Cultic with a Chance of Rain: The Novel and Cults and Novels about Cults

March 11, 2011 | 7 books mentioned 3 8 min read

1.
“I think it’s going to be cultic,” Philip Roth said recently on the future of the novel.  “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people.  Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

Of note is the fact that Roth was speaking to Tina Brown, master of ceremonies at The Daily Beast, an online attention-mill that roughly a year after running the quotation in question subsumed old school bearer of the magazine journalism standard Newsweek (inviting visions of joint enterprise, DailyNewsBeast).  If the universe online can seem to undercut cherished notions of a solitary speaker delivering polished wisdom and revelation from the mountainside, by democratizing the availability of virtual mountainsides and slaking the requisite for polish – diversion always just a finger’s click away (hey, look at that…) – then it may well fall to the serious novelist to play early Christian to, for lack of a better imperial throne, Gawker’s Rome.

Where, after all, are the fictional characters more obsessing than Charlie Sheen and the commentary he provokes?  Good novels are the shields we raise in Charlie Sheen’s defiance.

coverTo snag an allegory from Adam Levin’s The Instructions (as the early Judeo-Christian/Rome analogy is likewise snagged, 10-year-old protagonist Gurion Maccabee wrestling with his role at the head of such a defiance), reading a novel is akin to entering a defile, “a thin breach through which only one person could pass at a time, a space that an army would have to break ranks in order to trek.” It is the solitary nature of a novel’s undertaking – the enchantment and transport of fiction, a shared secret – that gives it such formative weight for the individual reader.

Days, weeks, months spent reading a book can’t be replicated by the blaze of movie-viewing, slippery ephemera, an experience vertiginous for want of words.  Fiction can trigger strong feeling, and with a book in your lap, you own it – you read where you want to read, the story proceeds when you will it to proceed.  In marginalia, you can record what a given sentence means to you.  No such option exists in a movie theater, save for what gobbledygook you manage on your cell.  Consciousness of any feeling the story elicits can slip away in the light of the lobby, the smell of popcorn, your companions’ faces, seen again as if for the first time…

Chase that insight later (rent the movie, cue it up on your laptop), and what you may end up with are actors and pretense and motions, the drama of it all, minus what it was you brought to that moment originally, your own feelings made strange, superfluous. “Charlie Sheen,” you may find yourself saying, should Charlie Sheen be the star of the movie in question, “Remind me again of who it is I am.” But Charlie the F18 – he doesn’t know either.

What you need, truly, is quiet and a book.  What you need is a room of your own with a view of the bay.  What you need is an apple and a bowler hat, a footstool on which to cross your ankles.  Do such prescriptions, undergirded by the assumption that you need to be told what’s worth valuing, sound “cultic”?  See how slippery is the off-ramp from the mass-media superhighway.

2.
Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously is a good idea.  Rather than binding everything in the filigree of words, pure excitement has its time and place, a place free of time – always among the young, and who doesn’t want to linger in youth’s hop-along self-assurance?  To be undifferentiated, one of the smiling among the smiling, eyes sleepy, comfort a given.

A book, in contrast, appears a tying down.  What happens to you alone, the very aspect that gives a novel its sway, can be felt never to have happened at all, should there be no other face to acknowledge it.  So mass media derive their dominance, for no matter the quality of the entertainment, you can turn to your companion exiting the theater and say, “Hey, how about that?” In contrast, a book that you read, one less than well publicized, becomes a kernel carried around for months, or years, before reciprocal consciousness is encountered.

The deepening of feeling that goes with carrying that something, a novel’s two covers arguably the very foundation of the private self, may mirror, on its release into the everyday, the fanaticism of the true believer.  Have you read the Levin?  You must read the Levin. (Mind, this is a hypothetical voice; I’m not telling you that you have to read anything.)

