An accidental messiah. An impromptu religious cult. Lives exalted and ruined in the crucible of faith.
Look what anomie has wrought.
In The Gospel of Anarchy, several self-marginalized men and women in their early 20s, disparate in origin but united by deep disaffection and a desire for purpose in their aimless lives, pour their hopes and energies into a bizarre belief system centered on the anarcho-Christian ruminations of a recently vanished acquaintance. The idealistic but directionless slackers coalesce into a group dedicated to living out and spreading the disappeared man’s curious doctrine, with doubters unceremoniously shoved aside. Justin Taylor, who won acclaim for his short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and made Dzanc Books’ “20 Writers to Watch” list, has written an ambitious and haunting—though uneven and frustrating—novel about alienation and the uniquely human urge to graft meaning onto life.
Where’s Albert Camus when you need him? In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the late French existentialist claims that life has no meaning. As a result, he continues, it’s perfectly logical to kill oneself. But Camus also offers a way out, employing a Greek myth as an analogy. He argues that contentment and even happiness can be achieved through the realization that the struggle of life—much like Sisyphus’s task of rolling a boulder up a mountain, watching it roll back down, and repeating the process endlessly—makes each and every one of us an “absurd hero.”
Too bad the protagonists of The Gospel of Anarchy haven’t heard the news. Not because they grapple with a perception that life has no meaning, but because they’re determined—perhaps feel duty-bound—to invest it with meta-meaning. Taylor apparently intends his story as a commentary on the allure of ideology in our “era of the post-everything.”
The Gospel of Anarchy is set in 1999. Given the brief flurry of millenarianism at the time, this is a nice touch. But in general, whether in the run-up to 2000 or today, Americans aren’t trying to Escape from Freedom. (That’s the title of a famous work of political psychology examining flight from the terror and uncertainty of choice.) If they were, we’d see a good deal more Johnny Talibans and Adam Gadahns.
We would also frequently come across real-life replicas of the characters in this novel—they’re out there, of course, but not in great numbers. Intriguingly, Taylor’s characters don’t gravitate toward authoritarian belief systems. Instead, they find security in an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian pseudo-philosophy. Even so, their creed is no less dogmatic.
Set in Gainesville, Florida, The Gospel of Anarchy is initially narrated by David, who’s recently broken up with his girlfriend, dropped out of the University of Florida, gotten a dead-end office job and now spends his free time surfing Internet porn sites. When David runs into his old buddy Thomas, who’s dropped out of the same university and whom he’s not seen in a while, he finds himself drawn inexorably toward his friend’s alternative lifestyle. It isn’t just seeing Thomas happily foraging for food in the dumpster behind the local falafel joint while a punk girl keeps watch. David is invited to their house, where he’s seduced by the lusty yet spiritual Katy into a threesome with the punk girl. He promptly moves in.
A panoptic narrator, who will relieve David of storytelling duties until the book’s penultimate chapter before taking up the baton again for the finale, now introduces readers to the denizens of the house—“Fishgut,” after the Biblical story of Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a whale. In addition to its permanent residents, Fishgut plays host to young transients and an older hippie couple who sleep in their van out front. Most share a vague dislike of the political establishment, feel estranged from society and its cultural norms, and sustain themselves through shoplifting, scrounging for food, and occasional paid work. Ironically, their lives will be transformed by someone no longer in their midst. The recently vanished Parker was unobtrusive—he camped out in a corner of Fishgut’s backyard. But he had an undeniable aura, and he melded together a host of Christian and anarchist ideas that enthralled Katy, the more so since his disappearance. She has decided that he’s a prophet, though he’d definitely balk at such a suggestion.
When a buried notebook is discovered in Parker’s former campsite in the backyard, Katy finds the sign she’s been waiting for. Parker didn’t abandon them. On the contrary, he entrusted his wisdom to them in writing, and will return once they have spread his message. Reinvigorated, Katy takes to propagating Parker’s anarcho-Christian teachings through various means, from printing and freely distributing an edited manuscript of his notebook musings dubbed the Good Zine to holding weekly meetings for the unenlightened masses at Fishgut.
