AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Translated into nineteen languages and the basis of two major motion pictures, Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959) describes an American GI captured by the Chinese during the Korean War and returned to the States with his brains "not merely washed" but "dry-cleaned." (1) Unbeknownst to himself, Sergeant Raymond Shaw becomes the trigger man in a communist conspiracy--organized in China and led in the United States by his mother, Eleanor--to catapult his stepfather, Johnny Iselin, into the Oval Office. The incendiary plot touched a nerve. Greil Marcus calls the novel "simultaneously a bestseller and a cult book, casual reading for a public and the subject of hushed conversations among sophisticates: could this really happen?" It captivated George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer, who first thought of turning it into a film; Frank Sinatra, who played Shaw's commanding officer and friend, Ben Marco, and eventually bought the rights to the film; and John F. Kennedy, who read the novel and interceded at Sinatra's behest to get United Artists to distribute the film. "Who plays the mother?" the president reportedly asked. (2) What followed placed Condon's novel near the center of twentieth-century underground history: one year after the film's release Kennedy was killed by a marksman who, like Shaw, had spent time behind the iron curtain and had probably seen Frankenheimer's film (playing two blocks from his apartment) just weeks before. Supposedly wracked with guilt, Sinatra pulled the film from circulation. (3) Since then Condon's story has served as a template for countless retellings; indeed, its vision of sleeper agents infiltrating the state continues to organize the theological yearning and persecution anxiety that Richard Hofstadter named "the paranoid style" of American politics. (4)
Yet the novel's vision of this style remains in many respects unlike subsequent ones. Condon insisted that his most famous work had been misunderstood--indeed, that it had nothing to do with communism. "An audience," he explains in his 1973 autobiography, "does not know what any play, book, painting or film is about until they are told by the New York Times or their trade papers, whichever happens to get it most wrong." (5) Helping his plebeian readers get The Manchurian Candidate right, he recalls an interview in which a London reporter asked if he felt any responsibility for Kennedy's assassination. Condon replied that "along with all Americans, I had contributed to form the attitudes of the assassin by being an American, not particularly by writing the novel" and that "the assassin, and Americans like him, had contributed to the attitudes that had caused me to write the novel" (AE, 266). These "attitudes," like the nebulous agency they exerted, had little to do with hidden conspiracies:
I meant to show that when the attention of a nation is focused on violence that appears without cessation on all the pages of all the newspapers, throughout television programming, in the hundreds of millions of comic books published weekly, in motion pictures, in the impact of popular music, in popular $7 novels that are soon to become $2.50 paperbacks; when a most violent example is set by city, state and federal governments, when organized crime merges with organized business and industry, when a feeble, hypocritical set of churches do not wish to counteract any of this; and when all of this as it is day and night, is power-hosed at all of us through the most gigantically complex over-communications system ever developed to entertain folks with color tapes showing their very own sons being killed right there before their eyes each night in a real, old, no-kidding war happening out there somewhere, we must not be surprised that our people bomb little girls in a Sunday school or shoot down the President of our republic, Med-gar Evers, Senator Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Governor Wallace and a passel of Black Panthers. We can feign surprise, as we did at the murder of President Kennedy, but we are what we are taught; what we are taught and made to experience (whether vicariously or directly) is our conditioning. (AE, 267-68)
Bloodlust and corruption under every rock: by 1973 this vision was familiar, perhaps most so in its all-encompassing scope. Looking back on the wreckage of the 1960s, Condon adopted a radical posture and anointed a vast "system" the author of his novel. His words echoed those of Paul Potter, issued a year earlier, perhaps even with The Manchurian Candidate in mind. Speaking of "the price extracted from us in exchange for the right to use words," Potter lamented that "the experience of growing up [in the United States] is the experience of having the society plant something deep down inside of you, almost at the very bottom, that is not your own. Those incredible things we call our minds do not really belong to us." (6)
Condon shared and at times relished this sense of dispossession. Shaw's blankness, his receptivity to an agency not his own, encapsulates Condon's conception of both the liabilities and the attractions of novel writing. "I am suspicious," he announces, "of the term 'free will'" (AE, 8), particularly in the context of the novelist's "right to use words." Tellingly, this term sheds light on why comic books, popular music, and mass-produced paperbacks find their way onto the list of ills that The Manchurian Candidate means to expose. For like his central character, Condon felt victimized by the popular, compelled by a tawdry commercialism that he could not refrain from exploiting. A "frosty Brahmin" (MC, 26) who would not be caught dead reading comics or cheap paperbacks, Shaw disdains the commercial so viscerally that he avoids holding money in his hands--the same hands that will kill at another's command. But money does hold him, mesmerized and helpless. We can therefore only imagine his revulsion when, with murderous intent, he stalks the fictional corridors of the 1960 Republican convention:
Hotels were festooned with bunting. Distillers had provided all saloons with printed partisan displays, the backs of which carried the same message in the name of the other party, whose convention would follow in three weeks.... A delegate was arrested, but not prosecuted, for wrestling with a live crocodile in Duffy Square to call attention to the courage of a Florida candidate for the vice-presidency. The world's largest campaign button was worn by a bevy of lovely young "apple farmers" from the Pacific Northwest, although their candidate came from Missouri (he happened to be in the apple business). (289)
The convention matches Daniel Bell's description of the democratic process as "some huge bazaar, with hundreds of hucksters clamoring for attention." (7) As the frenzy of activity begins to suggest, The Manchurian Candidate floats adrift on the business of politics. Condon's autobiography makes plain that he shared both Shaw's elitism and his passivity, even as he firmly believed himself one of the hucksters; he knew full well that his novel's potboiler plotting and scare tactics exploited the very tendencies it lampooned: hardly surprising for a book whose cover declares it "one of the greatest thrillers of all time." "Sensationalism," the novel declares, "is not only desirable, but politically essential" (42). Condon held it equally essential to write popular $2.50 paperbacks. "I chose the tour de force form" for The Manchurian Candidate, he explains, "as I had been conditioned to do in successful merchandising" (AE, 201). Successful he was: before becoming a novelist, Condon had hawked product for twenty-two years as a top-flight Hollywood publicist.
