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Reading and Composition
In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter identifies the distinguishing feature of a conspiracy theory not in “the absence of verifiable facts,” but rather in the “curious leap in imagination…from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” This course is about how conspiracy fiction reverses this process, imaginatively leaping from the unbelievable to the undeniable.
We will be less concerned with determining the validity of the plentiful conspiracy theories in circulation than examining how they work narratively. What kinds of techniques do conspiracy fictions use, how does information get withheld and transmitted, and how do we describe the experience of reading them? We will begin with selections from Paradise Lost, making the acquaintance of Milton’s Archconspirator Lucifer. From there we’ll enter the realm of mortal scheming: Machiavellian plotting in Richard III, the extended juridical nightmare of Kafka’s The Trial, a World War II spy network in Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, and a playfully ominous history of the postal system in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The texts come at conspiracy fiction from different angles – tragic, epic, allegorical, realistic, stylized, parodic – so following this particular thread will also provide a broad survey of literary form.
Though conspiracy tends towards opacity, the aim of this course is to avoid it at all cost in your writing. Writing assignments will build up from a series of shorter exercises and culminate in a longer research project.