The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor
Release date: February 8, 2011
Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy slices deftly through a pop culture haze, extracting some of its juiciest vapors – extreme spirituality, politics, alienated youth – and congealing them into a gripping mosaic that is both monstrous and sublime. It is a beautifully dark first novel about the need for genuine connection, both human and holy, in an era that too often seems cold and sterile.
Set in pre-Y2K Gainesville, the book follows the listless exploits of David, a University of Florida dropout who works at a brain-numbing office job and trades Internet porn at night. A chance encounter with a group of local punks convinces him to abandon his old life and shack up with a coterie of neo-Luddite loafers and pseudo-cultist anarchists who get the inspiration for their anti-establishment lifestyle from a mysterious, recently disappeared former housemate named Parker.
The characters are not particularly groundbreaking or interesting in terms of the ideology they represent, as the young, grubby, hyper-opinionated libertine is by now somewhat of a clichéd persona. However, Taylor’s highly polished and deeply psychological prose breathes fascinating life into the heretofore familiar, revealing a dark and poignant yearning, a dire scream for transcendence in a McMansion wasteland and its always-tragic prospects. And while long segments devoted to the actual text of the “gospel” the punks worship seem a bit like overkill, the book remains impressive for instilling a paradoxically religious fervor in characters who have shrugged off the chains of all higher powers, both spiritual and secular. The reader is left with a profound respect for their earnestness in a fog of late 90s cynicism, for “how they give credence to ultimate concerns, the rhetoric a little windy, sure, but the passion undeniable, the attraction intense. They lived as if the fate of the very universe were perpetually at stake and in their hands.”
Yet Taylor’s greatest asset may be not only his ability to cannily craft a series of vivid, perfect post-postmodern moments, but also his power to imbue otherwise mundane scenery, this seen-it-before suburban milieu, with a somber weight of Biblical proportions. Half-finished housing developments, an unassuming pizza spot, frat bars and cul-de-sacs. To David, these are the totems of a Gomorrah fueled not by any devil’s pleasures, but by the brain-dead, Wonder Bread machinations of traditional American dogma. A sugar-dipped squalor that eventually becomes unbearable. Though the novel takes place before the true proliferation of the Internet and the ubiquitous cell phone explosion, images of technology’s potential for the perverse and the mind-numbing (pornographic pictures of an unknowing ex-girlfriend electronically traded by sleazy chat room voyeurs, the soul-crushing hospital glow of a telephone survey taker’s cubicle) are equally ghastly. Perhaps more so given the cultural developments of the last decade.
Ultimately, Taylor’s intense and thorough characterizations and his superior writing chops are what make The Gospel of Anarchy a timely and potent read.