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