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The Systems Novel: Cybernetics, Systems Theory, Paranoia, and Conspiracy in Pynchon and DeLillo – Longform Excerpt

By Cedar MacDonald You

To read a text is to be engaged in a system. To make sense of a text, a reader must be able to connect a network of various points which form a whole greater than the sum of its parts to form meaning. There is not just one system involved in reading: there is the system of letters forming words, the system of words forming sentences, sentences forming chapters and plots, and so forth. The reader is also a part of the system, for they must know the words, sounds, and rules of grammar in order to interpret the meaning of the larger system through understanding the constituent parts that comprise it, whether that larger system be a sentence or a novel. In this way, every novel ever written can be thought of as a sort of system. This paper focuses on three novels that are aware of their own systemic qualities: The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, and Libra by Don DeLillo. These three novels are examples the “systems novel,” a loosely configured genre in postwar American fiction.

The systems novel is not only concerned with systems of language, but a multitude of systems found everywhere: systems of control, economic systems, communication systems, biological systems, military systems, social systems, systems of physics, information systems, political systems, and cybernetics. Tom LeClair, who coined the term “systems novelist” (xii) to refer to the works of Pynchon and DeLillo, as well as William Gaddis and Robert Coover, links the novels explicitly with systems theory and cybernetics. LeClair, writing specifically about DeLillo but with an eye on the systems novel generally, argues that its “orientation toward the world, as well as toward fiction, is influenced by and parallels the ideas of “systems theory,” a contemporary scientific paradigm that concentrates on the reciprocal—looping—communications of ecological systems (including man)” (xi). Cybernetics and systems theories are ways of understanding how systems operate as systems, rather than as the individual nodes which comprise those systems. They are theories of systems in general, and they can be applied to disparate fields, so long as they are understood in terms of their systemic structure. The systems novelists think in these terms; they consider the emergent properties of the system as a whole—the things that make a system greater than the sum of its parts. 

At the most basic level, systems are “complexes of elements standing in interaction” (Von Bertalanffy, General System Theory; Foundations, Development, Applications 33). According to this definition, a system is an organizational architecture for understanding connected elements and their gestalt qualities. A system is made up of constituent parts that are connected, in some way, shape, or form, to create a larger unit of organization. This larger, more complex unit of analysis allows those who study the system a better understanding of its structure, function, and emergent properties that would not be easily understood if the constituent parts were examined in isolation. This notion of system is, of course, a very broad definition. A system, depending on the units that one analyses, can be anything from a grouping of molecules arranged in such a way that they form a cell, or a grouping of cells arranged in such a way that they form a person, or a grouping of people arranged in such a way that they form a society. Almost everything can be thought of as a system in one form or another, but the study of systems seeks to analyze the structure of such a grouping and to come away with general principles and notions that can be applied to different types of systems. 

This essay draws a connecting line from systems of communication and paranoia in The Crying of Lot 49, to totalizing military control systems and cybernetic systems in Gravity’s Rainbow, and finally to systems of conspiracy and history in Libra. I will argue that throughout these novels systems create their own logics and structures of control, new ontologies and modes of existing in the world. I will show, in The Crying of Lot 49, how communications become more real than real, or hyperreal. This hyperreality breeds a crisis of interpretation, the result being a supreme paranoia: everything seems a representation of the system, and so the system must be everywhere, all controlling, all powerful. In Gravity’s Rainbow, these systems truly become all powerful, all-encompassing world systems. Vast industrial systems, military systems, and political systems seem to cover the globe and control every aspect of life. The paranoia about systems becomes even more pronounced, and the paranoid “They” becomes a pronoun that refers not to a person, but to systems. Finally, in Libra, history, reality, and conspiracy theory all merge, and all become the product of various unreliable systems of reconstruction. The paranoia of the previous two novels seems justified, as the novel portrays a true systemic conspiracy. The structural elements of the global system that rarely appear on the surface become visible through the deep political event of the JFK assassination, a historical anomaly that suggests something deeper, but that remains tantalizingly opaque. These systems novels are self-aware of the systems that they depict and participate in, and so we must read—almost conspiratorially—for the systems in the systems novels.

