Credibility is a writer’s greatest asset. To the journalist or scholar, the concept is axiomatic: in these fields, the practitioner who hopes to build and maintain an intelligent readership relies on honest interpretation of available information. Readers will follow the most tortuous path the essayist can cut through the most commonplace or arcane of topics, so long as the research is extensive or the effort the product of genuine obsession. The poet is permitted, sometimes even encouraged, to wield utter lunacy, provided that the usage expresses something true. But the moment the writer lets slip the slightest hint of insincerity or subterfuge, their spell dissipates. Once gone, the aura is difficult to reconjure. An unpracticed attempt at a new form, a step in an unexpected political direction, or the slightest inkling of bad taste may be transgression enough to upset the order that has enabled the writer to be read. Even the hack, whose work this world seems designed to reward, must take care not to disturb the conditions and formulae that have led to their success.
When an acclaimed author steps deliberately onto unsteady stylistic and thematic ground, the decision is therefore significant. One has at least to entertain the notion that the author has taken such a risk for good reason, for they are surely aware that the very reputation that affords the possibility of being taken seriously is the same one that stands to be diminished if the outlying work is not accepted.
The novelist Gloria Naylor took this chance in 2005, when she published a half-memoir, half-fiction “novel” called 1996 about her experience of being surveilled by what she concluded must have been the National Security Agency. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, she had been celebrated as one of U.S. literature’s most exciting new talents. Her debut, The Women of Brewster Place, won the 1983 National Book Award in the First Novel category; she was awarded a 1985 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; and she was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1988. In 1989, ABC aired a miniseries version of The Women of Brewster place, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions and starred Winfrey herself. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. co-edited a 1993 book of essays and reviews about Naylor’s work, in whose preface he wrote that “perhaps no author has been more immersed in the formal history of [the Black literary] tradition than Gloria Naylor,” and compared her writing to that of Ann Petry, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison.1Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Preface,” Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, (New York: Amistad, 1993), ix.
Naylor’s novels are dense narrative patchworks that often resemble short-story collections more than normative chronicles of individuated protagonists. They disclose tales of society’s downtrodden: a former child prostitute who once widowed is forced to return to the streets to make enough money to save her house; a battered boarding-house manager who lets rooms only to people she trusts; a repressed lesbian who immediately after being raped by a local drug dealer mistakenly retaliates against a friend who comes to her aid, killing him. Characters who may never meet or interact, but who are socially linked by their lives spent on the same street or their haunting of the same cafe, provide contrast and context for one another. The piecemeal style makes for unhurried storytelling, wherein diligently told character histories take precedence over the action at hand. In this way, larger plot progression is often only hinted at, with the onus on the reader to find the threads connecting accounts about disparate characters.
In 1996, these formal qualities are nowhere to be found, and at the book’s outset it seems as though Naylor has replaced them with a rather conventional memoir structure. After a brief aside stating her reluctance to tell the story at hand, she provides her own character background in a plainly voiced first-person account. Her parents had been sharecroppers on a cotton farm and moved from Mississippi to New York City one month before her birth. She tells of her upbringing in the city, time spent preaching in the South as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, entry into college at Medgar Evers in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, and writing The Women of Brewster Place in her junior and senior years while working night shifts as a switchboard operator in various Manhattan hotels. She enjoys great success as a novelist, and is finally able to realize her dream of owning a small vacation home on St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of southern South Carolina. A dash through forty-five years of her life appears to build up to a dispute with her neighbor there. The story then lurches away from the island to the Fort Meade, Maryland office of the Assistant Deputy Director of the NSA. “Dick Simon is not having a good day. He spent the morning in a Senate Intelligence Committee closed session for a hearing on the latest budget proposal by his office in the National Security Agency.”2Gloria Naylor, 1996, (Chicago: Third World Press, 2005), 15.
The turn away from Naylor’s personal narrative indicates that Dick Simon is the first fictional character to be mentioned in the story. He is the brother of Naylor’s neighbor Eunice, whose multiple outdoor cats have been digging up Naylor’s fastidiously tended garden, and who has not responded kindly to requests that she control them. When the author discovers a tree-rat infestation in her attic, the exterminator who comes to treat the problem asks Naylor if she has any pets that would prevent him from spraying underneath the house. Naylor answers no, perhaps knowingly and out of frustration with her neighbor’s spleen, and a beloved cat winds up dead as a result.
