In 2006, when the internet was younger and seemed to hold untapped artistic possibilities, I was asked to write a serial novel for Slate. The subject of the “book” was up to me, so I chose themes that seemed appropriate to the new medium: high-tech surveillance, cultural fragmentation, selfhood eroded by scrutiny. I imagined people reading my dark tale surreptitiously at their office computers and feeling almost as hunted as the characters, who were a mix of anarchists and federal agents, omniscient spies and hapless nobodies. I titled the novel The Unbinding and filled it with experimental devices—specifically, scores of hyperlinks—meant to hasten a Great Leap Forward for fiction. One of the hyperlinks took you to a video of a metal band from Scandinavia playing a sped-up, scary-sounding cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” How I thought it might help the story I no longer recall. I may have stuck it in just because I could.
The Unbinding was, needless to say, a flop. Few people ever found it on the web, and fewer still bought the printed version that followed (in which the hyperlinks appeared in bold but were functionally moot). Not surprising: it was borderline incoherent. When I started the book, I had a notion that I would use current events to shape the plot. It was a clever idea but not a good one. Fashioning a tale without an ending, a tale that swerved as the headlines changed yet retained its inner logic, was a stunt I simply couldn’t manage. I wrote it in installments, week by week, laying down a railroad track to nowhere. I should have called the project “The Unhinging,” since writing it nearly sent me around the bend.
To console myself for my failure I concluded that the internet and the novel were natural enemies. “Choose your own adventure” stories were not the future of literature. The author should be a dictator, a tyrant who treated the reader as his willing slave, not as a cocreator. And high-tech flourishes should be avoided. Novels weren’t meant to link to Neil Diamond songs or, say, refer to real plane crashes on the day they happen. Novels were closed structures, their boundaries fixed, not data-driven, dynamic feedback loops. Until quite recently, these were my beliefs, and no new works emerged to challenge my thinking.
Then, late last year, while knocking around on the internet one night, I came across a long series of posts originally published on 4chan, an anonymous message board. They described a sinister global power struggle only dimly visible to ordinary citizens. On one side of the fight, the posts explained, was a depraved elite, bound by unholy oaths and rituals, secretly sowing chaos and strife to create a pretext for their rule. On the other side was the public, we the people, brave and decent but easily deceived, not least because the news was largely scripted by the power brokers and their collaborators in the press. And yet there was hope, I read, because the shadow directorate had blundered. Aligned during the election with Hillary Clinton and unable to believe that she could lose, least of all to an outsider, it had underestimated Donald Trump—as well as the patriotism of the US military, which had recruited him for a last-ditch battle against the psychopathic deep-state spooks. The writer of the 4chan posts, who signed these missives “Q,” invited readers to join this battle. He—she? it?—promised to pass on orders from a commander and intelligence gathered by a network of spies.
I was hooked.
Known to its fan base as QAnon, the tale first appeared last year, around Halloween. Q’s literary brilliance wasn’t obvious at first. His obsessions were unoriginal, his style conventional, even dull. He suggested that Washington was being purged of globalist evildoers, starting with Clinton, who was awaiting arrest, supposedly, but allowed to roam free for reasons that weren’t clear. Soon a whole roster of villains had emerged, from John McCain to John Podesta to former president Obama, all of whom were set to be destroyed by something called the Storm, an allusion to a remark by President Trump last fall about “the calm before the storm.” Clinton’s friend and supporter Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, a member by marriage of the banking family abhorred by anti-Semites everywhere, came in for special abuse from Q and Co.—which may have contributed to her decision to delete her Twitter app. Along with George Soros, numerous other bigwigs, the FBI, the CIA, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (by whom the readers of Q feel persecuted), these figures composed a group called the Cabal. The goal of the Cabal was dominion over all the earth. Its initiates tended to be pedophiles (or pedophilia apologists), the better to keep them blackmailed and in line, and its esoteric symbols were everywhere; the mainstream media served as its propaganda arm. Oh, and don’t forget the pope.
As I read further, the tradition in which Q was working became clearer. Q’s plot of plots is a retread, for the most part, of Cold War–era John Birch Society notions found in books such as None Dare Call It Conspiracy. These Bircher ideas were borrowings, in turn, from the works of a Georgetown University history professor by the name of Carroll Quigley. Said to be an important influence on Bill Clinton, Quigley was a legitimate scholar of twentieth-century Anglo-American politics. His 1966 book Tragedy and Hope, which concerned the power held by certain elites over social and military planning in the West, is not itself a paranoid creation, but parts of it have been twisted and reconfigured to support wild theories of all kinds. Does Q stand for Quigley? It’s possible, though there are other possibilities (such as the Department of Energy’s “Q” security clearance). The literature of right-wing political fear has a canon and a pantheon, and Q, whoever he is, seems deeply versed in it.
While introducing his cast of fiends, Q also assembled a basic story line. Justice was finally coming for the Cabal, whose evil deeds were “mind blowing,” Q wrote, and could never be “fully exposed” lest they touch off riots and revolts. But just in case this promised “Great Awakening” caused panic in the streets, the National Guard and the Marine Corps were ready to step in. So were panels of military judges, in whose courts the treasonous cabalists would be tried and convicted, then sent to Guantánamo. In the manner of doomsayers since time began, Q hinted that Judgment Day was imminent and seemed unabashed when it kept on not arriving. Q knew full well that making one’s followers wait for a definitive, cathartic outcome is a cult leader’s best trick—for the same reason that it’s a novelist’s best trick. Suspense is an irritation that’s also a pleasure, so there’s a sensual payoff from these delays. And the more time a devotee invests in pursuing closure and satisfaction, the deeper her need to trust the person in charge. It’s why Trump may be in no hurry to build his wall, or to finish it if he starts. It’s why he announced a military parade that won’t take place until next fall.