Systems and Paranoia in The Crying of Lot 49

The America that Pynchon depicts in The Crying of Lot 49 is little more than a series of complex, interlocking systems. They are legal systems, systems of communication and control, transportation and logistics, meaning and belief, haunting and paranoia. The various systems in the novel operate in the background of the narrative action; they function as a systematic and regulated backdrop to what seems on the surface a wildly disorganized and disjunctive narrative. Systems manifest themselves as a series of loosely connected coincidences that all seem to point to some sort of massive, all-encompassing conspiracy known as “the Tristero system.” In this section, I will argue that the systems in The Crying of Lot 49 are unstable semiotic systems of representation and meaning creation that haunt Oedipa. These systems constitute a simulacrum: they become signifiers without signified, communications without meaning. The instability of meaning in communication, and the haunting quality of these systems breed a paranoid mode of reading—the hermeneutics of suspicion morphs into a hermeneutics of paranoia.

Primary among the overlapping systems in The Crying of Lot 49 is the legal will. The novel opens with Oedipa being named executrix of “the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who … had assets numerous enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary” (1). A legal will is a way of enacting the will of a person on others from beyond the grave. It is a rigid systemization, like a computer program that is executed when a person dies. When Oedipa is named executrix, it is as if the will as a program begins to execute, like a morbid spark that sets off a Rube Goldberg machine. While the novel never explicitly describes the contents of Pierce’s will, it does imply that the entire plot of the novel is itself the execution of it. Oedipa is experiencing a world that seems, on the surface, to consist of discrete, random events, but just behind the façade a system connects everything. When she meets with her ostensible co-executor, Metzger, he sees things on the television and constantly remarks, “Inverarity owned that too” (26). The long invisible tendrils of the Inverarity estate reach, throughout the novel, to every interaction, location, and symbol. The legal will both sets in motion the plot of the novel and remains a logical structure that connects the disparate episodes of the novel. 

A will is a both a legal and representational system. It is like a corporation, in the sense of the Latin root word corporāre, meaning “to form into a body” (OED); a will incorporates property and other people into a systematized legal entity that becomes a legal person, though that personhood is merely a legal fiction rather than a physical body. It is an incorporeal corporate person. A will also works like a semiotic sign. That is, it signifies and represents a thing that it is not, namely a person. A dead person’s will is a representation of a thing that no longer exists, and so the thing that was represented only exists insofar as the representation of it. The will becomes a person distilled into a system. This is reminiscent of Hobbesian personation, where “a person, is the same that an actor is… and to personate, is to act or represent himself or another” (Hobbes and Gaskin 106-07). Pierce becomes a sort of Hobbesian artificial person who is represented by Oedipa. She is the Hobbesian actor, whose “words and actions [are] owned by those whom they represent” (107), and Pierce is the author, who “owneth his words and actions” (107). The problem is that Pierce no longer exists; he dies before the novel begins. Oedipa is a representative who does not represent anything. Pierce is a person who exists only through remnants, systems, and other people, in other words a personation with no person or a corporation with no corpus

In The Crying of Lot 49, the representational and semiotic order is inverted. The personation of Pierce is not created by him; rather, it creates him. Jean Baudrillard opens his book Simulation and Simulacra with reference to the “Borges fable” (Baudrillard 1) titled “On Exactitude in Science,” where cartographers create “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” (Borges and Hurley 160). For Baudrillard the map in this fable illustrates what a simulation is and helps distinguish simulation from simulacra: 

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts. (Baudrillard 1)

The map becomes more real than reality, and the simulation loses what it originally simulated to become a simulacrum. Reality itself begins to decay and is replaced by this self-perpetuating simulacrum. 

Pierce is a Baudrillardian simulacrum of a person. There seems to be no “real” Pierce, outside of fictions, representations, and symbols. No information about how he dies is offered, but Oedipa speculates that he might have been “crushed by the only ikon in the house,” the “whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed” (Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 1). The possibility that he was literally crushed by a bust of a Gilded Age American business magnate, described as an “Ikon,” illustrates the supremacy of the symbolic over the real. These businessmen do not exist as real people. They have no bodies, no personalities; they are abstractions, symbols, “Ikons.”  The only real description of Pierce appears when Oedipa receives a phone call, and he is no more than a disembodied voice speaking over the telephone, doing different caricatures and impressions, never speaking in his own voice (2-3). He literally has no apparent body or personality and exists in reality only through the representations of him in the form of businesses, roads and infrastructure, university endowments, collections and holdings—in short, capital. It is this representation that is hyperreal. Pierce’s capital is a map showing glimpses of what once was a real person. 