Dick resents his sister’s life on the island, which he sees as her due for the moral failing of not going to law school. He dreads hearing from her because she only calls to complain or to request a favor, and on the day that Dick’s part of the story picks up, the Naylor situation warrants both. He listens to and dismisses her story, and Eunice then decides to see if local law enforcement will take up her cause. She tells the town’s Deputy Sheriff that she has seen suspicious activity at Naylor’s house, and that she suspects a drug operation. After a cursory investigation, he decides that it is unlikely that a Black woman would own a vacation home, and that the drug-dealing explanation is plausible. Lacking the resources for his office to do much about the matter, he puts in a word with the DEA. Then comes another shift back to Naylor’s perspective: “At first I didn’t notice anything unusual. January was a peaceful month for me.”
After a few of these oscillations, the significance of the book’s unusual format becomes clear. The first-person accounts are what Naylor remembers and knows to be true. The third-person views into the minds and offices of various officials are obviously fiction, but they are also a cohesive series of events that allow her to make sense of the intrusions on her home and sanity that intensify over the course of the book. The bifurcated approach makes it possible for Naylor to recount an experience so disturbing that it cannot be kept private, as well as to provide framing that’s backed up by the high level of research-based characterization that her readers had come to expect from her. It’s a brilliant strategy, yes, but it is also manifestly necessary.
The rather severe limitation of this mechanism is that it essentially made 1996 unmarketable. This quality is observable in the jacket copy of the book’s first edition, which amounts to an exhortation by Third World Press that whoever picks it up should not look askance at the rest of their catalog simply because it includes a neurotic and paranoid work by a once-great writer. There is a noncommittal summary that limns the faintest outline of the contents: a “startling account” wherein Naylor buys the house and has the dispute with her neighbor. “When this woman’s fears spur a massive covert surveillance operation against Naylor in 1996, the year becomes one of discomfort and confusion for Naylor.” Meanwhile the front cover refers to the book as “A Novel [sic] by the author of The Women of Brewster Place,” and the genre tag on the back identifies it as fiction. There is no mention of the author’s new formal direction, nor an effort to frame this thoroughly fractured work as a new entry in the tradition of factual-fictive postmodern novels like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior or Tomás Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, which had in recent decades enjoyed warm critical and commercial receptions. The publishers instead outsource that speculation to the reviewers who provide the blurbs. One from Black Issues Book Reviews and another from Booklist recognize the book’s significance. The former quotes an interview with Naylor herself: “I know some people will say that Gloria Naylor lost it in 1996. There’s nothing I can do about that assumption. But people who have been victims will read this as a true story.” The latter claims that “her incredible book will spark debate about government surveillance and the blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction.”
But whatever spark Naylor did create with the book failed to catch fire. Indeed it seems barely to have been acknowledged by the industry that had until then been so supportive of her work. While each of her other five novels received reviews in venues befitting of a National Book Award winner, editors and critics agreed nearly unanimously that 1996 was an unfortunate anomaly that should be ignored lest it sully the reputation established by the novels that preceded it. A notable rule-proving exception is the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mary Mitchell, who dedicated a November 2005 column to the silence around a new Naylor book, going so far as to open with the pronouncement that the newspaper’s book editor had declined to feature a review of it (she cites timing issues, but Naylor reveals in a personal email that the editor had simply refused to publish a review:)3Letter, Gloria Naylor to Christopher Sands, 30 August 2006, Box 9 Folder 51, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University.
But I was fascinated by Naylor’s subject—mind-control. And, frankly, I don’t think Naylor is getting her proper due. Besides being a major African-American writer, in 1996, she raises some troubling questions about the erosion of freedoms in this country and our government’s ability to put someone’s life under a microscope.4Mary Mitchell, “Naylor’s fictionalized memoir full of intrigue, questions.” Chicago Sun-Times. November 27, 2005.
Mitchell connects the book’s subject matter to the “continued debate” over provisions of the Patriot Act, and featured a couple of quotations from an interview she conducted with Naylor. Perhaps the author had the book’s lackluster reception in mind when she spoke of the feeling that she got from writing it: “It was like purging. But really, it was no different from the other books I have written in that each of them exorcized from me some sort of demon.” The same afflatus that had guided the composition of Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe was present for 1996.
