Of God and Anarchyby Randy Rosenthal
The Gospel of Anarchy
(Harper Perennial, 2011)
I often ask myself why international literature is so much more appealing than North American fiction. Reading Florida-born, Brooklyn-dwelling Justin Taylor’s debut novel The Gospel of Anarchy is a good opportunity to explore this question.
The novel takes place in Gainesville in 1999. Twenty-one year old David works at a survey call center where he is paid to pry into personal lives. As David is addicted to homemade amateur internet porn, the first 25 pages of the book are full of titillating imagery. However, David not only pays attention to the women’s bodies, but provides impressive descriptions of the personal items found in their bedrooms and bathrooms. The violation of privacy is Taylor’s initial idea; the tone itself is invasive, and I was awed by Taylor’s duty to accuracy, which makes the reader feel exposed, too. Yet I also found myself turned off by the book’s North American-ness. As in much of contemporary American fiction, there was indulgence in quick-witted snark, and there appeared to be a sense of pride in the emptiness of our superficial culture. Nevertheless, I noticed that behind the vulgarity, Taylor’s words had a vital rhythm, with under-lineable sentences increasing in frequency, calling DeLillo to mind.
David is bored, directionless, and alone until he runs into his old childhood friend, Thomas, and his dumpster-diving partner Liz. They lead David to Fishgut, a houseful of hippies, pierced lesbians, tattooed punks, druggies, and drop-outs, all of whom have misconceptions of anarchy. Thomas is politically informed and has clearly read his Chomsky—but they haven’t read Bakunin, and therefore don’t know that anarchy is not a free-for-all. It is not, as Taylor’s characters think, “moss thriving on a carcass,” but rather a highly responsible, organized, and productive communal society.
David realizes how much he hates his conventional life. Hypnotized by this group, he drops out of school and moves into Fishgut with his new bisexual girlfriends, Liz and Katy. With echoes of Palahniuk and Kerouac, he is shown an alternative way of living, one that rejects the lifestyle of American consumerism, while existing on its waste there is a religious strain within this so-called anarchist group, a yearning for unity through Christian mysticism, something Bakunin completely rejected.
Looming behind the group is the elusive character of Parker, a Kierkegaard and Chesterton-influenced, anti-church Christian, thief and rebel, who taught his fellows his ideas of anarchy and spirituality before leaving. Parker’s journal becomes the Gospel of Anarchy and the group forms a congregation around Parker’s writings, which they read during their ceremonies. The journal fragments we get from their “prophet” are, philosophically speaking, not without merit, but still reveal the immature mind of a college drop-out whose idealism hasn’t yet been softened by age. The “Anarchristian” ceremonies are followed by wild parties that begin with conversation about “their socio-spiritual development” and “trade shop-lifting tips,” and end with massive orgies. David quickly changes into an eerily enthusiastic believer and becomes dangerously delusional, reflecting the fine line between religious passion and mental derangement.
Despite the characters’ misguided conceptions, Taylor’s novel venerably attacks “the problem of privilege.” Our society is spiritually empty, sure, but contrary to my initial assumptions, Taylor does not celebrate this emptiness. Rather, his characters attempt to fill this void with something sacred, or at least with something they believe is vitally important. If they had read Bakunin they would know that the gospels of anarchy were already written, and that they are chasing some other dream. But at least they are chasing something, trying to live in an ideal, honest, and authentic way, which is more than most people can say.