Merchandising the political novel required writing "printed partisan displays" that might be, as it were, flipped over and made available to "the other party." Condon's systemic account of societal malaise proved congenial to this endeavor; condemning the entire system, he avoided choosing sides within it. He had already made his choice, having left United Artists in 1958 with the goal of becoming "very, very rich ... in a position to be surrounded by appliances and servicemen" (AE, 150). That goal seemed to mean forgoing more properly literary ambitions: "Any designation of an author's work as art, either by himself (shyly) or by his peers, is merely the kiss of a wish. People buy novels to be entertained, to be taken out of their own lives for a few hours, not to purchase the awe of the ages that will follow" (153). But Condon wanted that awe, so he claims on the very next page that, though it primarily provides popular entertainment, "the novel is the most sophisticated, complex and rewarding form of art" (154). Our only serious commentary on The Manchurian Candidate keys into something like this knowing, ironic fusion of capital acquisition and deferred literary value. Louis Menand describes Condon's novel as "a thriller teetering on the edge of camp." It "may be pulp," he concedes, "but it is very tony pulp. It is a man in Tartan tuxedo, chicken a la [sic] king with shaved truffles, a signed LeRoy Neiman. It's Mickey Spillane with an MFA." (8)
Understanding these gaudy concatenations requires understanding Condon's considerable interest in The Great Gatsby, on the one hand, and the racially charged world of the 1950s hipster, on the other. Shaw is Condon's deracinated Gatsby, returned from war not a romantic visionary but an automated drone. Yet the ostensibly Chinese conditioning that controls both Marco and Shaw completes more than it repudiates Gatsby's failed bid to buy and style his way into a restricted elite. Conditioning condenses Gatsby's lifelong effort to pass and renders it indistinguishable from the hipster's emulation of ready-made exotic culture. Condon uses Manchuria less as the seat of Red power than as the home of an ancient Zen Buddhism, then inspiring the Beats. Zen serves Condon much as it did Jack Kerouac: as a tool with which to reinvent "a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume." (9) Thus The Manchurian Candidate's thinly imagined Cold War politics obscures not only the reconciliation of serious literary ambition and cynical hackwork but the hipster's crucial function in conflating these political and professional registers. Beyond sharing an enemy in Red China, the aristocratic Shaw and the plebeian Marco share a Beat culture committed to conjoining the elite and the popular in and through an appreciative embrace of the foreign. In this respect, Beat culture is not only a hidden subject in The Manchurian Candidate but also constitutive of how Condon understands his own reconciliation of trenchant critique and shameless pandering, of literary distinction and mass-market savvy. The Beats, he reasoned, had reconciled modernism's high cultural elan with its commitment to ethnic authenticity and had done so with spectacular commercial success. Wedding Fitzgerald to the Beats, Condon aimed to do the same.
The Narcotic State
Only recently had American authors begun to seek commercial success by decrying WASP hegemony. But by the late 1950s this stance had become a characteristic gesture, which Condon made repeatedly. As his novel Some Angry Angel (1960) puts it, seeming "Anglo-Saxon ... is the sharpest edge in this country that boasts of being a melting pot." (10) This is equally true in The Manchurian Candidate, where the fanatical Eleanor Shaw feels a greater allegiance to her endogamous Nordic family than to the Red Chinese. Thus Condon could insist that his novel was about an "all-American brainwashing" (AE, 267) that had nothing to do with communists. He argued, in fact, that "words such as communism [and] fascism" were part of the "schizoid" fantasy that priggish Americans had invented to distract themselves from the cold realities of domestic life (166). For Condon, these realities involved the wedding of Protestant big business and Catholic underworld that had been first consummated in Prohibition. "America died in the corner saloon in 1921," he wrote,
slumped behind the last free lunch of a culture that expanded into Prohibition, which shortened the glory of the nation by three hundred years. The cities of America, their governments and their cultures are the hell that followed that death. America's damnation is, in soundest theological essence, its loss of innocence, an evanescence sold to the highest bidder, in this case a consortium that bought the churches, which forced the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.... The financing consortium, always the inner …