Book Review: The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

Young adulthood is often a search for both self and meaning. As such it is prime ground for literary exploration. Yet while Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy gives a somewhat different take on the subject it’s an exploration that falls short.

The story is built around David’s search for self, which brings him into a loose group with an anarchistic bent living in a house they call Fishgut. The story is set in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida, in the late summer of 1999 and into Y2K. Both the location and time seem a bit odd. While some of the characters, including David, are brought there by the University, from which they have since dropped out, and others are “townies,” Gainesville is a far from an hotbed of anarchistic thought. In addition, Taylor admits in a note at the end of the slim volume that this is a composite Gainesville, parts of it describing a city that didn’t exist until after 1999. The 1999 setting seems a bit odd also. While the anti-globalization movement would draw significant attention as a result of the WTO protests in Seattle near the end of the year, Gainesville is plainly on the outside of that movement. And while anarchists undoubtedly made up part of the WTO contingent, it was anti-globalization that motivated the crowds, not any particular political theory or philosophy.

But since this is a novel, Taylor can set it when and where he wants. Yet the book still stumbles on other literary ingredients — voice, character development and motivation.

Although David narrates the first part of the novel, once he moves into Fishgut the perspective for most of the balance of the book switches among the house’s other main residents — Liz, Katy and Thomas — without a lot of rhyme or reason. There’s nothing wrong with switching perspective but it’s never quite clear why some parts of the story are seen from a particular perspective. There is not a great deal of differentiation among their voices, with a somewhat distinctive tone occasionally appearing to reflect an emotional state, such as in the midst of sexual acts. What is really surprising is that despite the various perspectives we get, none really allows us to grasp or appreciate the characters as individuals.

Yes, they claim to be anarchists and, yes, a couple have some religious inclinations, but how and why they arrived at Fishgut or their views of life, the universe or anything doesn’t appear to be of great moment in The Gospel of Anarchy. As a result, the characters come off more as one-dimensional pieces moving around in setting where anarchism is an atmospheric overtone rather than substantive. Here, the philosophy or political theory seems to “no rules” rather than “no rulers.”

David is a prime example. Even though he is the most developed character we’re never quite sure what motivates him. Sure, the first part of the book establishes that he has an internet porn “habit” (as opposed to a compulsion or addiction) and hates his job cold calling people for telephone surveys. Granted, that might leave a person feeling dissatisfied and disconnected but why it might encourage them to be drawn to communal living in a run-down house isn’t quite clear. Once David meets the people of Fishgut and stays there, he ends up in his own real life porno, an ongoing triad relationship with Liz and Katy. Yet his adoption of Fishgut’s lifestyle and almost faux anarchism can’t just be for the sex because if that is the pathway to insight, then millions of people are still and forever lost.

The meat of the book involves a grassroots anarcho-mystic-Christic movement that arises because David and Katy create a zine collecting some of the writings found in a notebook belonging to Parker, a long-missing early denizen of Fishgut. While far closer to an examination of self and life than the characters ever seem to engage in, the passages are largely rambling commentary involving philosophy, religion and politics. While this effort gives The Gospel of Anarchy its title, both are so unanchored and adrift they never rise above the level of arguably interesting observation.

If the first rule of anarcho-mysticism is Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, the second rule is Whatever’s not nailed down.

Justin Taylor, The Gospel of Anarchy

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3 comments to Book Review: The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

  • As a writer, I can second your comment that lack of differentiation of voices in a book is fatal.

  • Hi, Progressive, this is the author here. I’m sorry you didn’t like the book better, but you’re certainly entitled, so I’m not here to complain or argue about that.

    But I can’t help taking a minute here to tell you that Gainesville, FL is indeed a “hotbed” of anarchist thought, and has a long tradition of pro-active, hardline progressive politics. Some of that is due to its being a college town, but a lot of it is unique to the place. Gainesville is very close to Ocala National Forest, frequent site of Rainbow Gatherings, and generally attractive to radicals from all around the South, because it stays warmer through the winter than, say, the part of North Carolina where Crimethinc. is headquartered. When I lived in Gainesville the university had a huge Marxism conference every year–academic stuff, sure, but still. They brought down Christian Parenti, Michael Hardt, etc. When Ralph Nader came through on his Presidential campaign in 2000, he literally filled the basketball arena. Chomsky, too, a couple years later. Too, Gainesville is the birthplace of the info-shop model of activist space and radical library, an idea birthed by a group of private citizens (ie non-students) in the early 90s as a reaction to dis-information in the mainstream media during Gulf War 1. The product of that effort, the Civic Media Center, is about to turn twenty years old, and its model has been replicated with success all over the country. During my tenure in Gainesville I saw campaigns waged on behalf of night shift janitors at the university, against the construction of a cement plant on the Ichetucknee River, and on one memorable occasion a small White Power rally was literally overrun by a hundred or so scuzzy punk kids shouting down the message of hate. This is the town, after all, where Against Me!’s “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” was written.

    Anyway, no author should put a book into the world without understanding that responses will vary, and that readers are entitled to their verdicts. Hence, I thank you for your time and consideration, and wish you all the best. But I hope you won’t think it vulgar that I took the time to stand up for the town.

    • Tim

      Points well made and considered, Justin. I wonder how many people are aware of Gainesville’s anarchist record? Perhaps I’m like most non-Floridians of my age and associate Gainesville with either Florida Gators athletics or Tom Petty.