Monday, May 21, 2012

"The Gospel of Anarchy," Justin Taylor: good intentions, missed opportunities

Justin Taylor's first novel The Gospel of Anarchy is filled with college-age characters who discover that everyone has big ideas to talk about, and in a college town there's all the time in the world to talk about them: rock and roll, politics, religion, drugs, sex. Maybe a sensitive type will find time to write some poetry. Near a college campus the people you meet are likely to be near the same age, looking for something too, and a fuzzy sense-of-belonging is a thin bond that can make friendships and partners.

Set in 1999 at an anarchist collective called Fishgut near the University of Florida in Gainesville, The Gospel of Anarchy is a short, wobbly novel about that very fuzzy feeling. The group's insular and self-reflected belonging is almost all the emotional bond that everyone shares, beyond the late-night sessions and clouds of smoke that make things seem more real than they actually are. David, Thomas, Liz, and Katy live on the fringe of almost-adulthood but can't seem to resolve anything, much less worry about the responsibility of growing up.

These self-created outsiders are ready for something to happen, even if they're not sure exactly what it might be. The idea of communal anarchy seems like a way for these individuals to connect, although the irony is lost as their lives orbit one another. Then the long-gone Parker returns and his rediscovered journal becomes a form of resolution: a mash-up of religion, politics and philosophy that provides the residents of Fishgut with a kind of revival spirit.

This is the kind of plot that will leave readers of Ken Kesey thinking what he could do with this material; there's the potential for some real and pointed satire, a molotov cocktail heaved by "drunkpunks in the armpit of Florida" against the culture.

But the culture seems all-too smothering in The Gospel of Anarchy to fight against. Maybe it's the brightness of the Florida sunshine or the washed-out characters' own fault, but there is nothing in the book to suggest a real target. There's also enough of a college town's acceptance of young adult freakishness to offset any real anger. At Fishgut, Dave sits in a daze of computer searches and corresponding over-saturation, all "computer glass and unconsummated need":

What had been born of boredom and curiosity, then mutated into enthusiasm and honest perversion, then refined itself further into a kind of connoisseurship, now seems to have transcended all these things and become something else, which delivered neither pleasure nor its opposite. Its only truly novel aspect, at this point, was the sheer monstrosity of its breadth -- the perpetual beckon of more and more. Even to call it compulsion would be to make it seem more dire, and thus significant, than it actually was.I had a habit. That was all.

Justin Taylor

It's difficult to stir up any interest in Taylor's bored and hollowed-out characters. These unsympathetic misfits don't really care about themselves, and the reader begins to care less what happens to them. The novel doesn't follow up on some of its more interesting elements -- parts of Parker's journal are based on the real-world publications of CrimethInc, a self-described "ex-workers collective" credited in Taylor's acknowledgements but none of his characters, unfortunately, catch the movement of any sustained and serious revelations about these ideas.

As a result The Gospel of Anarchy seems a short, missed opportunity of a story, its big ideas lost in the self-satisfied apathy of Dave and the other squatters at Fishgut. In a Paris Review interview Taylor mentions that "he might have gone looking for a God and found a book instead." The book gives his characters snippets of Don DeLillo to quote ("our faith makes us crazy in the world") and in the interview Taylor describes the story as his own failed conversion attempt. A little more conviction would have gone a long way.

Early in the novel, Dave muses that he might "have myself a little revelation about doing the right thing in life." The Gospel of Anarchy itself would like to do more than it does. That's not a bad beginning, and Taylor actually has the germ of a good novel here -- not necessarily in a league with his hero Flannery O'Connor, but a start. The story ultimately runs out of energy much like one of its own characters, and the reader is left thinking not so much of the story but of Taylor's good intentions in writing it.

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