Ed Gordon of NPR’s News & Notes did a segment on 1996 that featured a short interview with the author. In their conversation, Gordon sees fit to play devil’s advocate, asking on behalf of a duly anticipated skeptical public why the federal government would take any interest in her life. Naylor’s response is at once confident and vulnerable:
Well, what I can say to them is this: it’s the same thing that happens when a child is abused by a trusted adult. Now, that child will go to some parents and tell them these things. They will be believed by some of the parents. Some of the parents will never believe that Uncle George could be doing these things to their little girl. So, it’s either that you’re gonna believe me, or you’re not going to believe me, and I couldn’t worry about that. I worried about it a little bit, Ed, to be truthful with you.5Ed Gordon, “‘1996’: Under the Watchful Eye of the Government.” News and Notes, Culver City, CA: NPR, January 7, 2006.
Gordon correctly notes that the book is fictionalized memoir, but as if to preserve his program’s integrity, takes care to note that the book is “centered around Naylor’s conspiracy theories” and identifies her rather clunkily as “fiction writer Gloria Naylor” when signing off the segment. This arm’s-length treatment is one of the more enthusiastic recommendations that 1996 receives from a prominent outlet.
Naylor’s correspondence leading up to and following the book’s publication shows the degree to which the subject matter was considered poison. Publishers backed away from the work, which seemed at once to confound her, as she had not had any difficulty placing her past works, and to conform to her expectations. While most rejections made polite excuses and cited concerns about the format, some were downright vehement. The example from Thunder’s Mouth Press is notable enough to include here:
I read every word of 1996 with growing unease, in the hope that it would turn out to be something other than it is. That Ms. Naylor clings to her conclusions so many years after the events described in this manuscript is the most heartbreaking aspect of her story. Ms. Naylor should be dissuaded from insisting on publication; the circulation of this manuscript can do nothing but harm to the author’s reputation and should be withdrawn.6Letter, Dan O’Connor to Sterling Lord, 10 February 2003, Box 9 Folder 27, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University.
Editors who had supported her work for years turned the book down, but she was aware of the criticism to which she would open herself by writing 1996, and calculated that it was worth the risk.7Letter, Gloria Naylor to Cheryl Welsh, 1 January 2004, Box 12 Folder 19, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University. She believed that with the support of an established independent publisher like Third World Press, the book would start a broader conversation about overreach and human-rights abuses committed by federal agencies with little to no congressional oversight. The silence with which the media received 1996 proved her wrong. Her email correspondences seem to indicate that the only conversations she opened up were with others who had similar research interests or experiences, and who reached out to her individually to express their admiration (which are, it should be said, valuable in their own right). Naylor remained proud of the work, though, and did not blink as she planned her next novel Sapphira Wade, which was to be her “big book” about the legacy of slavery, whose story spanned three continents and which she sadly never finished.8Letter, Gloria Naylor to Christopher Sands, 30 August 2006, Box 9 Folder 51, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University. Indeed, the awakening brought on by her experience of being surveilled and the research she did for 1996 seemed to change only her opinion of her other novels. In a 2003 email, she told a friend, “The type of books I once wrote seem childish to me now.”9Letter, Gloria Naylor to Christopher Sands, 17 January 2006, Box 9 Folder 27, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University.
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“Conspiracy theorist” is one of the more damning epithets our media have in their active vocabulary. Its power comes from its ability to swiftly and soundly dismiss a person’s perspective by placing it in the lineage of absurd beliefs, of a piece with Pat Robertson’s New World Order and the Great Replacement theory of African, Middle-Eastern, and Latin-American immigration. Much of the time, narratives that bear the title “conspiracy theory” merit the negative classification, as in a case like 2016’s Pizzagate, in which a D.C. restaurant was believed to have hosted a child sex-trafficking ring linked to members of the Democratic party, with a crucial piece of evidence being that the they hosted music events listed as “all ages,” and which ended with a non-lethal shooting carried out by a supporter. In such an example, any mildly socialized individual can see the unlikeliness of the claims involved and recognize instead a clear and clumsy line to a desired political outcome. But often, the stories referred to as “conspiracy theories” have wholly unsatisfactory explanations for the conventionally told sequence of events and clear gains to be made from having them classed as fodder for confused zealots. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy are classic examples of this type. Yet another variety of “conspiracy theory” is that which is justified based on precedent when an event is shrouded in secrecy and scant concrete information is available. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for example, many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward attested that they had heard an explosion that the blew up part of the city’s levee system, which if true would have amounted to a purposefully engineered direction of the worst of the flooding into a majority-Black neighborhood (a strategy known to have been used during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927). Conflation of these categories is a serviceable tool for those who wish to keep the media-consuming public focused on an acceptable range of political and historical possibility.
