The Gospel of Anarchy
HarperPerennial: 256 pp., $13.99 paper
The house at the center of Justin Taylor’s “The Gospel of Anarchy” has the universals of bohemian communities: shared food, leftist politics, dropouts, some guy peeing in the yard. Yet it is also very specific — to a place, Gainesville, Fla., and a time, 1999 — to the degree that it has its own peculiar name: Fishgut.
We come to Fishgut through David, a college student distinguished by his slow slide into isolation: He’s marginally enrolled, he’s just lost his anonymous call center job and he’s become joylessly addicted to Internet porn. Walking late one night, he runs into two Dumpster divers — Thomas, an old friend, and Liz, a young punk. Apparently in the habit of picking up strays, they take him home.
Welcomed into Fishgut, David meets Katy, a bisexual libertine. That night, he finds his way to her bed and an ongoing threesome with her and Liz. The house’s spiritual center, Parker, emerged from murky, leftist collective origins; he’s an older part-punk, part-philosopher — a seeker. Thomas, an avowed anarchist, is drawn to Parker’s critique of contemporary capitalist culture. Katy, a lapsed Christian full of Earth-mother sexuality, is more interested in his spiritual questionings. Parker himself is absent, remembered only in flashback and in a notebook he left hidden beneath a tent in Fishgut’s unkempt yard. Thomas (angstily) and Katy (trustingly) await his return. The sage leader whose return is awaited by believers — there’s Christian allegory here, albeit freighted with irony.
The rest of the community has varying degrees of belief. Cultural dropouts, they don’t do much; there’s a visit to church, a raid on David’s old apartment to score beer and a bicycle. There are, not surprisingly, parties, which often end in sweaty group sex. Surprisingly, some of these parties begin with Katy giving a Parker-influenced sermon to a gathering in the backyard. Thomas watches, apart. “Absolute faith or absolute artifice — huckster, angel, medicine show, chosen one, confidence scheme — there’s just no way to know, or even guess,” the omniscient narrator confides to us. Most of the novel — save for framing episodes told from David’s point of view — is narrated by this all-seeing voice that skitters among and over the whole crew.
This might create an intimacy with the characters, but it instead acts as a distancing agent, seeding a ubiquitous narrative skepticism: “They gather at Fishgut on Sunday nights, biweekly, to get wasted and talk about their socio-spiritual development. They trade shoplifting tips, and talk about energy projection and polyamory, or worse yet, read their poems to each other.” If Fishgut is a place of artistic exploration and avid debates of Kierkegaard and Chomsky, these too frequently happen offstage.
Similarly, many moments that would typically propel a novel forward are omitted from the narrative. When two sleeping characters share a dream of discovery — the narrative shifts back and forth between their common experience, so we’re meant to take this unusual occurrence at face value — it stops short of revealing the discovery itself, missing the emotional impact.
The book instead gives us Parker’s philosophy, culled by Katy and David into a freely distributed zine. Divided into sections such as “Call for Utopia Now!,” it includes such passages as “And you should know that anything you’ve ever done or considered doing to get there is not crazy, but beautiful, noble, necessary. Revolution is simply the idea that we could enter that secret world and never return; or better, that we could burn away this one, to reveal the one beneath entirely.”
Language of revolution and destruction means something different now than it did in 1999. If Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children” showed upper-class New Yorkers in the not-yet upended world before 9/11, this book does the same for the small-town anarchists, believers and the Burning Man-inclined — living in a utopia of countercultural protest with all the contradiction and inflamed rhetoric its players could stand. There is a carelessness to the Fishgut house that’s now lost.
Yet despite its ambition, the story fails to cohere. Its elision seems deliberate — Taylor’s debut short-story collection was praised here and elsewhere, and he is a smart reader who contributes to the edgy literary website HTMLGiant and the Nation. He is an author willing to take risks that, here, don’t pay off — a capitalist notion, sure, applied to a book that overly embraces anarchy.