Tag Archives: Robert Anton Wilson

The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson

Dell, 1979 (1988 omnibus), 545 pages, C$13.95 tpb, ISBN 0-440-50070-2

Robert Anton Wilson takes great care, early in The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, to warn us that “contrarily to appearances, [it] is not a mere ‘routine’ or ‘shaggy shoggoth story’” [P.10] I beg to half-differ. While this trilogy isn’t routine, it certainly feels like a shaggy shoggoth story. Pleasant to read but frustrating in terms of conventional plotting, Schrödinger’s Cat can be lot of fun as long as you don’t expect anything resembling an ultimate answer.

Nor any definitive plot, character, dramatic arc or conclusion, for that matter. The central conceit of the trilogy is that it studies the adventures of a few dozen characters in parallel universes. Some of them are more-or-less identical from one universe to another; others are rather different. The American political leadership of any given universe ends up having a substantial impact on the overall feel of each universe —though even Wilson couldn’t imagine the Reagan presidency.

The genius of the trilogy is how the events in one universe inform our understanding of another. Characters are introduced in one timeline, explored in another and left as supporting players in yet another universe. The explanation to some events must be found elsewhere in the book as given situations are explored from other perspectives.

It’s hard to say anything conclusive about the whole work (as Wilson seemingly takes delight in confusing the heck out of anyone even trying to make sense of the overall flow), but it looks as if every book of the trilogy covers an alternate universe, at the exception of the first volume which gives us a second timeline for free after the catastrophic end of the first one.

Normally, I wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about such artistic attempts; I like my fiction straight and linear, and have no patience with books where the author tries to pass off indecisiveness as subtlety. But what reconciled me with this trilogy (aside from the emphasis on science and technology as Good Things) is how even if I wasn’t bothered to follow along with what may or not be a plot, there were enough amusing vignettes to keep me occupied. The narrative is filled with zingers, from the tyrannical “Unistat” empire to a literary critic talking about “Norman Mailer-than-thou”. The character sketches are sympathetic and effective. (Heck, even the author is a character.) The various pranks, events, anecdotes that make up the bulk of the trilogy’s vignettes are rather amusing when taken approached one at a time.

Madness awaits anyone trying to make sense of it all, though. The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy isn’t a movie, and doesn’t follow a conventional A-to-B narrative. It may be best compared to an intricate surrealistic painting, where elements are disposed on a surface that suggests proximity but doesn’t necessarily represent affinity between the parts. Think hologram. Think author on acid. Think “read a random page, rip it out, repeat”. Think chapters in a blender.

Yes, there’s no doubt that this is artsy-trippy stuff. I could understand anyone being reluctant to take it on. If you do, one piece of advice; read as much of it at once. The accumulation of background details is slight but noticeable, and you’ll get much more out of the trilogy if you do read a solid chunk of it in near succession. Some jokes play off each other, and the vast cast of characters may be obscure from time to time. (It also helps to have strong and fond memories of the Illuminatus! trilogy, given that elements of it, such as The Beast and Hagbard Celine, make a return appearance) As long as you don’t try to make too much sense out of it, it’s easy reading. But there are no big answers, no big finale, no puppet-master pulling the strings from the metaverse. It ends in mid-story. It probably warrants a re-read every couple of years.

In short, this isn’t an ordinary book. It’s both fun and frustrating, easy to read and impossible to understand. Maybe I even completely misinterpreted everything. Yet I don’t care all that much. As long as I’ve been entertained, who am I to complain?

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!