It requires only the tiniest drop of interpretive good faith for one to glimpse the differences separating these types of “conspiracy theory.” The unfounded sort is generally not truly investigative, in that the espoused beliefs are the product of creative interpretation of available documents, not newly uncovered substantive evidence. This kind of theorizing also tends to betray a deeper material issue, as in the example of the recent moral panic around transgender people: housing, child rearing, and education (and hence the basic social reproduction that these necessities allow) are becoming more expensive and less attainable, and rather than examining the structural causes of these hikes, which would require a significant rearrangement of one’s worldview, the reactionary prefers a simple act of finger-pointing at a population they don’t recall having dealt with until recently. It follows that there must be foul play afoot, and an emotionally charged explanation becomes an easy scapegoat.
There is a better name than “conspiracy theories” for the attempts to explicate the plots behind the MLK and JFK assassinations, which through their shoddy cover stories and snarls of intrigue naturally inspire the filling in of plot holes. Peter Dale Scott’s name for these events is “deep politics,” which he defined in 1993 as “all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged.”10Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 7. He offered a more comprehensive definition in an 1996 update to the same text:
A deep political system or process is one which habitually resorts to decision-making and enforcement procedures outside as well as inside those publicly sanctioned by law and society. In popular terms, collusive secrecy and law-breaking are part of how the deep political system works.
What makes these supplementary procedures “deep” is the fact that they are covert or suppressed, outside general awareness as well as outside acknowledged political processes. Sometimes the secret is an open one, as when a particular city knows that its cops are on the take, or a nation knows that its parties have found ways to completely thwart the intention of campaign-financing laws.11Ibid., xii.
For Scott, this definition applies especially to symbiotic relationships formed between law enforcement and criminals, in which the former makes use of the latter as informants and over time these relationships, rife with kickbacks and favors, spin out of control. These relationships occur at the federal as well as regional level, as shown in the case of Jackie Presser, who while serving as president of the Teamsters had worked with organized crime to control the union and simultaneously served as an FBI informant. Ex-FBI Chief William H. Webster testified in court that his agency had authorized Presser’s illegal activities and requested that they be allowed to continue.12Frank Swoboda, “Ex-FBI Head Was Told Presser’s Illegalities Were Authorized, Court Papers Say,” Washington Post, April 8, 1988.
Our corporate media see their role as not only purveyors of journalism, but also as arbiters of the acceptable range of political beliefs. The recent prevalence in the news of right-wing stories like Pizzagate and Qanon—as well as those more favored by the left such as the death of Jeffrey Epstein and the presence of a deep political system that operates outside the reach of democracy—has sent major outlets scrambling to bring readers back under their protective wing. The Los Angeles Times column “Jeffrey Epstein’s death is designed for our age of conspiracy theories” (which does nothing to reckon with the holes in the official explanation) the Washington Post’s quiz “Will you fall into the conspiracy theory rabbit hole?” (which refers to Reagan’s funding of Nicaraguan “revolutionaries” and reduces the FBI’s sustained harassment of MLK to “kept tabs on”), and the New York Times’ article “A Theory About Conspiracy Theories” (about a psychological study taking first steps toward pathologizing proneness to “outlandish beliefs”) are notable examples.
The combination of our economic system’s increasing inability to serve the needs of its subjects and the ease and availability of online publishing platforms seems to have recently brought out this tone of parental admonishment from our news organizations, but their wariness toward unofficial explanations of historical events stretches back decades. The release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which explores New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination, brought anti-conspiracy punditry into its mature era. In its wake, the New York Times and CBS conducted a joint poll to track the nation’s sentiments on the matter,13Ted Goertzel, “Belief in Conspiracy Theories,” Political Psychology 15, no. 4 (1994): 731-742. and many publications saw fit to run pieces condemning the conversations dredged up by the film.14See Charles Krauthammer, “A Rash of Conspiracy Theories,” Washington Post, July 5, 1991.; Clifford Krauss, “28 Years After Kennedy’s Assassination, Conspiracy Theories Refuse to Die,” New York Times, January 5, 1992.; Rober Scheer, “Oliver Stone Builds His Own Myths,” Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1991. The National Interest’s submission offered a representative and nakedly contemptuous quip: “the conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant.”15Richard Grenier, “On the Trail of America’s Paranoid Class: Oliver Stone’s JFK,” The National Interest, Spring 1992, 84. The latest crests in anti-conspiracy coverage are waves in a deep and expansive sea.
