Late in Gloria Naylor’s 1996, a partially-fictionalized account of a year she spent under government surveillance, the omniscient narrator takes the perspective of NSA Deputy Director Dick Simon. Simon imagines the effect his machinations will have on Naylor, observing that although she will try to “write a book about her experiences this past year,” the story will be so outrageous no one will believe her. Publishers across the country will reject the book: “They’ll all shake their heads sadly over the fact that a writer of her caliber has gone bonkers” (124).
Simon’s prediction more or less came true. At the time of her death on September 28, 2016, Naylor’s literary reputation had diminished. She did find a publisher for 1996, but it was Third World Press, a much smaller venue than Penguin Books, who published her first four novels. That quartet included her National Book Award-winning debut The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), and Bailey’s Café (1992). Her 1998 sequel The Men of Brewster Place received less attention but was still well-reviewed, but 1996, her sixth and final novel, has been all but ignored.
Part of the problem may stem from Naylor’s lack of output in the last half of her career. After her initial creative explosion, the author spent much of her time working on a Mama Daysequel that never materialized. But the problem may also stem from the fact that readers in 2005 found it hard to accept the claims made in 1996. The novel eschews the shared universe of her other works for explicit autobiography. Furthermore, it presents Naylor as the target of a massive government campaign, culminating with the use of mind-control devices. The novel’s story gives way to addenda filled with secondary sources that prove such machinery exists.
Despite the stylistic and thematic breaks from her best-known works, 1996 upholds Naylor’s conviction that community overcomes oppression. In the fifteen years since the novel’s publication, Americans have experienced perpetual warfare, Fox News misinformation, foreign interference in our elections, and all manner of “fake news.” We’ve all become more paranoid, making Naylor’s message even more relevant.