Fittingly, the author delves into Parker’s beliefs. (Had they been left unexplored, the story might have felt inchoate.) Here’s an example of Parker’s view of the true anarchist as Christian and vice versa: “When Christ spoke of the fulfillment of the Law, he spoke of the obliteration of the law, because perfection means Stasis, which is Death. As the Christian triumphs over Death so the Anarchist over the Law—there is no difference or distinction between the obstacles, less still among those who triumph over them.”
It’s clear that such beliefs are meant to be viewed as cleverly worded but somewhat loony. (Interestingly, Taylor culled almost all of what the story presents as Parker’s writings from the anonymous works of an anti-copyright publishing house.) Still, this realization doesn’t make it any easier to slog through the story’s Parkerism-heavy longueurs. The farrago of half-creeds articulated by Parker and elaborated upon by disciples Katy and David fails to captivate as fully as the story’s examination of the nature of all-consuming belief, and the psychology of those whom it seduces.
Parker is admittedly a strange breed. But this isn’t to say that Taylor has created an original. Christian anarchism, to be distinguished from the random pastiche of anarchistic and Christian ideas on display here, has deep historical and literary roots. (Think of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.) Additionally, one of Parker’s chief attributes calls to mind the Weltanschauung of a towering intellectual forebear: Baruch Spinoza, the renegade Jewish thinker. Some claimed him to be “God-intoxicated,” for although he advocated a critical approach to organized religion, he gave God—either out of conviction or in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to stave off charges of atheism—a permanent and prominent place in his philosophical outlook. Parker is no Spinoza, but he shuns traditional and organized Christianity even as he cultivates “a God-entranced vision of all things.”
Where Justin Taylor excels is in probing his characters’ emotional vulnerabilities and their susceptibility to Parker’s radical, irrational, all-encompassing, utopian ideology. Parker himself abandoned the (unspecified Christian) religion of his upbringing, “but the language, the forms of thought were stuck fast.” With his earnestness, intellectual character, and related social ineptitude, he finds a measure of satisfaction in the solitary enterprise of devising his own religion.
Katy, like Parker, was raised in religion—in her case, Catholicism, aspects of which she still observes. She’s casting about for a belief system that will enable her to give free rein to her need for demonstrative veneration. Meanwhile, David doesn’t come from religion. He was raised in an atheist Jewish household (as was Thomas). But set adrift by a failed romantic relationship, a truncated college career, and a pointless job, he latches on to an alluringly spiritual theory of life.
With subtlety and sophistication, Taylor also demonstrates the mesmerizing effects of faith. Since Katy and David surrender themselves so completely to Parker’s worldview, they lose the ability to critically examine anything they believe to have originated with him. Indeed, when Thomas secretly inserts a grandiloquent but hollow passage into Parker’s notebook, Katy and David take its supposed sagacity to heart.
Yet Taylor quietly shows us that even Thomas is deluded. Thomas scoffs at his friends’ devotion to spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but his faith in redemption through violent anti-capitalist revolution is equally desperate and consuming. He becomes spellbound by political radicalism the way the others are hypnotized by homemade religion, all because of a desire to ennoble life with purpose. A young woman who spends time at Fishgut before breaking away realizes that its core members are animated by “the desire for an encompassing horizon, a totalizing vision, an epistemology sufficient to enclose the whole known world, and account for everything unknown, too.”
No reader will be surprised to discover that such a totalistic persuasion leads to bad things. Ultimately, the novel’s finest feature remains its eerily plausible premise. Following a haunting and resonant set-up, the story grows muddled. Most disappointing of all is the shift from character to theology. The (deliberately) semi-coherent, anarcho-Christian beliefs Taylor examines do not generate nearly as much interest as his tinglingly perceptive forays into his characters’ psychological dispositions. And the consequences, even when tragic, of adopting such beliefs never elicit as much sympathy as the reason for their adoption: the search for meaning in otherwise empty lives.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Globe and Mail, the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Petersburg Times, and other publications.
[Editor’s Note: In the Acknowledgments of The Gospel of Anarchy, author Justin Taylor thanks Charles McNair, books editor at Paste.]