Harry's Reviews > The Illuminatus! Trilogy

The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea
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Apr 05, 2012

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"It's a dreadfully long monster of a book," Wildeblood says pettishly, "and I certainly won't have time to read it, but I'm giving it a thorough skimming. The authors are utterly incompetent--no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science-fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, I'm sure, and the authors--whom I've never heard of--have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy. You can be sure I won't waste time reading such rubbish, but I'll have a perfectly devastating review ready for you by tomorrow noon."
"Well, we don't expect you to read every book you can review," Peter says mollifyingly, "just so long as you can be entertaining about them."


Isn't that cheeky! I'm not sure how okay I am with that bit--it's awfully cute and more than a little defensive on the part of the authors--but it did make me laugh and it's a better summary than I could manage so I'll stick with it for now. This is a tricky little book and while I liked it quite a lot I don't want it getting cocky. There's still two books of it left to go and I have this strange feeling of guilt for liking it as much as I do so far, which isn't a feeling I get often with something I think that I like.

(In the interest of full disclosure: I bought all-in-one binding of The Illuminatus! Trilogy when I was sixteen and never finished it. I vaguely remember taking two months to read The Eye In The Pyramid, the first book, but I didn't understand any of it and the experience left me frustrated more than anything else. I've just finished (re?)reading the The Eye (again?) and while I remember parts of it I'm remembering them through a seven year haze, so while this isn't a totally fresh read, I would say this is the first time I've "read" the book, if that makes any sense. Certainly the first time I've enjoyed it.)

The appeal of The Illuminatus! Trilogyis its promise to explain away every conspiracy theory as part of an even greater conspiracy that no one person can comprehend on their own. I've had a playful interest in conspiracy theories since way back when I heard my first ghost story--it's all tied up in the same muck--so this was like catnip to me. It's a difficult read at times, but only in the self-important way that all "big books" try to be. The links to Pynchon are obvious, but where Pynchon's noodling sentences hint at an unending bigger picture that we can't understand (and shouldn't try to, anyway), Shea and Wilson are playing in a closed system. You get answers, and big crazy ones at that, but that gets the book lumped in with the likes of Dan Brown in the scifi/fantasy/thriller racket, which I don't think is a label it totally deserves. At the risk of sounding genre-ist, all of the Dan Brown books I've read (which are hilarious and great) treat the conspiracy as an obstacle course the rugged historian has to hop through before he can punch the Klansman Bishop in the hood, or whatever. Illuminatus, on the other hand, is a definite product of its time--the late 60s and early 70s--when things felt so terrible that there just had to be a reason behind all of it. The Kennedy assassinations, MLK, Watergate, Cold War escalation, so many scenes of this book are of hippies being graphically beaten to death by merciless cops. It's an atmosphere so oppressive the only way out of it is to try and push a needle through the earth and sew the whole world back together so it starts to make sense. Paranoia and conspiracy theory are tools we use to explain away fear, and there's a weird comfort in knowing there's an unstoppable superstructure that rules every facet of our lives. It gives us something to fight against.

A word to the plot. Detectives Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon are pulled away from their wives early in the morning to investigate the bombing of the offices of a countercultural magazine in New York City. The editor Joe Malik is missing, presumed dead, and he's left a stack of "Illuminati Memos" tucked away in his office, which the detectives spend the first third of the novel reading before being kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed by forces unknown. The action jumps back and forth without warning between the detectives and the story of George Dorn, a reporter for the magazine who meets Hagbard Celine, a libertarian anarchist with a golden submarine that takes them on a quest to save Atlantis. On the fringes are several other smaller stories, like what really happened to Joe Malik and the crisis in Fernando Poo, and these stories weave in and out of each other so well that sometimes it took me a moment to notice that the book had switched tracks. The feeling of paranoia is palpable--by the time I finished The Eye In The Pyramid I felt that someone was creeping up on me, getting closer and closer, just like in the movies.

There's a lot more to take apart in here--I was struck by how intentionally underwhelming most of the fantastic elements of the novel are, Atlantis and the spider robots are purposefully under-hyped, with most of the characters wondering if they're just high--but I'm going to hold any formal analysis until I'm done with this mess. I will say that I'm hoping to meet some actual female characters soon. Every woman who shows up here is more or less a vagina on legs, and I'm hoping they do something subversive with that soon, because right now it's just coming off as massively sexist. There might be something to the scene where George Dorn has sex with a golden apple. There his sex becomes anonymous, and with the addition of the golden apple it becomes self-consciously symbolic, but I never know if the authors here are writing for a laugh or a profound sigh. I'm holding my verdict until I reach the end, but I don't think I'll be able to shake the feeling that I should be reading this thing high.
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04/05/2012 page 304
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