The fictional Southern California town of San Narciso is the prime example of the simulacrum of Pierce Inverarity. It is, for Oedipa, 

less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway. But it had been Pierce’s domicile, and headquarters: the place he’d begun his land speculating in ten years ago, and so put down the plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky; and that, she supposed, would set the spot apart, give it an aura. (Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 13)

It is a system of concepts, capital, and of other systems, all connected by communications and infrastructural networks. More importantly, this system of concepts and capital is a representation of Pierce. She supposes that it contains his aura, which it does insofar as it is a physical manifestation of his person in the form of capital. Near the end of the novel Mike Fallopian suggests that every inexplicable coincidence and strange occurrence to do with San Narciso and Tristero that Oedipa has been experiencing is an elaborate hoax concocted by Pierce, “maybe something Inverarity set up before he died” (138). She initially rejects this suggestion but then takes it more seriously. Looking at the list of Inverarity’s assets, she notes that “the whole shopping center that housed Zapf’s Used Books and Tremaine’s surplus place had been owned by Pierce. Not only that but the Tank Theater, also” (140). In fact, she discovers that “every access route to the Tristero could be traced back to the Inverarity estate. Even Emory Bortz … taught now at San Narciso College, heavily endowed by the dead man” (140). She has, as it turns out, been living in a simulacrum of the Pierce Inverarity estate under the will of a dead man. It is his capital, his social relations that live on, like a systematized ghost, haunting her through symbolic communication, driving her to paranoia. 

Pierce, and systems in Lot 49 more generally, are hauntological ghosts. Derrida asks “What is a ghost? What is the effectivity or the presence of a specter, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum?” (Derrida, Specters of Marx 10) and answers himself by coining the term “hauntology” (10), a portmanteau of “haunting” and “ontology”; by this term, Derrida means something that, by the nature of its being, is recursive and haunting. The Inverarity estate is exactly a hauntological specter. Derrida argues that this sort of specter “begins by coming back,” in the same way that this novel begins with Pierce coming back to haunt Oedipa. All of the systems in Lot 49 are these sorts of historical specters, they are designed to be in a constant state of sustaining themselves by constantly returning; they are self-perpetuating hauntological systems. 

The Tristero system and the system of Pierce’s will are both haunting inherited systems of communication. Oedipa is able to divine that Tristero organization was founded by one Hernando Joaquin de Tristero y Calavera, who claims to be the rightful heir to the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly and Grand Master title, and who “styled himself El Desheredado, The Disinherited” (132). Both Pierce and Tristero are the remnants of dead people still kept alive through the process of signification and representation, still communicating into the future. In a way, these systems represent ways of communing with the dead. Pierce is represented by his estate, the capital that he accumulated and the physical manifestations of his capital in the world, which take the form of businesses, towns, and various possessions. Tristero is a representation of a long dead, disinherited man, whose legacy is to reclaim his lost property, despite his inability to enjoy it. They are both ghosts of communication systems, power, and intrigue. It seems that Pierce somehow controls systems and communication in San Narciso in the same way that Tristero controlled communications in Europe. This is a supreme power: “whoever could control the lines of communication, among all these princes, would control them” (135). Communication, or the links between objects in a system, give powers of control and communication to the dead. 

These haunting systems are modes of communication and the creation of meaning. Southern California is at one point compared to a circuit board, with the “ordered swirl of houses and streets” (14) being analogous to the transistors and circuits of a radio. For Oedipa, “there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” (14). All these systems in the novel represent some sort of attempt to communicate, but the meaning is concealed behind this hieroglyph of patterns or signs. These signs and patterns are systems of communication. Language itself must be thought of as a system of hieroglyphs that conceal meaning. Language is the prerequisite system of communication that allows for the reader’s interpretation of the text. This is the language as “system of signs” (Saussure et al. 16) described in structural linguistics and semiotics.

