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.