#40 of 2011 • The Gospel of Anarchy, by Justin Taylor
1 – September if last year, I read Taylor’s debut short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, and found the experience rather disquieting. There’s immense talent—this author’s voice is definitely fresh [meandering at times, taut at others, glib, sometimes tender—but I constantly felt “that nagging feeling that something’s missing, and that no matter how many times you agonize over defining that something, it’s always out of reach.” Yes, that. I’m looking at his first novel as a second date. Not necessarily to put the past behind us—I know, even now, that I’m going to look back on my previous experience with him, if only to more or less settle on my impression of him as a writer. Second date, we’re going to figure out where we actually stand.
2 – I like malaise. I like characters with seemingly no direction in life, or even the urge to look for that direction. I like jadedness too. There’s a lot of these in college dropout David—telemarketer, porn addict of the late 90s. When I read, I realize that I don’t demand the characters to change—for the span of the narrative, I need to put myself in the author’s hands, and allow him to lead the characters wherever the, well, wherever the narrative tells them to go. But for me to completely, helplessly trust the author’s decisions, to respect it—it boils down to the execution. Taylor’s got a vibrant voice, we’ve covered that. But the structure is all over the place. And don’t tell me that because the novel is about pseudo-anarchic-Christian-lifestyle-tourist shizniz, the novel can be splat-bam-boom on the pages.
3 – When the characters choose to stay put—or, when they take up their directionless luggage into the land of Ironic Directionless-ness—the story has to support that. The storytelling is required at some point to offer a logic to the aimlessness.
4 – What logic was offered felt feeble to me. A poor execution of slapdash characters who all sound alike, a dizzying romp from condo unit to garbage bin to halfway house to abandoned tent to Anarchist Zine. And so, the characters, well—it occurred to me, what I found so discordant about these characters and their preoccupations:
5 – I am 21 years old, but reading Taylor has me chirping, “Oh my, this must be what the kids are up to these days.” [Or, well, what the kids were up to in the late 90s.] I’m crustily banging my metaphorical cane against the floor and cackling, “Ach, anarchy, they’ll grow out of it.” Beside the feeling of traversing foreign waters—what do I know about anarchy?—I became steadily impatient with what I was tempted to classify as punk posturing. They’ll grow out of it. Nothing’s at stake, because everything was in a haze of Well, I’ve Got Nothing Better to Do. By the end of the novel, I was pretty certain that they’ll move out of the house and get back to “normal,” vanilla lives.
6 – Good lord, the urge to clap my hands and say, “Now, now, children.”
7 – I wrote on a margin: “I don’t understand this anarchy. Anti-capitalism, anti-Marxist, hippie, Christ-babble; a hodge-podge of available and accessible philosophies, flourishing under the fever of this aimless youthfulness. Dude. WTF.”
8 – I wouldn’t be prattling on like this if the structure weren’t as taut, as structured as it ought to have been. See, that’s the root of the problem. You take an intriguing premise, characters with the limitless possibilities for implosions and explosions—and then let the form run roughshod over them? See, aside from the survey of malcontents David meets, beyond them—The Gospel of Anarchy, the center of the novel, the supposed center of these characters lives-for-the-moment.
9 – The Gospel of Anarchy: the ramblings of an elected mystic, the disappeared leader of this merry band. A journal left, abandoned: a jumble of aphorisms, contradictory manifestos, that will naturally stand as, well, gospel to the children of Fishgut. It’s amazing—it’s where Taylor’s capacity to switch voices and forms shines. Perversely pedestrian one moment, running into the euphoric, Eucharistic, existential exultations the next—man, that voice is kicker.
10 – The problem was building a story around it. Building actual people like David, like lesbian lovers Katy and Liz, like the hippies, like David’s long-lost friend Thomas around this gospel. The supposed lynchpin of this novel—just, well, unjustly lost in the muddle.
11 – Why I still can’t, for the life of me, dismiss Justin Taylor’s fiction is, well, heart. I like heart. I like it as much as content and characters and craft. Taylor’s earnestness is palpable. It’s in that voice. It’s in the quiet moments of David uploading his girlfriend’s nude pictures on the newly-christened Interwebz; it’s David stuck on the phone with a baffled widow, feeling that rare sensation of his heart actually beating for a real, if disembodied person. It’s knowing that the characters are alive in there somewhere, the problem is, they’re actually just one image, just streaming through a prism. It’s having something so grand and gritty as an unearthed Gospel of Anarchy, holiest of holies, in the dirt-bag that is Fishgut. Come on, children, shape up.
12 – Justin Taylor will write again—there is way too much Story inside him. I will read him when he writes again. Heart, kids, heart. I’ll probably grow more and more frustrated, question my own wonky judgment, rail at myself, “Let yourself hate this already.” But, well, there.
13 – Oh my. Look at what you’ve gone and done now, Sasha.
My copy was sent by the folks at Harper Perennial. I’m not grumpy, swearz.