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Gloria Naylor was a meticulous researcher. This quality is apparent to those who have read any of her earlier novels. Her characters’ lives span the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and regardless of era or circumstance, their histories, conditions, and even mundane chores unfold in vivid detail. For an insert detail within the New York Times’ review of Mama Day, she told a writer that she was galled by the revelation that her character George Andrews was an avid fan of football, a sport she knew nothing about. She researched the game along with her other characters’ proclivities for two years before she felt prepared enough to begin writing the novel.16J. R. Moehringer, “Keeping Up With the Characters,” New York Times, February 21, 1988.
She took the same approach toward determining the parameters of her surveillance, which by the end of the period recounted in 1996 involved what she believed to be mind-influencing devices beamed at her from a neighboring Brooklyn apartment. As she sifted through the mass of information available about various government operations, plots, and technologies, she cast much of it away as too fanciful for her consideration. In an email, she described her need to avoid the claims of “conspiracy theorists and eccentrics out there who see every occurrence in their lives as a government plot.”17Letter, Gloria Naylor to Christopher Sands, 30 August 2006, Box 9 Folder 51, Gloria Naylor Archive, Sacred Heart University. Instead she was drawn to figures like Cheryl Welsh, an organizer who founded organizations called Citizens Against Human Rights Abuses and Mind Justice, and John St. Clair Akwei, who filed a lawsuit against the NSA citing various proprietary technologies and covert operations that monitored individual citizens (the case was eventually dismissed). Welsh and Akwei were primarily concerned with government experimentation in mind control through technologies known as microwave hearing and synthetic telepathy. Naylor kept track of the forums, articles, and books that seemed to contain plausible documentation of use of these devices, and came to believe that they were being used on her.
Since the book’s publication, the U.S. military has confirmed the existence of microwave hearing and synthetic telepathy research, albeit with the qualification that technology similar to what Naylor describes is still in developmental stages (and without any admission that it has been tested on civilians). Still, long-range acoustic devices (LRADs) are a well-known example of military sound research and implementation. Popularly known as a sound cannon, the weapon produces an earsplitting tone, and is used by police to disperse crowds during protests and riots. It was originally developed as a communications tool, and was nicknamed “the voice of God” for its ability to produce a focused but extremely loud beam of sound. During the Iraq War, the Marine Corps used LRADs to communicate with civilians when they deemed other signals like flares or warning shots unsuitable.18“US brings new weapon to Iraq.” Al Jazeera, March 9, 2004.; Mark Cancian, “‘Heat Ray’ And ‘The Voice Of God’: My Experience With The Nonlethal Weapons Eyed For Use In D.C. Protests,” Forbes, September 18, 2020.; Rob Verger, “The US military’s heat weapon is real and painful. Here’s what it does,” Popular Science, September 18, 2020.
Similar to the LRAD is “audio spotlighting,” a directional audio technology that creates a concentrated ultrasound beam that can only be heard in a specific area. In 2007, the television station A&E made use of audio spotlighting in a New York City billboard promoting their ghost-centric program “Paranormal State.” Passers-by who crossed the advertisement’s path had a voice piped into their ears that sounded as if it were transmitted through headphones.19Alex Mindlin, “For Your Ears Only,” New York Times, December 9, 2007. The system used in the billboard was designed by a firm called Holosonics, who now manufacture versions of it for a range of institutional applications—museums, libraries, hospitals, command centers, and more.
Other examples abound. In 2008, a U.S. Army grant aimed to produce synthetic telepathy technology, which, by reading electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph, would transmit messages through thought alone.20Eric Bland, “Army developing ‘synthetic telepathy,’” NBC News, October 13, 2008.; Noah Schachtman “Army Funds ‘Synthetic Telepathy’ Research,” Wired, August 18, 2008. There is also ample evidence to suggest that microwaves can be used to create an auditory effect, such that it sounds like it is coming from within the recipient’s head.
