Neurasthenia was the fashionable sickness of late 19th-century America. (Big Pharma, not yet so big, had yet to discover ADHD.) The disease–symptoms included fatigue, flatulence and headache–was thought to be a byproduct of “modern civilization”: the stresses involved in urban living and getting ahead. For the upwardly mobile, neurasthenia was “a marker of class.” William James, who suffered the condition, dubbed it Americanitis, the American Disease. Freud thought it was caused by excessive masturbation.
These days, all the cool kids write about pharmaceuticals and cognitive science. In his first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, Justin Taylor makes his attempt to diagnose the mal du siècle by grappling with matters of faith. His interest in religion is not widely shared by his contemporaries; the most theologically astute American novelists of recent years are probably Marilynne Robinson Denis Johnson and the late John Updike.
David, the protagonist, is a University of Florida dropout still hanging around Gainesville, with a low-end tech job and a porn addiction. After a chance meeting at a dumpster, he tosses his laptop, abandons his apartment and falls in with an anarchist commune of fellow dropouts called Fishgut. Among this cohort are Thomas, a hard-core rationalist who considers himself to be above the scene he’s immersed in; Katy, the centrifugal force of the novel, a bisexual narcissist who is part Catholic Worker and part Riot Grrrl; her lover, Liz, an angsty townie; and Anchor, essentially a kibitzer–she doesn’t drop out of school, contributes to the community and even votes.
The Fishgut milieu is marked by a copious amount of sex, numerous incidents of dumpster diving and petty larceny, the usual quasi-mystical ruminations and eventually the founding of a new religion. The Anarchristian creed is based on the contents of a notebook, dubbed the Good Zine, found buried in the backyard by a drifter named Parker.
Contemporary religion in America is less a matter of truth proposition than of subjective experience; “truth” is now determined by emotional intensity, however dubious. While David wants to embrace the entire book with all its “inconsistencies and contradictions unresolved and perhaps beyond resolution,” Katy edits with a few added considerations: “Once people come to us, she assures him, they will have all the time in the world to wrestle with the finer points. … The goal of the Good Zine is limited and simple. ‘Asses into seats,’ she says.’”
Instead of letting it operate as a simple MacGuffin, Mr. Taylor produces a chapbook of the Good Zine, an invitation for the reader to engage with it. Upon examination, the Anarchristian faith is an odd stew of quietism, stoner logic and more than a few wisps from Burning Man. The excerpts from Parker’s notebooks show him struggling with something vaguely resembling Christian concepts of monism or dualism but which is ultimately superficial: “[T]here is something ineluctably devastating in the idea of a body, the fact of it, that I am it and it is me, entirely, or stranger still the idea that it is not, and that something which is not this body but which ‘I’ still know as ‘me’ shall one day leave it behind.” Here, the “erotics of art” are a market-friendly substitute for hermeneutics.
Much of the insight is filtered through the characters’ anxieties and grievances, often sexual in nature. Freud, according to Harold Bloom, thought that sexual jealousy’s “almost delusional character is highly amenable to analytic exposure of unconscious fantasies.” Liz’s feeling that Katy is neglecting her for David is transmuted into a spiritual crisis: “He’s the problem, because he really does believe. … It’s all a slap in the face to her, a rebuke to her own faithlessness and the thin mask behind which she hides it.” Thomas’ decision to finally break with the group is precipitated by an orgy.
Few of the characters in The Gospel of Anarchy are able to achieve meaningful, lasting human connections. Having first withdrawn from the world, the denizens of Fishgut are in the end also distant from each other. Despite their professed search for enlightenment, they show a limited capacity for empathy, the basis for genuine community and any serious moral arrangement. Retreating to their own personal realities, whether of messianic cults or the pieties of political purism, they are proved to be as jaded as their careerist counterparts, cynics to the end. These kids don’t seek freedom; they seek perpetual adolescence. Ultimately, the decision to disengage is as much a moral stance as any other: “Refusal too is action. There is no way to be in the world without being a part of it.”
Mr. Hunte lives in Saint Lucia.