John Pistelli

writer

Q, Conspiracy, and the Novel; or, Why Portraits and Ashes Should Be Your Summer Read

Readers who perceive an esoteric subtext to my writing and who therefore keep a paranoiac tally of my cryptic allusions will recall that I have mentioned the “Q” or “Qanon” conspiracy theory twice. Both references occurred in the context of paranoiac fictions: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. But there is more to be said about the crossroads where conspiracy and literature meet.

If you are unfamiliar with Q, here is the briefest possible summary I can manage: Q is the pseudonym of a 4chan/8chan message board poster (or group of posters) who claims to have a top-secret security clearance within the Trump administration. He further claims that the administration is mounting a sophisticated revolution or counter-revolution against the “deep state” at home and abroad—against, essentially, the global hegemony of administrative liberalism, which Q accuses of being a nearly satanic force of exploitation and predation, especially sexual exploitation and predation. A regular Q catchphrase: “These people are sick.”

Since last October, Q has regularly posted communiqués in the form of almost poetic questions or fragmentary hints, to goad his audience of Trump supporters to do their own research into the supposed perfidy of the international order. His goal is evidently to prepare a cadre of citizens to spread calm throughout civil society by providing rationales for the defeat of the deep state in a future climax of high-profile arrests (including Obama’s and Clinton’s) and even martial law. Another regular Q catchphrase: “Where we go one, we go all.”

The Q conspiracy is strange on several grounds. First of all, conspiracy theories do not generally assure their adherents that all is well, that the powers that be are on their side. Q takes elements from prior conspiracy theories, particularly those that describe cabals of shadowy perverts who manipulate states and economies, and rewrites them. Q revises conspiracy from a horror story, where evil is all-pervasive and defeated temporarily if at all, into a superhero story, where evil is defeated consistently and predictably by collective good.

In fact, Q is the only example of a positive conspiracy theory I can think of: it says that conspirators in high places are working quietly to serve us, to help us, to bring about the world we desire. In this sense, we might amorally describe it is an innovation in the history of legitimizing authority. A final regular Q catchphrase: “Trust the plan.”

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Another strange feature of Q is that it is becoming mainstream. An advocate for the overthrow of the liberal world order, for a coming military coup and the arrest or even execution of previous elected officials, has just been included by Time on a list of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. While the tone of the write-up, by Melissa Chan, is lightly disparaging, the lightness has a mollifying effect on the reader, as if a military junta were being described in a gossip column:

Last October, an anonymous user, known simply as Q, started posting cryptic messages on the controversial message board 4chan—the common theme being that President Trump is a secret genius and his opponents, namely Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are evil. Q reportedly claimed to be getting this information directly from the government, thanks to top-secret, “Q-type” security clearance. There has been little—if any—hard evidence to support Q’s musings. But over time, thousands of people started to believe them—or at least, to acknowledge they might be real.

Propaganda often works not by arguing for a claim, but simply by placing the claim before audiences as an appropriate object of open-minded discussion. Similarly, almost sympathetic treatments of Q, often with a literary bent, have recently appeared in Tablet and Harper’s.

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TV writer Ted Mann opens his Tablet exploration of Q with an account of his researches while working on Homeland. I have never seen Homeland beyond one episode, but I was once obsessed with another show Mann worked on, Chris Carter’s ludicrously underrated grim and apocalyptic X-Files follow-up, Millennium (1996-1999). The series follows ex-FBI profiler Frank Black, an empath who is able to see through the eyes of serial killers, as he becomes embroiled in an involuted shadowplay among secret societies, intelligence services, and metaphysical forces struggling over the fate of the world ahead of the turn of the titular millennium. It was an uneven but brilliant show that overcame its obvious influences (Se7en above all) to create an uncommonly foreboding and psychedelic vision of a demon-stalked, rain-drenched landscape where goodness is just the fragile flame of one man’s love and integrity. In other words, all the Q themes, but played mournful and slow.

Anyway, Mann, in a worldlier tone than Chan’s, a tone heavy with winking savoir faire and barely withheld knowledge, also manages to “acknowledge that [Q] might be real”:

There’s a lot more to the Q anon story, but you’d never believe me if I told you now. Think of it as a dream. A world without war, a world of tremendous abundance powered by non-linear technology, a cure for cancer, the restoration of civility, kindness and humor to the long-suffering peoples of the earth, God only knows.

We are here witnessing a writer’s admiration for another writer, a writer of pre-millennial dystopias tipping his rumpled noir fedora to the gold-hatted scribe of post-millennial utopias.

These two themes, the literary and the utopian, are played still more insistently in novelist Walter Kirn’s Harper’s essay on Q. Kirn puts his conclusions about Q in someone else’s mouth, but this half-disavowed thesis is the same one we’ve seen above. Kirn “acknowledge[s] that [Q] might be real”:

Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base.

To be fair to all the above writers, I am in agreement with their arguments and intimations, not least because Mann and Kirn seem to have inside information (as I do not): even if the Q conspiracy theory is untrue as stated, Q himself (or themselves) is likely not some shitposting chan troll but rather a mouthpiece for genuine powers that be—for “powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions,” to quote Ted Mann quoting St. Paul.

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Which makes me all the more bemused (or should I be alarmed?) at Q’s so far rather blasé reception in mainstream media, especially in its more literary corners. What is going on? Is the discourse hedging its bets? Or is it only the old Pynchon/DeLillo phenomenon: novelists’ envy of those who write novels with nations and lives?

Like Ted Mann, Walter Kirn frames his Q analysis with a discussion of fictional narrative. He first recounts his failed attempt, over a decade ago, to create an Internet novel, and he concludes by stating that Q, though working for disturbingly authoritarian ends, shows the way to a genuine literature, fragmentary and participatory, for the current age:

The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write.

Well said. I would find it well said, since my novel Portraits and Ashes is a story of art and conspiracy, paranoia and redemption, that acknowledges the mysterious forces pervading and degrading our world even as it also shows how they may be transcended by men and women committed to love and beauty. It is undoubtedly indecent to write propaganda for oneself, but I don’t know what to say or what to do about the paranoid forces marauding my country and my world; all I know is that I wrote Portraits and Ashes to drive myself sane. I hope it may do the same for you.  A page-turner and a philosophical novel, Portraits and Ashes will satisfy your desires both to indulge paranoia and to recover from it. From the back cover:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

Plus, it is a literary novel that will also serve for the beach or the plane. If you ever get sick of the news or its refraction in social media’s mazy and scary missives, Portraits and Ashes will come as a relief: a novel for our exciting and petrifying millennium.

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Images 1-3: screencaps from the opening credit sequence of Millennium.

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