The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

What would Anarchy look like if we simply started calling it Faith?

To the best of my knowledge they haven’t yet been labeled. “They” are Justin Taylor, Joshua Cohen, Blake Butler, Mike Young, Zachary German, Tao Lin, Stephen Elliott, and others. I think of these talented contemporary writers as a collective of artists linked not by geography or, really, style, but by techno-proximity, their strong online/virtual presences. They write for similarly hip, erudite, and engaging websites (most notably HTMLGIANT and The Rumpus, pages that Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott has referred to as “sister sites”). One doesn’t have to wait for an author interview to learn their influences; an early excitement of reading Taylor’s fantastic new, debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, comes from reading the G.K. Chesterton epigraph. Seeing it, my mind traveled back to the fall of 2009, no doubt when Taylor was writing/finishing/polishing his novel for submission to his editor at Harper Perennial. On HTMLGIANT, he posted a series of Chesterton “Power Quotes” (the epigraph not among them). I didn’t know it at the time, but by reading a blog I was seeing the gears turning in the great machinery of creation, creativity. I was watching part of the process: an author attempting to understand and define his own work through the words of another. This special access granted by the Internet, along with their formidable talent, make this group of writers distinct from any previous.

The Gospel of Anarchy knocked me flat, and signals Taylor as a prominent voice of the unnamed movement referred to above. I had read most of Taylor’s short fiction from last year’s much-heralded collection, Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, and liked them enough. His voice, though, carries exceptionally well, better even, for the novel-length.

The novel’s rambling story (and it does ramble, from an ontological investigation of 90s internet pornography to dumpster diving, orgies to politics, this character to that) surrounds a group of desperate, young, and possibly divinely-inspired anarchists scrounging about northern Florida, just before the turn of the twenty-first century. Drugs are ingested, sermons sermonized, relationships formed and anarchically destroyed. The story takes an abrupt turn after a talismanic journal, written by a revered punk-runaway, is unearthed. The titular “gospel” contains, mostly, ponderous rhetoricals, circular statements, and theses for “Anarchristianity” (“Joy is a better form of prayer than prayer, but prayer is also a better form of joy than joy.”) From there, Taylor explores the paradoxes of belief, the peaks of passion, and the rewards (or lack thereof) of living according to one’s wants.

The book’s acknowledgments page cites Joshua Cohen, whose tome Witz is recalled toward Gospel’s end, when it is suggested that one character has begun to think himself a savior. Cohen expressed his artistic ambition with his book’s epic length, “scope,” as Taylor’s characters often say. The Gospel of Anarchy is, at a compact 238 pages, ambitious, too, but Taylor simply lets his big themes dictate his book’s grandeur. His book actually seems to call for a narrowcasting of vision. His characters dabble in the supernatural so long they lose sight of the natural, physical world. As the novel’s stunning cover evokes, Taylor’s characters frequently don’t see the forest through the trees. What they see may actually be nothing at all.

If Taylor’s plot sounds jejune, as if Gospel is a book only a writer as young as Taylor is permitted to write (or worse, enjoy), one will still find something to like in his prose. Influenced in equal measure by Barry Hannah (“Nobody ever meant for here to be anyplace special”) and DFW (pitch-perfect dialogue), his style is a pleasure to read.

A criticism of Taylor’s novel that’s been expressed at least twice (1, 2) is that his narrative voice is lazily or ineffectively inconsistent. While the third-person shifts that infrequently occur are occasionally jarring, they have the delightful quality of a God-ly, holy distance from the novel’s action, as if the sections are being writ by God himself; not the Judeo-Christian God, but instead the deity whose infinite wisdom and eminence Taylor’s “drunkpunks” spend most of their time lionizing.

Taylor’s novel doesn’t seem to have made as big a splash as his story collection made last year. It should. It’s much better. While he wears his literary influences on the page perhaps a bit too clearly in both books (with Everything… his hero Donald Barthelme, with this novel a host of writers, including blurber Sam Lipsyte), Taylor’s talent is something to closely watch out for. (Besides, I’ve learned from the Internet that Taylor’s a huge fan of Harold Bloom’s criticism, and so is likely very much aware of the “anxiety of influence.”)

In a scene from The Gospel of Anarchy, one of Taylor’s Floridian punks rides her bike around a “solar walk,” a series of sculpted models arranged to resemble the solar system. She thinks: “The sculptures themselves are not especially impressive, but like so many other things in this world, their value is not in what they are so much as in what they represent, or better — point toward.” The Gospel of Anarchy is valuable for what it is, as well as what it points toward, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2011.

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