A structural understanding of language, as pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure, posits language (langue) as a structured system of conventional signs. Language uses a system of arbitrary signs that consist of signifier and signified (the relationship of which is termed a “sign”) to form meaning through the system (Saussure et al. 67). It is, essentially, one of the hieroglyphs that Oedipa describes. A sign acquires its meaning by virtue of being different from every other sign in the language system. Later critics of Saussure, such as Derrida, contend that the system of language is not so clearly able to produce meaning. Derrida argues that a structure, by virtue of being a structure, attempts to limit “play” (Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” 352), but also that “By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form” (352). Systems or structures, due to the fact that they are organized in some way, necessarily have some kind of organizing principle, and this principle can allow for the change, or “play” of meaning within the system.

Derridean “play” creates problems of interpretation in systems of meaning. Oedipa spends much of the novel working on exegesis of the “The Courier’s Tragedy” (The Crying of Lot 49 49) and its relation to the shadowy Tristero system. The fictional puritan sect that Pynchon invents to explain changing the text of “The Courier’s Tragedy” (49), the Scurvhamites, think of “Creation” as “a vast, intricate machine” (128). Professor Emory Bortz explains to Oedipa that the Scurvhamites change the text of the play to include references to Tristero for moral reasons: “They were not fond of the theater. It was their way of putting the play entirely away from them, into hell. What better way to damn it eternally than to change the actual words. Remember that Puritans were utterly devoted, like literary critics, to the Word” (128). By shifting the meaning of the play, they create “play” in the system of language. The problems of interpretation inherent in language, the shifting of the signified under the signifier, or the instability of the text both destroy meaning and creates an opportunity for interpretation. In this sense, there is “play” in the system. 

In Lot 49 all systems of communication seem to be flawed, or at least predicated on pure belief in the possibility of interpretation. A prominent motif throughout The Crying of Lot 49 is the connection between Maxwell’s demon—a thought experiment derived from the work of James Clerk Maxwell in which an agent (the “demon”) opens and closes a gate between two closed sections that have particles moving at different speeds, only opening the gate for the faster moving ones, and letting the slower moving ones bounce off the door, thereby theoretically reducing entropy in the system, and violating the second law of thermodynamics—and the possibility of communication through information systems. 

John Nefastis, a mad Berkeley scientist, invents a literal version of Maxwell’s demon in the form of a box. He uses a metaphor of entropy to connect it to information: “entropy is a figure of speech” that “connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow” (85). It remains unclear if Nefastis’ device really works; it straddles the line between metaphor, invention, and religious belief. It can only operated by certain people called “sensitives,” to whom the demon passes his data and who “must receive that staggering set of energies, and feed back something like the same quantity of information” (84-85) in order to move a piston. Oedipa must communicate with the system, but it requires a certain level of belief, which she seems not to have. She thinks she notices the piston move, but doubts herself: “She had seen only a retinal twitch, a misfired nerve cell. Did the true sensitive see more?” (86). She decides that Nefastis is a hack and that “the true sensitive is the one that can share in the man’s hallucinations, that’s all” (86). She begins to distrust the process of communication and information flow generally.

Distrust in symbolic and abstract systems of communication drives Oedipa to become a paranoid interpreter. What I will call the hermeneutics of paranoia might be understood as an extreme form of what Paul Ricœur called the hermeneutics of suspicion. Ricœur describes the mode of reading he finds in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as the “School of Suspicion” (Ricœur and Savage 32), not meaning a philosophical skepticism, but an orientation towards the whole of historical consciousness as a “false consciousness” (33). For Ricœur these thinkers embody a hermeneutics of suspicion, or a reading of everything as not exactly what it seems: “truth as lying” (32). For example, a Marxist understands a chair as not merely a chair, but as a representation of human labour power expended on raw materials that comes together in the form of a chair. Oedipa employs this mode of reading at an extreme level with a paranoid bent. Not only is truth a lie, but everyone and everything is read as possibly conspiring against her. Reading the symbols of the haunting background systems, she begins to distrust and form a radical hermeneutics of paranoia. The town of San Narciso, her therapist, her husband, random strangers met in bars—all are possibly tied to the conspiracy behind everything. Her inability to communicate the gravity of this conspiracy drives her further into paranoia; she becomes the only one who sees everything. 