Four recent novels, Adam Levin’s The Instructions among them, take the cultic as their departure point: Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, being the other three.  (Somewhere around the bend awaits Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.)  While The Gospel of Anarchy and Big Machine portray cult largely as madness – albeit a seductive sort of madness – The Instructions and The Book of Dave render cult as that other thing it can be: the basis of a new religion (madness, be damned).  All four invite reading, tongue-in-cheek, of sections of their text as scripture.  The Instructions, naturally, is entirely scripture.

3.
Taylor, in his debut novel, is a soul well familiar with the online storm, formerly a brave of HTMLGiant.  That would be neither here nor there were his novel not so clearly a nod to the force the web holds on the mind.

coverThe Gospel of Anarchy opens with a drum solo: David, an ambivalent telephone survey operator in Gainesville and aficionado of online porn (“I imagined the girls in a kind of march, an endless parade celebrating—what?  Themselves, I guess, or me.”) in the way that Jake Barnes saw bull and finely coiffed matador, decides to share nude photos he has of his ex with a listserv of fellow pervs.  He only takes the courtesy of blackening out her face beforehand (a nod to Tucker Max?: “In so doing I had made her anybody—nobody.  She was raw material now.  She was YOUR FACE HERE.”).  Self-destruction attained, he walks out the door and into the street, destination nowhere: “This was my life,” David reports.

Until making some new friends, that is, residents of a commune called “Fishgut.” New friends, and new lovers, Katy and Liz, dynamo and devotee, who take him into their bed and belief system, a work in progress.  For the first time in his life, David finds himself in church, there discovering “veneration of presence, the breaking down of the walls that make each of us one and one alone.  A thing that is three that is also one.  Godhead.”  But this apprehension of religious experience (see the novels of Marilynne Robinson) seems a glaze, to race on its way to truer interest: the commune’s own encompassing mythos, “anarcho-mysticism,” the fervor for its founder’s return. “On Hypocrisy,” “A Different Trip Another Time Another Rain” and “The Moral” read the entry headings of the journal left behind by the mystery man.

Taylor excels at deploying the word “still,” which is appropriate for a writer so gifted at depicting whimsy and volatility.  Or, put another way: freedom, terrible freedom.  Soon enough, The Gospel of Anarchy departs from David’s point of view, the narrative never quite touching down with such sure footing.

Uneven as the web itself, a bold casserole of sensual encounter and deranged proclamation (“My silence was the secret of the secret, the silence of the mystic rose that was fully blossomed within me…”), the fact that Anything is still Something in Taylor’s work figures as nothing short of miracle.  Loudly, even rapturously, Taylor succeeds in making the clamoring passion of his characters real, their raw, mercurial yearning a cry for “a world newly established.” In terms of acts of God, The Gospel of Anarchy is a tornado, tearing up the hill where rock ’n roll and cult meet.  As Katy muses about an old Indian folktale evidently doctored by Christian conquerors:

There’s something beautiful about it also, sort of running concurrently with the monstrosity.  She can’t put her finger on it exactly, but it has to do with ideological miscegenation, how all cultures are just hodgepodges, collages, patch jobs.  Try putting it this way: the monstrosity is the beauty.

4.
coverVictor LaValle’s Big Machine, on the other hand, has the feel of earthquake, low, rumbling tremors years in the building.  The MillionsEdan Lepucki endorsed this one not long ago, duly citing its principal charm: voice.  As a play on James Wood’s hysterical realism, a category that dates most certainly to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Big Machine lets loose a zany, nonsensical plot that never fails to stay grounded in the mind of narrator Ricky Rice.  If the plot flabbergasts, LaValle’s attention to character will not, even to those of bit players simply passing through.  His novel, like Taylor’s, takes fanaticism as its focus. “To be an American is to be a believer!” a vagrant portentously shouts at the novel’s outset. “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.”

Spinning off tropes of serial noir and horror (e.g. vagrant as prophet), LaValle pits sweet good against callous evil, semi-recovered heroin addict Ricky (“Almost three years without a kiss.  That’s a lot of love to lose.”) dropping his job as janitor in Utica, NY, to make for the great north woods of Vermont.  Happy to ditch the grit of janitorial work, Ricky still entertains doubt after receiving mysterious summons: “When he gets you out into the country, well, there’s too many tales about this going badly for a guy like me, and I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.”