As the posts piled up and Q’s plot thickened, his writing style changed. It went from discursive to interrogative, from concise and direct to gnomic and suggestive. This was the breakthrough, the hook, the innovation, and what convinced me Q was a master, not just a prankster or a kook. He’d discovered a principle of online storytelling that had eluded me all those years ago but now seemed obvious: The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read, it wants to write. It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them. It doesn’t want to sit and be amused, it wants to be sent on a mission. It wants to do.
From November on, as his following on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms grew, Q turned his readers into spies and soldiers by issuing coded orders and predictions that required great effort to interpret and tended to remain ambiguous even after lengthy contemplation. The messages often consisted of stacked one-liners that looked like imagist poems. They radiated mystery and portent. Take this example from March 3:
Who controls the narrative?
WHO wrote the singular censorship algorithm?
WHO deployed the algorithm?
WHO instructed them to deploy the algorithm?
SAME embed across multiple platforms.
Why is the timing relevant?
Where is @Snowden?
Why did ES leave G?
To initiates, this set of clues (Q’s audience calls these “crumbs” and strives to “bake” them into “bread,” meaning plain English) alludes to an elaborate range of incidents related to Trump’s war on the Cabal and to the Cabal’s war—doomed to fail—on us, the innocents. “ES,” for instance, is Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, whose resignation had been linked in previous posts to covert dealings with North Korea, in Q mythology a CIA puppet state and a center of trafficking in drugs and sex slaves. The insidious censorship algorithm is the work of Edward Snowden, who isn’t a whistle-blower but a double or triple agent of murky allegiances who works with Twitter’s Dorsey in some obscure capacity to keep the citizenry blind and muzzled.
Preposterous, huh? Well, the Q people don’t think so. Indeed, they feel we’ll soon come over to their side, once we understand the true relationship between Q’s crumbs and the subsequent news events that the crumbs predicted. The North Korean peace talks, for example, which some students of Q saw coming last winter. Or the scandalous revelations about Facebook’s illicit peddling of users’ data. “Do you believe in coincidences?” asks Q repeatedly, and the answer he obviously wants is no. That’s why his minions labor to make connections between such disparate phenomena as the flight paths of jumbo jets and the alleged escape plans of A-list fugitives. “Expand your thinking,” Q exhorts his legions, particularly when they falter in their cryptography or lag in their online detective work. He’s the author as case officer, tasking slow-witted readers with enigmas whose solutions he already knows but insists that they discover on their own.
And his posts aren’t all nonsense. Some are quite uncanny in the way they anticipate the headlines. On March 9, he told his troops to watch for “liquidity events” in the stock charts of social media companies. Days later, Facebook fell into disgrace and suffered a sizable market sell-off. Then there are the intriguing correlations between the posts and the president’s Twitter outbursts, which Q would have us think are synchronized with split-second precision. The proofs he offers involve comparing time stamps, and mathematically minded Qbots swear by them. That they’re willing to fuss with such puzzles is a testament to the compulsive power of Q’s methods. By leaving more blanks in his stories than he fills in, he activates the portion of the mind that sees faces in clouds and hears melodies in white noise.
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. The trick, he says, is to fashion a mental filter that will make Trump’s losses look like victories, his missteps like chess moves, his caprices like plans. After all, if most news is fake, as Trump insists, the real news must be hidden out of sight. Q claims to offer glimpses of it, along with warnings about what would happen if we beheld it all at once. To wake in an instant to the Luciferian horrors of the Cabal’s perverted machinations would be like rushing forth from Plato’s cave—blinding, debilitating, maybe deadly. Instead, Q leads us gently toward the light, a patient guide, like Virgil was to Dante.
One night this spring, in northwest Arkansas, Matthew and I stayed up past midnight interpreting several recent posts from Q that trembled on the verge of clarity, seeming to offer highly privileged insights into a crisis rumored to be forthcoming. I sat on the couch. He paced. We thought out loud, competing to crack the message and setting different values for different variables. We argued our cases as the night slid by; we raved away in an ecstasy of guesswork. Q was being good to us. Q was delivering everything we craved.
Q is part fabulist, part fortune-teller, holding up a computer-screen-shaped mirror to our golden age of fraudulence. He composes in inklings, hunches, and wild guesses, aware that our hunger for order grows more acute the longer it goes unsatisfied. Q calls the vista he’s gradually revealing the map, and he knows how badly his people crave it, which is why he doesn’t disclose in one fell swoop Trump’s strategy for national salvation. A hope fulfilled is also a hope exhausted. Tension and foreboding, on the other hand, are thrills that keep on thrilling, for fear can never be fully put to rest. Even if his followers’ dreams come true and the Clintons, Podestas, Schmidts, and Dorseys are hustled off in chains to distant gulags, and even if Kim Jong-un is released from the CIA contract that requires him to play a nuclear madman to keep the world off balance so America’s spymasters can rule it, one can never be sure the Cabal won’t rise again. And it will, of course, since that’s what archfiends do: rise from the dead.
The novel is the same way. It dies and dies so it can live and live. 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.