In an essay titled “Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Postmodern Paranoia,” Linda Fisher connects the hermeneutics of suspicion with a paranoid disposition: 

On the one hand, the paranoid manifests an attitude of contempt towards and mistrust of superiors and authority generally. On the other hand, this undermining of authority is answered by the paranoid’s insistence that his or her interpretation of events is the interpretation. In other words, the paranoid becomes the only acceptable authority. (Fisher 108)

Oedipa becomes the only acceptable authority on interpretation because she is unable to communicate her experiences to anyone else, and so the clues leading to the Tristero system are left solely to her to interpret. When she tries to communicate her interpretations to reaffirm or dispel them, she is rebuffed, either by sheer coincidence or by possible conspiracy. Driblette for instance, the director of the The Courier’s Tragedy who decided to add lines about Tristero, mysteriously walks into the ocean. This suspicious death is portrayed as a barrier to communication: “Driblette, she called. The signal echoing down twisted miles of brain circuitry. Driblette! But as with Maxwell’s Demon, so now. Either she could not communicate, or he did not exist” (Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49 134). No one but Oedipa seems to see evidence of the systems, or if they do, they refuse to tell her. The systems haunt her and her alone. 

Every character she tries to communicate with regarding systems becomes unreachable. Her husband, Mucho, takes too much acid and begins understanding all sound as the different frequencies that make it up. Metzger, who was never all that helpful, runs off with a sixteen-year-old. In pure desperation to communicate, Oedipa reaches out to the man from Inamorati Anonymous for a straight answer, but he only answers that “it’s too late” (146). Oedipa assumes that he means it is too late for her, when he likely means it is literally too late at night for her to be calling and hangs up. Her paranoid mode of reading becomes its own sort of interpretive system, everything seems connected to the conspiracy so everything must be read as connected to it. Her failure to communicate about the conspiracy with anyone drives her into a lonely subjectivity, where she becomes the only interpretive authority trying, alone, to make sense of the external world. 

It is very common for a paranoiac to refer to something controlling everything, some sort of cabal or person who is behind the scenes, pulling all the strings, bearing the pronoun “They.” Throughout The Crying of Lot 49, “They” is capitalized. It is supposed that the reader is familiar with who or what is being referred to, but in fact it is a paranoid placeholder, a pronoun that only refers to something nebulous. In a passage where Oedipa considers both the possibility that there exists a real conspiracy and the possibility that she is simply a paranoiac, she thinks “Either way, they’ll call it paranoia. They.” (140). The paranoid “They” does not refer to any particular group of people, but the systems of communication, control, interpretation, and capital just beyond view. The systems of meaning that determine what communication is paranoid rambling, and what is truth. “They” refers to the “Scurvhamite’s blind, automatic anti-god” as a system (136), or to “somebody up there” (17) who seems to invisibly control Oedipa’s actions. It points to a conspiracy of the inscrutable, shifting systems of communication and control that are characteristic modern life, particularly in America. The simulacrum of Pierce Inverarity, the hauntological system he leaves behind, has “no boundaries” (147); it is America itself. He “[survives] death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved” (148). The Tristero system is exactly like Pierce’s will, it is the “secular miracle of communication” (149), the invisible system that haunts and governs all. The tragedy of The Crying of Lot 49 is these conspiratorial systems might not exist, might only be the hallucinations of a paranoiac: 

Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only was [sic] she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia (150-151).

Tristero might really exist, or Pierce might really have set up a conspiracy against her, but they are nebulous, distant, and intangible. The systems can only be grasped at, groped for, but never fully understood. Communication is not stable enough. What remains is a hermeneutic interpretation that drives readers to paranoia. 

