define a conspiracy as “the targeted wielding of systemic violence by the powerful against the powerless”—are often real, which makes unraveling them all the more imperative. What does it feel like to be constantly educating yourself about your own precarity, your own proximity to violence and death? 

The theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once wrote that the paranoiac has a facile “faith in exposure”—a belief that revealing the contours of a vast regime of cruelty is the same thing as eradicating it. Non-white and non-male paranoiacs know it’s not that easy. Knowledge can save or kill us; sometimes, over the long slog of trying to outwit a murderous system, it’ll do both. The only way to survive is by seeking out other people who know this truth, and to find solidarity in the shared condition of knowing, intimately, all the problems but none of the solutions. 

This is what Oedipa does. Her paranoia pushes her not inward but outward, into America’s tattered public sphere, into whatever social life is possible in a jealously individualistic country. Maybe Oedipa is susceptible to paranoia because of this individualism—its isolating and suburban rhythms—but the sickness, in its full bloom, starts looking like salvation. In searching for and hoarding information, Oedipa swings from one conversation to another; she rides municipal buses all night, talks to strangers in cafés. She meets a drunken sailor and, finding herself “overcome all at once by a need to touch him,” puts him to bed. These small acts of generosity are what remain when the answers don’t come. Paranoia presents an excuse to delve into the social: the people Oedipa speaks to are also suspicious and insane, but they still speak to one another. WASTE, which is ultimately a communications network, could be a ruse. But that network—and, by implication, Oedipa’s search for it—could also be “a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know.” 

Paranoia can be maddening, but it’s marked by a compulsive connectivity between people and ideas. This is what makes both paranoia and its representation pleasurable to experience. In the case of Lot 49, there is an agglutinative logic to the prose. Among the people Oedipa meets is, for example, “an aging night-watchman, nibbling at a bar of Ivory Soap, who had trained his virtuoso stomach to accept also lotions, air-fresheners, fabrics, tobaccos and waxes in a hopeless attempt to assimilate it all, all the promise, productivity, betrayal, ulcers, before it was too late.” Who can argue with a “virtuoso stomach”? Because the paranoiac is sick, everything they encounter is estranged and unfamiliar, and thus beautiful. A broken mirror, in Pynchon, is a “silvery, reticulated bloom of glass”; the streets of subdivisions are no longer boring municipal designs but “rakings in the sand of a Japanese garden.” Pynchon’s adjectives and adverbs are startling; he defamiliarizes the commonplace, making it hyperbolic, anthropomorphic, or just plain weird. 

Oedipa’s wanderings distinguish her from the female protagonists of much of today’s literary fiction, who confront similar social doldrums but take “exitlessness” as a foregone conclusion. These are characters realized by writers such as Ottessa Moshfegh, Sally Rooney, or even Margaret Atwood, in an early novel like Surfacing. Critic Jess Bergman describes them as “remote avatars of contemporary malaise”—lonely, often white women, who move against a backdrop of alienation and anomie. Sometimes a reader can make out, in this backdrop, signs of more acute political crises—small bumps suggesting a shape behind the cloth. Yet this type of narration rarely names the causes of its disaffection. Unlike Lot 49, these books are not paranoid, so they’re not interested in making connections. Bergman calls this “denuded realism”—the protagonists feel no fear because, benumbed and catatonic, they feel very little in general. 

I think often about this discrepancy, though I know a comparison across gender and a nearly six-decade interlude may be unfair. Oedipa is a self-professed Young Republican, and still I prefer her and her paranoia to the narrative dispatches that issue from my own contemporary demographic. Paranoia is an emotion that the mind retrospectively rationalizes as a thought, which is why it’s so dangerous. But Oedipa’s mashed-up gut-to-brain interface is still an attachment to the world—it is, in fact, a problem of overattachment. “This is America,” she tries to tell herself, “you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl.” But she cannot. Oedipa must find out more, because she is a glutton for signification. She wants to see in every chalk drawing and bathroom graffito a call from Elsewhere, a higher and better meaning. I do, too. 

Compare Pynchon’s writing to a line from Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation: “I took a cab home, filled the new prescriptions and refilled the old ones at Rite Aid, bought a pack of Skittles, and went home and ate the Skittles and a few leftover primidone and went back to sleep.” This style of denuded realism, in its emotional monotone and flattened prose, feels so distant from Pynchon’s approach to the world. (It feels distant from everything.) Though its narrators are not paranoid, they still scare the shit out of me because they evince the possibility that we have, as Fredric Jameson once put it, “given up on the attempt to ‘estrange’ our daily life and see it in new, poetic or nightmarish, ways.” Or, in short: “We have abandoned the quest for new languages.” 

Denuded realist prose has the tone and assumed transparency of an unedited internal monologue; it rarely defamiliarizes the world. Is it a coincidence, then, that this is also a literature of complete social and interpersonal isolation? I wager it is not. I cannot prove causality, but I sense a conspiracy, a sinister link at work between the political and the aesthetic. A lack of new languages is not just a stylistic crisis; abandoning the pursuit of it, as so much of this contemporary work seems to have done, renders one both immune to pleasure and mute in the face of one’s enemies. Lot 49, meanwhile, presents a mutant assemblage of descriptors, slang, idioms twisted like ugly metals. It suggests that paranoia is fundamentally social—a call to personal connection that is always botched but necessary.

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