The young Bushwick-based author Justin Taylor has defied all slacker stereotypes with his prolific output, writing and editing everywhere from The Believer to The Nation. Last year, his debut short story collection—tellingly titled Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever—was widely heralded for capturing a certain generational milieu or miasma. He even co-edited a book of literary tattoos (ok, so some of those Brooklyn stereotypes might stick). How he managed to fit in a novel on top of all that is beyond me.
Last year, Taylor's debut short story collection, exuberantly and tellingly titled Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, was widely heralded for capturing a certain generational milieu or miasma. In a review of the book, Tracy O'Neill (who writes regularly for this publication) wrote that "Taylor shows tremendous empathy for young misfits striving to find a place in the world." Now with his first foray into the longer form, Taylor looks to stretch those episodic explorations into a sustained dive-breath held through the duration of an ever-epiphanic novel-into the psyches at the center of a burgeoning "Anarchristian" cult.
Set in Gainesville, Florida, during the last millennium's eleventh hour (with all its heightened Y2K gullibility), The Gospel of Anarchy begins by riffing on the new trend of boredom-obsessed cubicle fiction (Ed Park's Personal Days, Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, David Foster Wallace's forthcoming The Pale King), before catapulting the primary narrator—a college dropout and internet porn addict named David—into the chaos and catharsis of Fishgut, the headquarters of a revolving cast of the type of those "young misfits" for whom Taylor has a fancy. Among the Fishgut denizens and passers-through, there is Thomas, a childhood friend and dyed-in-the-wool radical; Katy, a spiritual seeker and free-love seductress; her eager-to-please but uncertain lover, Liz; Anchor, Thomas's young anarchist acolyte; and Parker, the absent and unwilling founder of the new religion.
Taylor presents something of an origin myth for the new millennium, as the perspective shifts and unhinges from David's first person through a series of close third person chapters loosely following the other central characters, then back to David's voice before a sort of anchoring postscript from the shoulder of a character named, well, Anchor (the symbolism in these pages is often as subtle as the slogans on the punks' stenciled t-shirts, e.g., "HELEN KELLER WAS AN ANARCHIST"). The main thread is the eager convert David's transformation and rebirth in the belly of rebellion, sparked by his yearning to belong ("Since he met them, life has been one unrelenting miracle"), but the two most captivating characters are the pair least engaged in and by the novel's central plot. Thomas and Anchor are outcasts among outcasts, dubious of the "ritual and romance of religion," but their rational skepticism seems awkwardly at odds with the book's embrace of the ostensibly miraculous. The Gospel of Anarchy commits one of the same miscalculations that religion does: it assumes the magical and the radical are more intriguing than the rational and the real.
An outspoken devotee of Donald Barthelme, Taylor is unsurprisingly more nimble within the short story mode, where his frenetic, far-and-fast-flung attention is more focused and his poetic prowess radiates more impressively. Two stories in EHITBTE occupied the same humid, pseudo-religious/pseudo-political world as The Gospel of Anarchy, but they were less shaky and more compelling for casting a detached, skeptical eye on the floundering-but-fascinating idealists and converts. Here Taylor takes the risk of fully embracing the punks and their inchoate, untethered (in ways both admirable and infuriating) worldviews, and the risk doesn't exactly pay off. It often seems as though Taylor is struggling with the form, shoving sentences until they careen out of control and stretching scenes until the stretch marks show. The novel has a frantic, rambling style (not unlike the "aimless" music that the Fishgut's resident hippies, Owl and Selah, prefer), striving always toward an "ecstatic unraveling," but it's frequently undercut by a tongue too well-acquainted with its cheek.
Many characters aren't fleshed out much beyond the t-shirt slogans and books they're reading, presaging the quick signifiers we now try to define and shape ourselves with-the Facebook status updates, ironic sartorial choices, and political positions condensed to the point of incoherence. We're led to see these outcasts as seekers, desperate for a purpose and a calling, but Taylor expects as much blind faith in his characters' underdeveloped motivation as they have in their new cult and its punk messiah. Ideas about technology as a dehumanizing hazard, libertine sex as religious ecstasy, and devotion as disease all pull Taylor toward some interesting, if not original, investigations. The word '"twine" and its variants are strewn several times throughout The Gospel of Anarchy; this is a novel very clearly trying, and in scattered instances succeeding, to entwine and wed big themes like freedom and faith and love, the universal paradoxes and absurdities of human existence. Taylor enjoys pointing to the parallels between the holy and the heretical. Where Franzen's Freedom (something of a Gospel of Liberalism) served as an opus for a generation whose moment seems always fading, Taylor's novel is an unsure missive for a generation for whom disengagement seems to be the only recourse, for whom everything is futile. This is less a novel about youth than one that manifests the floundering, unsure assuredness of youth as its style.
The obvious highlights in The Gospel of Anarchy are the conflagrations of religious fervor, desperate soul-seeking, pseudo-political proselytizing, and orgiastic release, but Taylor really shines with the aftermaths, the moments just after the climaxes when the narrative lens lingers past the peaks. It's when the focus moves away from Fishgut, toward the "mundane and fascinating," that Taylor's prose has room to breathe. When Katy, the ardent prophetess of the fledgling cult, goes off on her own and soaks up the Gainesville landscapes, the reader is reminded of Taylor's strengths. A lot of attention has been paid to Taylor's honest and gritty portrayal of sex, and it's mostly deserved, but the moments that stand out aren't so much the hedonistic, polyamorous digressions as the rare glimpses of tenderness, as when Thomas watches his lover sleep: "This girl-his girl, if that's not too fucked up to say, just once, when nobody's around and he's not even saying it aloud. His sweet girl." At times, Taylor is an adept diagnostician of his characters' conflicted, convoluted, and self-sabotaging desires.
The real depths worth plumbing are plumbed too little and too late, when Taylor retires his burning-with-passion neophytes and shifts his gaze to the doubting Thomas and the grounded Anchor. In the end, the latter provides the most cogent and provocative distillation of the anarchic messiness that preceded and the varied religious and ideological proclivities of the novel's Kool-Aid-chugging cast: "She had worshipped them-all of them-sort of; what they seemed to stand for, who they seemed to be. She hadn't wanted to be them, exactly, but had hungered to feel things as powerfully as they did." That hunger is something to which we can all confess, and it's a pity it took the entire ramshackle affair of this book to get to the meat of the motivation. These characters, more than most, could benefit from some tough love and scrutiny from their creator. Throughout all the disjointed preceding pages, the punks "lived as if the fate of the very universe were perpetually at stake and in their hands," and Taylor left them too unchallenged. The book strives for a near-constant revelatory fever pitch, but it neither attains the catharsis its characters seem to find around every corner (and in every dumpster), nor casts a sufficiently inquisitive eye toward the strange attraction (to recycle one of the book's mantras) of obsessive worship or the ease with which people shift their orbits around different consecrated idols of unbridled desire and devotion.