Read Justin Taylor’s words and you might feel them. In the vivid opening chapter of his first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial, $13.99), it’s the summer of 1999 and we’re introduced to David, a young Gainesville, Fla. dropout who sits in a phone survey office, among the “green depths” of computer screens in cubicle stations, headset and script readied for conversations with lonely Early Birds and the unemployed about their buying habits. Feel the “heat of the machines through our pantlegs,” the throat choke while talking to a widow who can no longer drive herself. A dry, white-noise sensation might creep under your skin, as if its baking under florescent lighting. When David returns home to an empty apartment, where he has perfected searching for Internet porn, Taylor makes screen-worlds tangible: “bodies made of light, ever present for endless consumption yet never themselves consumed — skin that looked sweat-slick but was in fact cool to the touch, or would have been if it has been in fact touchable, made of something other than computer glass and consummated light. Skin smooth as keyboard keys, dry and noiseless as the planetlike spinning of the trackball in its cradle.”
With lines like these, we see the Justin Taylor that the Los Angeles Times called “a master of the modern snapshot” and the New York Times-honored “new voice that readers — and writers, too — might be seeking out for decades to come” when he released a collection of short stories, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, early last year. He’s a likeable writer.
But Taylor returns to a setting that he often visited in those short stories: punk houses — part-living quarters, part-show spaces, part-activist homebases for kids who might listen to bands like Propagandhi and Black Flag and ride bikes to equal rights rallies. They are seemingly exotic places that might titillate a brownstone Brooklyn readership. In his short stories, Taylor created visceral scenes featuring characters with names like “Snapcase” sipping whiskey around a fire pit. He wrote so beautifully and vividly that we never noticed how cheaply he constructed punk culture. But as he explores this world deeper in The Gospel of Anarchy, trying to understand it, his setting and characters feel increasingly inauthentic. Instead of paying homage to punk, it feels like Taylor’s gimmick.
The protagonist, David, joins a punk house after running into an old friend Thomas, who was dumpster-diving for falafel sandwiches (“Fuck ideas. It’s food.”). He follows his friend and a girl named Liz, dressed in a beat-up leather jacket, to their home. Within a few hours, David is one-third of a threesome comprised of Liz and Katy, a Siren goddess with blue dreads, and they don’t leave their bedroom for a week.
I’ve never met a punk who has had this much sex.
Eventually, they untangle limbs to create a zine, a “gospel of anarchy,” and start a kind of religious collective.
Taylor’s punk house reads as part-tent revival and part summer sex camp — an escapist’s bunker away from the corporate world and into a den of endless orgies. The thing is, he gawks at it, and it feels cheap.
David and the rest of the characters eventually become caricatures, their attempts at religion, sexual escapades and punk antics outsizing real emotion. By the end of the novel, they are out of reach. We stop feeling Justin Taylor’s words.
David seems to be looking for something to believe in, whether its an actual god, or faith, or loyalty. The year that the novel takes place, 1999, is a few years before Friendster, MySpace and eventually Facebook would create digital communities occupied by, and perhaps comforted by, loners like David. Whether these online communities are false “friends” or genuine support systems depends on who you ask. But maybe this plot point is a clear answer from Taylor: Before joining the punk house, David drowns his own computer in the bathtub.
The problem with Taylor turning to punk houses to find his community is that he mistakenly sees them as otherworldly breeding ground for wandering souls and sex-hungry Mohawk-ed kids. In fact, they are something much simpler: a home where kids try to create a family. Rather than forcing his characters to believe in cheap dogma, I’d like to read Taylor trying to make people believe in each other.