The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

DTP, 1975, 805 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-440-53981-1

I read Gravity’s Rainbow, once.

It sounds like a shameful admission, and that’s not far from the truth. Even years after the horrendous experience, I still remember the darn book’s page count (760) since I glanced at it every four pages or so. I never read something I understood less (except, maybe, for my calculus manuals… but I digress). There are a few other anecdotes relating to this book. (Like how I managed to read it at a traditional canadian maple-syrup party and (the day after) right in the middle of a family emergency.) But that’s another story for another time.

Suffice to say that I approached The Illuminatus! Trilogy with a similar state of mind: Was this going to be another postmodern 800-pages muddle? Would I be able to enjoy anything?

The answers were… surprising. I don’t usually like literary experiments, and still shudder at the memory of Gravity’s Rainbow. But The Illuminatus Trilogy is different.

For one thing, there is actually a story in here. It’s over-convoluted, way too long and stuffy like you wouldn’t believe, but it’s still a story. Never mind that most of the book doesn’t “happen” in chronological order, there’s a more-or-less defined beginning and end here. (The middle is all over the place).

That story, to put it simply, is the exposition of all the conspiracies that control society. From the Kennedy assassinations to the pyramid on the american $1 bill (which, speaking as a Canadian, still freaks me out) everything can be traced to one controlling group: The Illuminatus! Of course, the “truth” (if there is such a thing) is far less simple. If the Mafia part, over, under or a creation of the Illuminatus? Or is it the other way around? At one point in the novel, there are about three thousand groups that may or may not be in conflict and simultaneously part of the same organisation. If that’s confusing, don’t worry: It’s part of the enjoyment one gets from the trilogy.

To paraphrase one of the cover blurbs; you won’t know what’s happening, but you’ll have too much fun to notice. For fun is what’s included in The Illuminatus! Trilogy that’s missing from the other literary “stuff”. Whether you’re looking for gratuitous sex scenes (there are many, but -unfortunately!- less of them as the book advances), “cameos” by celebrities (Adolph Hitler, H.P. Lovecraft and Buckminster Fuller, to name a few), dramatic ironies (heh-heh-heh) or plain jokes (My favourite: “He worked with Smith-1, Smith-2 and Smith-3, three identical siamese triplets. Their father was a mathematician, so he indexed rather than named them.”)

Never mind that everything is outright incoherent fantasy. Forget that the book would have been immensely clearer with blank lines between sections. Pass over the 70-some pages of appendices. Drive the insane pseudo-erudite details out of your mind… This is fun stuff, for mature reader. “Mature” here being ability to digest twenty-odd plots occurring simultaneously at different points in time…

Unavoidable flaws are evident: There is a very “early seventies” feel to the trilogy, not surprising given the copyright date. Also, I felt that the ending is a bit drawn-out… but a re-reading might correct this impression.

Nevertheless, high conditional marks for The Illuminatus! Trilogy. If only for the explanation of why the Pentagon is built that way… Just don’t forget: They might be controlling you, right now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *