Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

The Gospel of Anarchy
by Justin Taylor

I'd never met M apart from a few conversations through instant messenger over the summer. He was a friend of a friend, and happened to live a few blocks up the road from my college dorm. Shared with two friends from his hometown, the house was a delightfully rundown rental with an enclosed porch and a constant parade of people. "Come on over," he said two days after I'd arrived in town. "We're starting some Shadowrunner."

What that meant, I had no idea, but I needed the escape. That is to say, I wanted to ignore the lingering feeling that my long distance boyfriend and I should have already ended, and I wanted fun that had very little to do with anyone that I knew from home. Though I had friends there at school with me, some dating as far back as kindergarten, I was still consumed by unrelenting loneliness and the feeling that all those friends had each other. I felt like an afterthought in their social planning, and loved them though I did, I withdrew. I wanted new people. People who had only faint knowledge of who I was. Did I know? As much as an eighteen-year-old with undiagnosed depression can, I suppose. And so I arrived at M's house, intent on connecting with someone. Anyone.

Shadowrunner, it turned out, was a futuristic role-playing game. I'd heard of Dungeons and Dragons, and the requisite jokes about its nerdiness, but I'd never known anyone who played. Witnessing a game where one names and creates a character, then imagines their actions through a set of given rules, did not seem so very strange, as a writer. The crowd was a mix of goth/punk-lite and also unremarkable t-shirts and jeans. M acted as the semi-official patriarch of the group, not only in leading the game, but in his overall demeanor. He directed conversation, made grand declarations, and presented himself as the Man with the Plan. No one had a problem with letting him dictate the house environment; rather, they seemed to enjoy it.

There were three other girls there besides myself, all participating. R was beautiful in a way which made my tongue stumble over itself. With women, I felt twelve-years-old again, all nerves and embarrassment. I wanted her to sit next to me, for her to wrap her arms around my exploding ribcage, and to tell me to stay. The guys respected her — she was dating one of them — and I had no idea what to do about liking her, so I drank cheap liquor instead.

I started talking to S, another eighteen-year-old and the most awkward guy there. I sensed that he had very little romantic experience, and in my conversational vetting, I discovered he had a comparable music collection. This was enough; I had him marked for easy prey. By the end of the night, we'd started a very ill-advised and very brief relationship, thus often placing me in that house with his friends. I admit, I did it because I could. In my misguided search for community, I wanted in on the one these people created together. I wanted to feel good again. We went to movies as a group, dinner, the gym. The grocery store for late night snacks. And it did feel good, for a while.

What I failed to see was how they were another group-since-childhood, flailing their way through new adulthood, also grasping at anything that made them feel connected and whole. S and I turned out not to like each other very much, and within two months, my presence at the house became unnecessary. I had hurt him, they said, and I didn't argue. They were not my tribe. I saw M and R here and there after that, but it was never the same.

Though I started dating my now-husband later that year, and a decade has since passed, I have yet to solve my fundamental loneliness. Yet I've discovered that, while my experiences are my own, I am not alone in my feelings. At the heart of so much art is the creator's unrelenting need to articulate that sadness and desire for community. We all want to know that someone has our back, even if we have to behave in unhealthy ways to confirm that loyalty.

I circled around reviewing The Gospel of Anarchy for a long time. I didn't want to talk about M's house or spending so many nights with S because I find my behavior embarrassing and needy. How could I, someone who has prided herself on her individuality, become so desperate for inclusion? And still, that portion of my life is all I could think about while reading Justin Taylor's tale of punk-meets-religion. His characters struggle so much with finding value in their lives, and their acute sense of standing apart creates an environment that is both insular and crying out for affirmation.

The Gospel of Anarchy occurs at a similar time to my own story — 1999 — but in the humid, landlocked city of Gainesville, Florida instead of Missoula, Montana. David is 21 and listless. He's just quit his job as a phone operator for a survey company, and he has no idea what to do next.

I had let January's official end of an already-dead-in-the-water relationship become an excuse for letting my grades go to hell, which resulted in my dropping the entire spring semester. Now it was the dead of summer. I had to re-enroll, sign up for classes, do the whole back-on-track bit. Problem was, the mere thought of stepping back onto campus, much less into the office of some admissions counselor, with her cat poster and candy dish, induced apoplexy. There would be forms to fill out. I would have to choose classes — be more interested in one thing than some other. I'd have to be interested, period. I couldn't visualize that. All I could generate, in fact, was TV static, accompanied by the rough white noise of the sea, as if a pair of conch shells were strapped to my head.

All of that is so true, it hurts. The thought of talking to an advisor, to sit there and insist I could remake myself in their image, made me want to puke everywhere. Being on campus made me twitchy, prone to self-destructive behavior, and all I wanted to do was hide, hide, hide.

Ah, but then David runs into an old friend, Thomas, retrieving expired-but-edible food from a restaurant's dumpster. With him is a lovely but timid girl named Liz. The two friends live in a ramshackle house called Fishgut that remains steadfast against the sea of encroaching corporate-run apartment buildings, and it has become a cultural hub for those who believe in anarchy, freedom, and love. Returning to the house with Thomas and Liz, David is instantly smitten. He ends up in the shared bed of Liz and Katy, and a week passes without trying.

Since he met them, life has been one unrelenting miracle. He'd like to blot out everything before last Sunday and believe himself newborn, reborn, in a world itself newly established, exactly one week old.

Apart from some old hippies who live in a van out in the yard, Thomas, Katy and Liz are the only permanent residents of the house. Their former leader, Parker, has been missing for quite some time, and they are anxious for his return. Parker sees anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism as a spiritual calling, and in his quest to be closer to God, he seems to have slowly lost his mind. In his absence, Katy has become his most loyal disciple, and Liz is Katy's.

Taylor switches points of view from first to third person, while also moving from one character to another. Only David is given use of the first person, but the entirety reads like a stream-of-consciousness collective. Given the subject matter, this makes sense, but it was a bit jarring when jumping from first to third. I had to flip back and confirm that I was still reading about David. For a moment, I had him confused with Thomas.

And in a way, David comes to inhabit a role within the house with which Thomas never felt comfortable. Though Thomas loved Parker's ideas regarding personal freedom, he does not share Parker's religious views. He wonders why he is still living in the house while Katy is going crazy with weekly "services" and new age-y evangelism. She remains unshakeable in her faith that Parker will one day return, and together they will bring their movement to the masses. David falls into her philosophy completely and abandons his old life, while Thomas begins to look elsewhere.

Thomas has a somewhat different interpretation of Parker's flight. He thinks that a basically good punk finally let his bullshit get the best of him and lost his fucking head. He likes to think that Parker will come to his senses, develop some genuine revolutionary consciousness in place of all this hoodoo. Or that maybe he did, and that that was what sent him running — escape from the tyranny of Katy's eager discipleship. He could be out there doing stuff with Earth First! Or something else awesome. He could be with the Ruckus Society, getting ready for Seattle in November. But that's probably just Thomas' romantic streak talking because it's where he wants to be […]

This "I is we and you are me" way of living borrows much from the CrimethInc. Collective, whom Taylor acknowledges in his author's note. "Since all CrimethInc. Works are anticopyright and published anonymously, I felt free and even encouraged to plagiarize and pirate as I saw fit," he says.

To expect Taylor to devise an entire philosophy out of nothing along with the novel itself would be naïve. As I've made the argument many times before, expecting fiction to arrive completely out of the imagination misunderstands the act of writing. Even the most speculative or avant garde fiction hopes to connect with its readers, and readers connect when they can identify. The best fiction contains so much truth and honesty, but affords itself the benefit of creating its own facts. Taylor took an existing philosophy and manufactured a world to surround it. He lived in Gainesville between 2000 and 2004, and the description of the university town drips with humidity and rising mercury. The pressure builds in each character in a way that mimics the Florida summer. Borrowing from an existing group of people is no less valid than borrowing from an existing city.

Also spending time at Fishgut is a college student and writer named Anchor. She worships Thomas in a quiet way, but does not wholly participate in the house's fervor. She is an observer searching for community.

Thomas, David, Anchor — their parents don't punch time clocks. They came to Gainesville through the VIP door, i.e., the college, and it's a very hard thing to be fresh from that, or still partway in it, like Anchor is, and have to figure out how to look these truly fucked people in the eye and call yourself kin with them — brother, sister, ally — and not secretly believe you're just a lifestyle tourist, an interloper, a piece of duplicitous shit like the girl in that rad Tilt song "Molly Coddled," or that Pulp song "Common People," the latter of course being too techno-ish to ever cop to having listened to, much less enjoyed, but still. Anyway, what's the solution?

Ten years ago, I'd tried to join a new tribe and it didn't work out. It's not that the people were bad — with the exception of S, who can still sod right off — it's that I so mishandled my desires. However, I don't necessarily regret that time. It did hasten the end of that dying relationship. A mutual friend reported my deception, and that was that. Through that house, I met another man, a neighbor, who treated me well, though we were never serious. He was a calm, brief rest on my way to the life I have now. Like those who arrived and ultimately left Fishgut, my experience in that house still served a purpose. If nothing else, I gained fodder for future fiction. For that, I cannot complain.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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