The Gospel of Anarchy is not so much homage to anarchism as it is to adolescence, to how wonderful and profound it can be to learn the algorithm of Western doctrine and then rebel against, reconfigure or reimagine it. Despite its ambition, however, Justin Taylor’s debut novel falls short of the promise displayed in his short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. The artistic vision trumps the prose and extends beyond Taylor’s reach.
The novel takes place entirely in Gainesville, Fla., in 1999, and follows a band of Dumpster-diving rebel youth— including a number of University of Florida refugees—living in a squat called Fishgut. David, the narrator, notes, “The school is more than the main thing here. It’s the only thing.” David is a jaded college dropout working at a customer call center who waxes poetic on web pornography, the follies of past relationships and the dreaded fear of having to return to his parents’ home in South Florida, where his “childhood bedroom waited like an armed bear trap.”
Right when David introduces Fishgut, his four constituents and an ominous deserted tent-turned-candlelit shrine (that Parker, Fishgut’s disciple-slashprophet, camped in before going AWOL) comes an interruption. David suddenly stops narrating (he returns again for a short segment near the end). The story becomes a metaphysical, five-character bildungsroman taken over and chronicled by an omniscient narrator—a narrator the story is really about. So much so that we lose sight of the five main characters, whose portraits haven’t yet fully formed and never do.
Omniscience is a novelist’s most dangerous tool. If not applied with an appropriate level of restraint, it can ruin even a great story.
In what seems an attempt to bottle every emotion, observation and existential sensitivity, the omniscient narrator encroaches on each of the novel’s five free-thinking, anti-establishment, Gen Y personalities by leeching off their colloquium and temper, going so far as to pose unnecessary questions that risk redundancy and smear the characters. It even helps them think: “Fuck, but he sounds like Parker, doesn’t he? This is fortune cookie logic. Enough, enough. Think about something useful, man. You don’t want to be like them… So he thinks about Seattle, and how the New World Order is coming.” The narrator mocks them. And by doing so, Taylor’s prose gets laborious, the plot convoluted, the narrator bothersome.
Clever in concept, the structural density of the novel does not achieve the value of Taylor’s earlier work. In many ways, The Gospel of Anarchy serves at the behest of its narrator rather than that of its audience.
The story proceeds to follow each of the five characters as they anticipate a Y2K apocalypse, the subsequent revolution and the repatriation of Parker, whose scribbled-in notepad becomes Fishgut’s anarchist manifesto. Parker never appears, but the characters seem to represent, in his absence, the full circle of an anarchist’s maturation. As their stories unfold, little more than a cohort of young, lost hedonists is revealed.
Over the course of the story, the main characters beat the crust punk, New World Order ideology to a pulpy mess through a haze of pot smoke and the occult. Creepy threesomes and existential diatribes fill the gaps. Taylor represents this generation of twentysomethings in a way no author has done, by depicting a highly sensualized graduation from childhood at the wide turn of the 21st century—what might have happened if you quit your job and toured with His Hero Is Gone or, better yet, gathered your closest friends and lovers into one abandoned house to live, party and play your own goddamn music, every day.
Finally, well into the second half of the novel, Taylor exhibits Parker’s notes (like CliffsNotes), the tenets that have Fishgut’s occupants swimming: “ephemerality is no longer a mere characteristic, but it is become a value. Affinity groups, squats, Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man; whole minor civilizations appearing like mushrooms after rain, disappearing like sun-burnt mist, untraceable, a vision, a dream.” Parker’s notes are too late and unremarkable—the composite of which fail to fit congruently as whole or to jumpstart the flatlining plot.
By the novel’s conclusion, David reads best. His digressions are a pleasure, reminiscent of Taylor’s short story prose. Which is not to say that David should have narrated the entire story; the omniscient narrator is fundamental to the function of this novel. It is to say that a less mouthy narrator would have sheared off a good chunk of wasted prose.
Notwithstanding, Taylor is an undeniable talent with a contemporary voice that this new generation of skeptics has long awaited—a young champion of literature.