Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy has received mixed reviews at best, and the most common complaint against has been that it is flawed in what is usually called "character development." Steve Almond asserts that its characters "seem more like mouthpieces than genuine people. We learn little about them beyond their half-baked dogma, and the point of view shifts frequently" (Boston Globe). Brain Evenson criticizes Taylor for merely "creating character images that contrast from scene to scene, allowing these unexplained changes to do the work of character development" (Bookforum). Carolyn Kellogg regards its mode of narration as "a distancing agent, seeding a ubiquitous narrative skepticism" (Los Angeles Times).
While I would agree that The Gospel of Anarchy is a disappointing first novel, I don't think its main problem lies in a failure to create vivid characters. Indeed, since the novel is largely about the way its characters are willing to subsume their identities to the tenets of a burgeoning sect (some might say cult), or at least to find their identities in the formation of a collective, it seems very strange to fault it because it lacks distinct characters beyond the "half-baked dogma" they embrace. Similarly, since these characters are precisely trying to "distance" themselves from society at large, it's a curious response to them that finds "a distancing agent" inappropriate.
Furthermore, the injunction to develop "round" characters seems quite a reactionary expectation of a young writer, who may or may not find this a desirable goal, as is Almond's further pronouncements that novels "depend on rising action" in which "conflicts. . .have to be dramatized" and finding The Gospel of Anarchy wanting in fulfilling these hoary requirements. There's nothing in The Gospel of Anarchy that suggests Justin Taylor wants it to be judged as an "experimental" novel, but it nevertheless seems pretty dogmatic in its own right to demand that it provide "sympathetic" characters, a fixed point of view, and adherence to Freytag's triangle to be judged acceptable.
If The Gospel of Anarchy is not particularly audacious in form or style, Taylor is clearly a skilled enough writer, and the "shifts" in point of view help maintain interest in the story, however much the story is unfortunately all too predictable, the outcome of its depiction of a failed punk commune implicit in its origins in youthful naiveté, rigidity of belief, and in the narratives of failed utopias that precede it (I often thought in particular of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance while reading The Gospel of Anarchy.) Taylor's first book, the story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, was widely praised for its portrayal of disenchanted youth, but part of the trouble with The Gospel of Anarchy is that it ultimately leaves the impression it began as one of those highly compacted stories and has been stretched beyond its capacity to bear the burden of both invoking its characters' spiritual ennui and depicting their attempts to re-enchant the world they've inherited.
The biggest problem with The Gospel of Anarchy, however, is that it is stretched to bear that burden in such a relentlessly earnest way its author seems not to be aware he is telling on overly familiar tale whose outcome is foreordained. In his review of the novel, Joe Coscarelli in the Village Voice complains there is too much "ambiguity as to whether [Taylor] means to mock his characters or endorse their anti-capitalist paradise," but actually whatever ambiguity there might be on this point is really all there is to maintain any interest in the story. Ultimately it doesn't really matter: the narrative seems designed to establish that the beliefs motivating the characters in their attempt to create an "anti-capitalist paradise" are precisely the sort of beliefs such characters in such a place and at such a time would hold--or did hold. Whether we are to find them compelling or ridiculous isn't finally what's at stake, although most readers will probably find themselves considering that question.
The novel begins well, with a portrait of its ostensible protagonist (the focus soon shifts away from him and settles on "Fishgut," a haven for the disaffected and the dropouts of the college town of Gainesville, Florida) in a state of extreme apathetic discontent, listlessly sorting through online porn while trying to decide whether to finish his education at the University of Florida. This character, David, meets up with an old friend who has fallen even farther into discontent, and who at the moment is engaged in a systematic act of dumpster-diving on behalf of his fellow residents of Fishgut. These episodes are fairly bracing, offering a vivid depiction of generational alienation, but they are not so freshly conceived or rendered to really seem shocking.
As if recognizing that such sketches of dissatisfaction and implicit despair can go only so far, Taylor devotes the rest of the novel to sketches of his characters attempting to ameliorate their despair. This is not an unreasonable or illegitimate thing to do, but the vehicle for this attempt, a hybrid ideology combining elements of anarchism, existentialism, and Christianity the group's de facto leader, Kate, calls "Anarchristianity," is not nearly as interesting as she--and perhaps Taylor--thinks it is. Apart from some scenes depicting David's sexual escapades with Kate and Kate's girlfriend, Liz, escapades that are themselves meant to represent a living-out of important tenets of the creed, most of the novel is taken up with an exposition of "anarchristianity" as inspired, at least retroactively, by a Fishgut resident named Parker, long since departed. While this part of the novel has some interest as an account of how religious sects (ultimately religion itself) get started, on the whole The Gospel of Anarchy doesn't give enough emphasis to this subject, either formally or thematically, to rescue it from the tedium that sets in when Parker and his "wisdom" become the novel's center of attention.
By the time we get to several pages of excerpts from the "holy book" concocted by Kate and David from some unorganized journals left behind by Parker, we've already been so immersed in the awkward hybrid of politics and religion that is anarchristianity it is very difficult to read these pages with the degree of interest Taylor clearly enough intends them to have. If the writings themselves were more lively, their ideas more provocative, we might still concede their importance to the novel, but instead we are given passages such as this:
Faith is the power by which we leap over the unbridgeable chasm, burst through the wall of the asymptote, realize Heaven on Earth. Grace is us granted that power, the fuel injected into faith's engine, the energy generated from its burning up.
Even if we could determine what such a claim is really supposed to mean, it's likely it would turn out to be just as banal as it seems. In my opinion, these pages act to finally bring down the novel as an aesthetic achievement. However much notions like this might appeal to susceptible twentysomethings, they're neither so vitally expressed we want to carefully consider them, nor so obviously ludicrous we know that satire is intended. They're just boring, and the eyes glaze while reading this collection of jottings.
It seems to me that Justin Taylor is too concerned in The Gospel of Anarchy with "capturing" his generation, with "saying something" about that generation's search for solutions to what they perceive as the problems of modern existence. This search is certainly a universal enough phenomenon, but unfortunately the novel essentially offers the same account of it as previous generations of literary seekers. Is fitting this particular kind of quest narrative to the changing if superficial particulars of each succeeding generation's social circumstances a worthwhile goal for the novelist? I tend to think not.
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