Seems Low: An Open Letter to the FAB-C on The Illuminatus Trilogy
I agree. Two starts out of five does seem low. A conspiracy-fueled romp in which nothing is true but everything is permitted that anointed Bugs Bunny as an anarchist saint and postulates a social misfire between H.P. Lovecraft and Hart Crane? A parodic tour through counter-culture by an ardent amateur scholar who comments lucidly on Joyce and Pound, who taken together represent my jelly and my jam? It sounds like something I should love, but I don’t. And I never have.
I thought it might be different this time. I first read Illuminatus in the early nineties, just on the cusp of a period of advanced snobbishness. At the time, the novel had near samizdat status. You’d hear about it, but it was hard to lay your hands on (at least it was for me). So when I at last picked it up, I bought it new(!) in the big 900 page edition. In the first reading, I scoffed at the bald pastiche of Pynchon, Burroughs, and Reed, more original and more sophisticated stylists who I had first read in the preceding year or so (I mentioned the nascent snobbery). To tell the truth, I was really offended by the rip off of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. As I recall, the whole thing was a slog, but I did finish it.
I’ve loosened up since then. Not everything needs to be a literary masterpiece, and in the interim I’ve become more interested in writers from the margins and writers whose work grapples with the constraints and limitations of genre. I love the quote from Philip K. Dick: “The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum" and that is the stratum these mass-market paperbacks live in. Yet the pieces still don’t fit together in a meaningful way: reading the trilogy is like surfing a crackpot subset of Wikipedia (or The Whole Earth Catalog) where the links are tired bits of genre (detective, sf, porn) pastiche. But just as the map is not the territory (as psychoceramicist RAW fondly quotes one of his crackpots), a list is not a novel. There is a nerd disease, I think, of taking taking the inventory of shiny objects in a text, preferably imbued in some way with nostalgia, as representative of aesthetic quality. (At least this is my working theory about fan-defined literatures such as sff. I first came up with it while reading the Stross novel that includes the skeletons in the spacesuits and the genetically-engineered merpeople on the water planet. Which is awesome.) I will give the trilogy credit for capturing a zeitgeist, but not much more.
[redacted digression on Guy Davenport’s take on Ezra Pound’s take on Ernest Fenosolla’s take on the Chinese ideogram. Oh my, what good stuff you’re missing here!]
But, no, it’s not there. There’s nothing like rigor, nothing holding up the pastiche and parody. RAW comes off as sophomoric, in a sense I didn’t appreciate 20 years ago. Not just the dated porny bits, but the fundamental “maybe logic” that he invokes as if it is open-mindedness: ok, so not every U.S. President is involved in this conspiracy, but the Aga Khan does exist, so there must be something to it. That is so obviously hogwash that I don’t have anything to say about it. RAW says question everything, but really that’s just a kind of knee-jerk dogmatism of its own. He doesn’t tell us how to get any answers. Which makes sense, since he makes us spend so much time in a gold-plated (i.e. yellow) submarine full of libertarians.
SO the map is not the territory. If you, like me, appreciate the notion of the Illuminatus books more than the actual execution, I have a few recommendations: not only Pynchon, Burroughs, and Reed, but also The Invisibles, which includes the King in Yellow and secret societies aplenty; Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which convincing connects John of Leyden to Johnny (Rotten) Lydon, by way of the Caberet Voltaire and late night sci fi movies; and of course, A Draft of XXX Cantos.
In closing, I’d like to thank JC (if those are your real initials) for loaning me this copy last March 23rd. (Actually it was the 24th, but I understand your intention.) This loan was made possible because “Dibs” found another copy, so thanks to AP for planting that fnord-filled counterfeit within her grasp. Thanks of course to Big Guy for nominating the book so all this could happen, and thanks to MD for rearranging the street signs of the Sovereign Duchy every time we go there. And finally, thanks for P just for being J.