Tuesday, December 16, 2014

James Tadd Adcox Recommends The Illuminatus! Trilogy

And so we continue our Writers Recommend - a newish series where we ask writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like an LSA -Literary Service Announcement. And this one comes along as a part of the blog tour for James Tadd Adcox's newest, Does Not Love. You're doubly welcome.

James Tadd Adcox recommends The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Several years ago I went to see an interview with the science fiction writer William Gibson at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The interviewer asked him about his influences, and he made the comment that if you ask a writer who his or her influences are, the writer is most likely to answer with a list of people he or she would like to have as influences. The books that influence us the most deeply, he said, are those we read before we had any conception of what we “ought” to be reading, those books that we pick up because they’re around or because they have a cool cover or whatever and which we fall intensely in love with as kids before we know we’re not supposed to. A writer’s real influences are the ones that he or she is embarrassed to talk about.

I’ve been thinking about those early influences, the books that I stumbled upon and loved before I knew enough to care about what I was supposed to love. One of those books— or perhaps the book that supplied the bridge between those embarrassing ur-books and the “literary” stuff I’d read later on—is The Illuminatus! Trilogy, originally published, as the name implies, as three books, but really a single novel. I first read Illuminatus! towards the end of middle school, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, too young to understand a lot of things in the book and just barely old enough to understand some other things. Bizarre sexual practices play a pivotal role at several key points in the plot, if I remember correctly (and I am almost certain that I do—for a couple of those scenes I’ve got the sort of so-called “flashbulb” memory people talk about having the moment they learned Kennedy died). Politics, too, featured heavily; not as exciting as the sex, okay sure, but I was always strangely interested in politics as a kid, as I tried on one set of political beliefs after another, from Rush Limbaugh conservative to Marxist to anarchist to God-only- knows.

I’m tempted to look this book up on Wikipedia, to tell you, for example, that it is described there as “a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story; a drug-, sex-, and magic-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both historical and imaginary, related to the authors’ version of the Illuminati,” covering themes such as “counterculture, numerology, and Discordianism,” the latter being a religion that may or may not, but probably was, made up by the authors and which spread in subsequent years to the world outside the book. But I would prefer not to do that. I would prefer to rely here on my
memory of the book, accepting that I’m going to get certain things wrong. Illuminatus! was a thousand-some page book (one of the longest, possibly the longest, that I had read up to that point in my life) written by a pair of ex-hippies and then-anarchists, both named Bob, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. At that time I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels, and I found this book in the science fiction section of my hometown library. God knows whether it makes sense to classify the book as science fiction or whatever else at all. What deeply impressed me about the book was its approach to the real world.

Previous novels I’d read always seemed really clear on what parts of the book were of the real world, or were intended to be, and what parts were the novelist’s additions to it. In a typical science fiction novel, for example, there are some scientific theories or facts that are posited as real, such as the existence and basic science relating to black holes, and some fictitious extrapolation from these facts, such as the use of black holes to travel through space. Or, in literary fiction, certain facts about the world will be posited—such as the
structure of racism in the American south—to which will be added certain fictitious elements, such as the existence of a lawyer named Atticus or a recluse named Boo.

This clear division didn’t hold in Illuminatus! Certain elements, clearly, were fictional—the main characters, or most of them, anyhow, were probably made up, and the authors probably didn’t have any direct knowledge of how long it took for various world leaders to get off during encounters with skilled prostitutes (rounded, if I’m not mistaken, to the nearest half-minute). Other parts were clearly based on fact—the aforementioned world leaders seemed to be clearly based on their real world counterparts, for example. But a wonderfully broad swath of the book seemed to inhabit a shadow space between these categories, things that might be true, things that might be mostly true, things that the authors might believe to be true regardless of their real-world status, things that people besides the authors thought were true that the authors were willing to go along with. But you would never know which was which without doing outside research—and what good would that do you, really? How would you ever know that you’d researched enough? Just because you couldn’t find one of the sources the authors cited (because of course they cited their sources)
doesn’t mean that the authors made it up. Just because you found a book that said such-and-such never happened, that such-and-such happened instead—well, you could find books that said all kinds of things, couldn’t you? There were books that said that the pilgrims and the Indians were friends and that colonialism was glorious and that human beings really did, honest to God, land on the moon.

Reading Illuminatus!, you got a sense of something like vertigo, a sensation of falling even as you were sure (weren’t you?) that you were standing on solid ground. It’s the first book that I can remember ever giving me this sensation, and it’s in large part responsible— I’m eighty-nine percent sure of this—for the path my taste in books and movies and possibly even music would eventually take. I am forever looking to be overwhelmed. I’m reading a book right now, a very good book, called The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes. I’m reading it for a review, so I won’t say much about it, to make sure I still have something to say when it comes time to review it. But there’s a moment when the narrator is describing some avant-garde films the protagonist is watching, and he says that they’re “the sort of films that poisoned you if you saw them at the wrong (or right) age.” I don’t think it’s going too far to say that something like this occurred when I read Illuminatus!: I was precisely the wrong or right age, and I am poisoned.


James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a collection of stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. He lives in Chicago.

Set in an archly comedic, alternate-reality Indianapolis that is completely overrun by Big Pharma, James Tadd Adcox's debut novel chronicles Robert and Viola's attempts to overcome loss through the miracles of modern pharmaceuticals. Their marriage crumbling after a series of miscarriages, Viola finds herself in an affair with the FBI agent who has recently appeared at her workplace, while her husband Robert becomes enmeshed in an elaborate conspiracy designed to look like a drug study.

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