Justin Taylor on ‘The Gospel of Anarchy’
February 28, 2011 | by Natalie Jacoby
The Gospel of Anarchy is the debut novel from Justin Taylor. The story follows a group of anarchist hippies living together in Fishgut, a house turned commune in the college town of Gainesville, Florida. Philosophizing on religion, freedom, and happiness, they await the return of their Anarchristian friend, Parker, whose left-behind journals have become their own gospel. I met with Taylor to talk about the book.
The Gospel of Anarchy is your first novel. Did you encounter any challenges in the process of switching from the short story format?
One of the hardest parts of writing a novel is figuring out the structure. Mine went through a lot of different versions. The “zero draft” was all in first person, told by David, and then it was all rewritten in third, but still just about him. I wanted to include the others’ perspectives, so I tried doing it in a first-person round, almost like Rashomon or something, which didn’t work either, and somehow or other I came around to what you see now.
The way in which the topic of faith is discussed in the book reminds me of Flannery O’Connor. Was she on your mind in writing this story? Were their other authors that influenced your writing?
Flannery O’Connor was definitely an influence, especially her “other” novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which I actually like much better than Wise Blood. Violent is very funny but very dark, and the stakes of the entire book are basically whether this idiot child should be baptized. For her this is a matter of life and death, and the baptism might actually be more important than death, and I love that. Another author I really love is DeLillo. You can end up in some pretty murky waters trying to do your own take on DeLillo, so hopefully the book steers clear of imitation, but he was a big influence and there are a couple DeLillo shout-outs in the book. The first comes early on, when a character named Thomas sarcastically quotes the opening of White Noise in conversation. Later on, a couple characters compile a zine based on their friend Parker’s journal, which itself is a jumble of uncited allusions, quotes, and references to all kinds of political and religious thinkers mixed with Parker’s original thoughts. But there’s a line slipped in there about how “our faith makes us crazy in the world.” That’s from the Moonie character in DeLillo’s Mao II.
They happen to be two things that I’m interested in. And I think that’s as good as any reason for a writer. You have to trust that instinct. Flannery O’Connor, again, is very good at using the contrast between the people she is depicting and the theological ideas or issues that are at stake to her. O’Connor was a devout Catholic, but you almost never see proper Catholicism represented in her fiction. There’s no Pope, nobody goes to confession, none of that; what really interests her are the people who are so far gone they’re beyond the reach of an institution. It makes for more interesting ground with a lot of these ideas because they’re not trapped by the dogma that a proper Catholic person would have when thinking about God. So it made sense to me to set this story among these anarchists who have rejected everything about culture, including anarchist culture. Who better to take on the challenge of praising religion?
What is your personal background with religion?
I’m Jewish, one hundred percent, born and raised, very secular. My family can be described as nonreligious. Religion as a form of culture is something I grew up with. But religion as anything more than that is a foreign, crazy idea; it’s utterly removed. That’s what makes it fun and interesting to explore, and to get to know it well enough that I can inhabit it, as though it were my own.
There’s an interesting moment in the first chapter that really stood out to me. David is making his routine phone calls as a telemarketer and ends up off script, and he has a very moving conversation with a widow.
I’m really glad that scene stood out for you. The porn from that chapter gets the most attention, which is typical, and that’s fine, but I love that exchange with the woman on the phone. I’m not David in any sense—and there are plenty of things in the book that aren’t autobiographical and I would like to keep myself as far away from those characters as possible—but I actually had a job like that in Gainesville, and I had that conversation almost verbatim as it appears in the novel. It was one of those weird things that stuck with me.
You devote extensive portions of your book to wild, sexual acts—Internet exchanges, threesomes—and it’s received a lot of attention. Were you concerned that it would be gratuitous?
Readers and critics alike have been much more receptive to the graphic parts than I thought they’d be, especially the Internet porn reverie in the first chapter. I think it’s less about the porn itself than about the depiction of the weird subsurface “communities” that flourished briefly at a specific intersection of cultural and technological moments, then were gone. In the broadest sense, they were versions of Hakim Bey’s “temporary autonomous zones,” as is Fishgut itself. At the level of character, though, the porn habit underscores David’s brutal sense of isolation from the world, and his “confession” to the reader seems to prepare him for the conversion he’ll soon undergo. The threesome at the start of the next chapter is meant to be very tactile and sensual—the transition from extreme isolation to extreme connection. It’s a long way from stealing pears in an orchard, but the basic dynamics are Augustine’s, from the Confessions, which is, of course, chapter one’s namesake. The porn thing echoes back again a few times, once when Liz is snooping around in David’s old apartment, and again near the very end, when a female character wakes up to find a one-night stand photographing her naked while she sleeps. In the old world, it was enough that the guy was a creep; in the new world, you have to think about all the ramifications—being forced into permanent presence in an online limbo, flitting around forever as a body of light. The line between private and public has been virtually worn away.
Gainesville is the one place where I spent some time, and I have no idea how different or similar it would be in Bloomington, Indiana, or Ithaca, New York. I lived there for four years, and I loved it. Central Florida—the geography of it, and the culture—it’s where Florida starts to become part of the South again. You’re far enough north. I like that it’s landlocked. I grew up in Miami, ten minutes from the beach, and I think that when people think of Florida they think of the ocean, but there are those hundreds of miles in the middle of the state that are a whole different world: rivers and forests, horse country, and farms. So that was also something I wanted to spend time thinking about.
You use quite a bit of Catholic imagery throughout the book. What was the reason?
The whole book is, at some level, charting the lines between orthodoxy and heresy. The anarchists are like the heretics of politics, in the sense that they reject government altogether. Then there’s the doctrine of Catholicism versus the gnostics or mystics. I’ve had people ask me if I’m a Christian, if the book is some kind of attack on Christianity, or if represents some kind of conversion. I guess the answer is none of the above. I like to think of it almost as a failed conversion attempt. It was the most that I could embrace and adopt this doctrine, without going so far as to live it. Maybe I went in looking for a God, but what I got was a book.