The possibilities lead to a compound miles from anywhere – not so different from a writers’ colony, actually (LaValle makes the likeness overt in his acknowledgments) – where Ricky finds he has been selected to take part in a special directive to cull weird and captivating headlines from the mundane: “The Washburn Library doesn’t care who you were, only who you want to be.  Out here we don’t call you cons.  Out here you’re Unlikely Scholars.”

When the library’s existence is threatened by a former disciple named Solomon Clay, Ricky and an authoritative white-haired stunner named Adele Henry are sent to the fictitious Bay Area peninsula, Garland (like Oakland just across from San Francisco), to try to sort things out.  Devils who might be angels, a doomed millionaire and vagrants willing to act as suicide bombers all figure in the ensuing mayhem.

The present action notwithstanding, Ricky’s repressed past functions as counter narrative: Ricky was raised in a cult, one whose three matriarchs (“the Washerwomen”) rewrote the Bible to conform to a more familiar context: “Finally you actually listen and ask yourself, Was there really a woman named Josephine in the Bible?  Malik and his coat of many colors?  Luther parted the Mississippi?”

With humor and the deliberation of the self-doubting, Ricky grapples with his abrupt emergence on the world at large. Ungrounded, he is prone to manipulation by the Dean of the Unlikely Scholars, a man running his own sort of cult.  If “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny” was the rallying cry against the British, then “Love Without Reciprocity Is Madness” could be that against Cult.  And what a kind of madness it is.

Late in the novel, Ricky wonders what his father saw in the Washerwomen’s doctrine, a passage that Taylor’s novel directly echoes:

Their main idea was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken.  Which one?  Take your pick.  All choices were correct.  The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working.  A new church had to take its place.  Something small and defiant and renewed with concern.  Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has.

5.
coverThe Book of Dave explores civilization on the post-apocalyptic island of Ham, where the engraved ravings of a mentally unbalanced, 20th century taxi driver named Dave have been taken as revelation.  As such, all children must split time between their mothers and fathers, who live in gender-segregated communities, Dave’s wife having left him and taken their boy some five hundred-plus years before.

The Book of Dave would have made an excellent novella or short story.  The satire wears thin after page 100 or so (the word “irony” crops up again and again, the Hamites’ manner of denoting metal – for a while, a good joke) and the dialogue, rendered between English slang and text message (“Eye bin 2 ve playce vair ee berried ve Búk, an ee cum 2 me, an ee giv me anuvvah Búk – yeah, a nú I”), is often virtually indecipherable.  Regardless, The Book of Dave headed the pack of this most recent spate of novels chronologically, and its take on the virulence of misogyny is more resonant than nicety allows.

6.
coverReaching back, what are the seminal 20th century novels about cults?  Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (capitalism and its never-ending wonders as cult), and, long live the Chief, Tom Wolfe’s novelized non-fiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  It’s all there: charismatic leader (Ken Kesey), enforced belief (be groovy), claustrophobic togetherness (are you on the bus or…?). The drama of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Kesey’s reckoning with just how cult-like the following he has garnered is, a lesson on spectacle and enthrallment that must speak directly to the modern gods of pop culture – and their marketing gurus. One lesson to take away? Wear cool pants.

Counter to Wolfe’s classic, the anti-heroes of each of the more recent titles are on the inside. They drink the Kool-Aid (if not in quite as dark a sense as that phrase connotes today). The stubborn skepticism of LaValle’s Ricky Rice is the closest thing to Wolfe’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at a remove, outsider on the inside and the outside at once. Of the Pranksters and the fervor of their belief in Kesey, Wolfe writes, setting the undercurrent of his antic history: “And still the babies cry.”

's fiction has appeared in The New England Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere; nonfiction in The Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, and The Daily Beast. Visit him here.

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