Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson – The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975/1984)
Holy excrement… This week, I’m finally getting around to writing about the most wack-a-doo, hilarious, demented, science fiction, conspiracy, adventure-based, religious text (slash) social critique (slash) social deprogramming (or secret society REprogramming) series that I’ve ever read. (I hope that sentence wasn’t confusing… or that it WAS confusing, but only confusing for people who aren’t IN-THE-GNO…) And the squirrel runs back up the tree…because he knows THEY are watching, and I think there’s a tracking program in the digital copy that I read, so THEY also know I’m writing this review! (I’ll try to be nice…)
In 1975, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson released The Eye in the Pyramid, the first of the three books in this trilogy. I’m not exactly sure when the next two books, The Golden Apple and Leviathan, were published, but according to several of the sources I consulted, the three books were packed together in a single 800+ page volume in 1984, and that’s really how this series HAS to be read. Before deciding to tackle this review, I’d already read the first two books, and I found them humorous, confusing, creepy, and even a bit hokey… Now that I’ve read the first two books TWICE, and finally finished the third book, I see how essential the final book is to making sense of the first two---if SENSE is the right word here.
The “story” as told by the two Roberts moves with frantic speed through various characters’ lives, frequently changing points of view, often without signaling that a change is coming. The story is told sometimes in first person, but mostly in third. TIME means almost nothing in these pages, as the tale bounces from “current” to past events, projects into the future, and then slips into extended hallucinatory segments, then spends pages on theories of reality and perception, exposition, and historical information. The narrative contains explicit scenes of sexual content, is swimming in drugs of every variety, and incorporates historical figures, like John Dillinger and Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald, plus borrowed elements and situations from a variety of sources, from the Principia Discordia to H.P. Lovecraft to Carlos Castaneda to Laurel and Hardy.
There are a few graspable narrative threads that pop up here and there and some recurring characters to cling to, like a drowning swimmer would grasp a floating piece of debris after their boat explodes at sea---but after experiencing the initial shock of the quick jumps and narrative shifts (jarring enough to make Beckett blush), a reader grows accustomed to the style and learns to go with the flow. And those who valiantly push through the weirdness will be rewarded for their efforts because there’s a LOT to love here. The writing, when not being deliberately confusing, is very funny. There is a cunning mixture of the historical and plausible mashed into the blatantly fantastic and absurd, which I personally find charming and fun. The word play is clever, and the names of many of the characters are downright hilarious! (“Banana Nose” Maldonado, Mary Lou Servix, Dr. Vulcan Troll, Padre Pederastia, and Fission Chips (AKA Agent 00005), and so on. Great stuff!). However, if you think Game of Thrones has a few too many characters, you’ll definitely want to avoid this series.
Now, there IS a solid plotline to be found here---it comes in and out of the narrative for the first two books, but solidifies by the third. The gist goes something like this: one of the MANY competing secret organizations vying for world control plans to put together a large rock concert in Germany in an attempt to gather thousands of music fans together and kill them. The cosmic energy released by the deaths of so many people will fuel their nefarious, magical schemes, but luckily for humanity (and the talking dolphins), there is another group, led by a mysterious anarchist named Hagbard Celine, and this second group are either trying to STOP the massacre from happening, or maybe they are just going to use the rock concert to do something EQUALLY disastrous that furthers THEIR agenda. One of the things that this book is excellent at doing is pushing ambiguity into the red. Sometimes you think a certain character or group is evil, then you think maybe they’re good, then they’re evil again---until you eventually reach a point where you start to wonder if “evil” or “good” are inadequate terms. Motives are always in flux in this story, and the narrators are predictably unreliable, and then sometimes it’s just hard to keep the characters and plot threads straight.
Like I said at the beginning, this was my second time reading through The Eye in the Pyramid and The Golden Apple, and I still had a hard time following the story, (there are SO MANY CHARACTERS!!!), but I have to say this: the series is incredibly entertaining. It’s worth fighting through the confusion in order to get to the hilarious situations and weird philosophy that Shea and Anton Wilson have put together. If you have any sympathy for underground cultural movements (punks or the Situationists or the Discordians or rave culture or any REVOLUTIONARY activists) then this trilogy will probably be of interest to you. It’s not going to appeal to people who want a clear beginning, middle, and end to their stories, nor will it be an easy read for most people. The text is thick, recursive, and confusing. It might help if you’re already familiar with a ton of “higher consciousness” literature in the Tim Leary vein, as well as having the ability to swim in the conspiracy sea (Freemasons, Kennedy assassination, Atlantis, Rosicrucians, Theosophy, The Golden Dawn, etc…), but it’s still a bit of work to get through more than 800 pages of story PLUS the 20 or so appendices, which really do NEED to be read as well to get maximum closure. (The Roberts sneak plot development into the appendices! The dastardly fiends...)
The series is a crazy, drug fueled, sexually unhinged, magic infused, maddeningly paranoid, intentionally ridiculous trip, and one that I will certainly be taking again. I’ve already started looking for my next Robert Anton Wilson book to read, (so get ready for that.) Meanwhile, I’d say, if you’ve got the time and you think you’re mentally fit enough, give the Illuminatus! a try, although I can’t guarantee that you’ll come all the way back from this adventure!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)