The Inverarity estate and the Tristero system are all-encompassing systems that only manifest as symbols, objects, and coincidences to haunt Oedipa. They are semiotic systems, like language itself, that operate on the basis of the so-called secular miracle—communication—and propel themselves forward autonomously, requiring constant interpretation. But these hauntological ghosts, these remnants of dead men and past eras, these systems, cannot be interpreted so easily. Their meanings shift over time, symbols change, words are replaced, and so the signs and symbols of a system lose meaning and become nothing but haunting simulacra of a real that might never have existed in the first place. The conscious subject, Oedipa, haunted by these empty systems of meaning still tries to find the lost meaning, read the meaningless symbols, and interpret them. All she finds is the systems themselves, the empty structures of the simulacra taunting her with their nebulous connections and glimpses of an underlying signified that is no longer there. Her attempt to read in a hermeneutics of suspicion—for a truth behind the lying—leads to paranoia. Finding nothing is only evidence of a conspiracy. Something, someone, “They,” must be behind all this. All these meaningless symbols and haunting systems that govern American life must have some hidden purpose, there must be some conspiracy. But really there is not. There is nothing but the systems themselves.  


In the systems novel, structure takes precedence over smaller units of narrative signification. The actual systems found in the systems novels discussed above are wide-ranging and complex. In The Crying of Lot 49 communication systems, systems of legal representation, and systems of signs and symbols form a sort of American hyperreality and foment a paranoid hermeneutics. America is depicted as a strange set of overlapping interconnected networks—a system of systems. In particular systems of communication, such as the Tristero system and the mail system connected to it, seem to form their own network of signs and symbols that constitute a hyperreality, with the underlying “real” ceasing to matter. Attempting to engage with and understand these communication systems gives rise to the paranoid reading for “They” behind all of the systems; “They” must be out there, somewhere, controlling everything. Because systems of communication and representation can be found everywhere, the individual who is subject to these systems becomes a highly paranoid reader, searching for meaning and conspiracy that seems to be controlling everything everywhere, but this paranoid reader finds only the structure—the systems of organization and communication that constitute American life. 

In Gravity’s Rainbow the paranoia about systems becomes the modus operandi of interacting with the world, because the world is comprised of systems of control. The systems of industry, military, intelligence, war, politics, science, and hermeneutic interpretation build up from cybernetic understandings of control systems and expand to cover the entire world. Everything from the individual person to the world system becomes a sort of negative feedback loop, a series of continually flowing, circular, self-regulating inputs and outputs. The novel itself functions as a cybernetic system comprised of reader and text, who, like steersman and ship, form something greater than the constituent parts. The system in Gravity’s Rainbow is also the rocket, which appears everywhere in the novel. The rocket is a metaphor for systems in general: a highly engineered, perfectly ordered system of components that serve a specific function. Like a rocket, Gravity’s Rainbow is also a highly engineered system that follows a parabolic arc. It explodes in the end, spewing its payload in every direction and simultaneously destroying itself. Gravity’s Rainbow serves as both an explication of cybernetic control systems, and a bomb dropped onto them. 

Finally, in Libra, fictional and historical systems merge and become somewhat indistinguishable. Lee Harvey Oswald becomes, through the dual action of his displacement of agency on to the system, and his own systematization via tests, evidence, and the reconstructions of history, less easily understandable as a person, but more understandable as a system of information. In this way, the historical Oswald is almost indistinguishable from the fictional one. History, conspiracy, and the individual subject are the products of systems of flawed historical data, political interest, and information and intelligence collection. Paranoia moves away from manic conspiratorialism, reading everywhere for the hidden “They” controlling everything, and towards being, very simply, the correct paradigm for assessing the deep political systems underneath the workings of the status quo. History too, becomes a sort of paranoid act. The systems that we use to reconstruct reality, evidence, connection, and biographical data are sometimes unable—as in the case of the JFK assassination—to provide a coherent picture of what really happened. The systems historical systems fail and so the mantle must be taken up in the realm of fiction, contingency, and conspiracy theory. 

In the spirit of Von Bertalanffy, I will conclude with some generally applicable theories about the systems novels: a general systems novel theory, if you will. First, the systems novel is both a depiction of systems and is itself a system. It’s general structure takes inspiration from the various systems which it depicts. Second, the systems in the systems novel foment extreme paranoia and conspiratorial thinking, because the systems seem to be totalizing in their ability to control; they seem to form naturally, according to their own logics, and move towards their own ends. And finally, every novel is a novel of systems, but the systems novel is the one which is aware of it.

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