Naylor states in the NPR interview that she had already been aware of twentieth-century COINTELPRO operations conducted by the FBI against Black political organizations. It would follow that along with these infiltration strategies, she was conscious of the workings of informant networks, and was thus prepared to recognize a visiting friend’s betrayal of her when she caught him passing the contents of her computer to her tormentors, as happens in one of 1996’s most painful sequences. Having been an informed and connected Black writer, she also likely would have been aware of the vast surveillance apparatus that the FBI established for people in her milieu. Regardless of how incomprehensible her particular situation may have seemed, she would have known that it was not without historical precedent. By 2002, three NSA employees had blown the whistle on the agency’s program of mass warrantless surveillance and the Trailblazer system of communications data analysis, and three more came forward in 2005.21Tarzie, “Edward Snowden, Frenemy of the State,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 76, no. 2 (March 2017): 355. Naylor, who died in 2016, did live to see mainstream acknowledgement of the NSA’s grievous infringements when the PRISM program of mass personal data collection made global headlines in 2013.
In addition to trafficking in “conspiracy theories,” another charge leveled against Naylor and 1996 is anti-Semitism.22William J. Maxwell, F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 273–74. She infers in the book that voicing her support for the spirit behind the Million Man March, the 1995 demonstration on the National Mall organized by Louis Farrakhan whose aim was to put Black issues back on the nation’s political docket, had authorities classing her as an anti-Semite because of frequent remarks made by the Nation of Islam leader against Jewish people. She posits in one of the fictional sections that a South Carolina-based chapter of the Anti-Defamation League supplied the volunteer manpower necessary to keep up the constant drive-by surveillance and harassment she observed. As with the possibility of a Black writer being surveilled by a federal agency, this suspicion is not completely unfounded. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, stories exposing the ADL’s domestic spying operations—connected to Israeli and South African intelligence agencies—appeared in journals across the country.23See Robert I. Friedman, “The Anti-Defamation League Is Spying on You,” Village Voice, May 11, 1993.; Matt Isaacs, “Spy vs Spite,” SF Weekly, February 2, 2000.; Catalina Ortiz, “Arab-Americans Sue Anti-Defamation League Over Alleged Spying,” The Associated Press, April 14, 1993. It would seem that in reasoning out a conceivable series of events, Naylor perceived her Jewish neighbor’s animosity toward her, added to it her own public mention of Farrakhan (which was not an endorsement of the man himself, only of the cause of the men in the March), and considered the ADL’s involvement as a possibility. Later in the book’s events, when she hears messages in her head, “I hate Jews” is a common refrain, and she explicitly rejects the notion as external to her actual beliefs. These are the limits of what could constitute an anti-Semitic subtext in the book.
Naylor does not shy away from the uncertainties present in 1996. On the contrary, she plainly emphasizes them, and casts this unknowability into the book’s animating force, such that the question of truth becomes less important than that of plausibility. The title, a clear reference to Orwell’s 1984, gestures toward her work’s impossible relationship to fact. In Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian future, what qualifies as truth is handed down from on high, instilled in a submissive populace from their earliest days, and maintained through the obliteration of memory. This model does not map onto Naylor’s experience of the United States in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, wherein information is obfuscated as much as it is inculcated, and those who attempt to put into words what they see through the haze are hastily exiled from the republic of reason. In this way, expository errors committed by our intelligence, law enforcement, and national security agencies can actually serve these organizations’ causes, as the glimpses of information that come into public view raise questions about all of the other unknowns at play and, hence, emphasize the impossibility of proof.
1996 is not a true story, and that it never could have been is precisely the point. It does, however, contain truths about how our world works. Our national security sector and law-enforcement agencies have far-reaching surveillance capabilities, a century-old playbook of inhumane harassment and infiltration techniques, and safe distance from the reach of representative democracy. They can also be mobilized in plots that border on farce, as in the (not at all singular) case of the failed 2020 attempt by members of a paramilitary militia group to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan, which was shown in court to be motivated significantly by FBI entrapment. Reason factors only marginally in the history we now forge, and so we might learn to suspend some of that ever-onerous yoke when situations warrant. Gloria Naylor’s final book, itself a victim of cowardly thought, reminds us of the role imagination might play in our political thinking. Where pure rationalism falters, courage, thoroughness, and imagination can set alight.
Brandon Wilner is a reader and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.