Some Books: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘The Illuminatus! Trilogy’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The latest of these is The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Back in the late Seventies, in the days before the Tories destroyed the Net Book Agreement and every newsagents/confectioners had their own spinner racks or a couple of shelves full of cheap paperbacks, you literally couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the brightly coloured and esoteric symbol heavy covers of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, or rather of the three individual volumes, The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan.
I’d read about them in the New Musical Express, the only place I’d heard of them, and they’d given the books a glorious reception, both welcoming and cynical at once, enough to intrigue me. I looked at them, and I looked at them, and I kept looking at them, with curiosity and reserve. I wanted to read them, and I wanted to like them, but I was very unsure of them, and unwilling to commit the money when there were so many certainties available.
Eventually I read them, and it must have been from the Library, and I know this because I read them out of order, second, third and first, not that it made much difference to my understanding. This was no Lord of the Rings, and starting with The Two Towers. What I thought of the books when I was in my early twenties I have not the faintest idea, except that I didn’t go on to buy the books to re-read.
That re-reading has only now come, something like forty years later, an intense spell of three days reading of a collected volume (the form the book has taken since 1984), bought in 2018, struggled through and lost less than halfway, and now forced through continuously. What do I think of it now?
Actually, I’m going to quote an opinion on the trilogy that expresses my responses in language I can’t surpass. There are two quotes:
“It’s a dreadfully long monster of a book… 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, and the authors… have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy.”

“… it’s absurdly long… ‘If The Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale for adults, sophisticated readers will quickly recognise this monumental miscarriage as a fairy tale for paranoids.’ That refers to the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the plot, if there is one, seems to revolve around.”
And who is it that has anatomised the book thus succinctly? The authors of those quotes are the authors, Shea and Wilson themselves, on pages 238-9 and 381 respectively of my copy. But whilst they are exaggerating for comic effect, taking themselves as little seriously as a book of this nature should do, or else are cynically exposing themselves as the ultimate put-on merchants (that’s a vintage term now, isn’t it?), they aren’t saying anything that isn’t true.
I’m at a loss as to how to describe The Illuminatus! Trilogy without expanding this post to something like the dimensions of the book. The narrative flicks erratically between viewpoints and multiple characters, along an achronological timescale, and between first and third person. It throws in every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of and dozens more you haven’t come across, seeking to bind them into an over-arching structure that is paradoxically only capable of being united by a complete lack of structure, and underneath all the head-trip obfuscation, it’s about foiling a resurgent Nazi world takeover plot, deep into the third act.
As for the experience of reading the book, well, I have never dropped acid, smoked grass, or partaken of any hallucinogenic substance stronger than a bloody good book, but the whole thing reads like the meanderings of a room of potheads whose brains have been fried, and the only reason this book didn’t get written in 1967 might well be because the writers were too stoned to come far enough down for nearly a decade.
Actually, Shea and Wilson were associate editors at Playboy magazine and wrote the trilogy between 1969 and 1971 and it took several years before a publisher would touch it, and then only after 500 pages of cuts! It was conceived as a complete work and, just as with Lord of the Rings, was split into three volumes for commercial reasons.
The book is incredibly hard to read due to its diffuse structure. I’m not unused to books that use, for example, non-linear timelines, but whereas these can be incredibly effective from an author who has worked out what he is doing and maintains a rigid control, there’s never any sense of this here, but rather that the authors are making it up as they go along, which might not be that far from the truth, given that there is apparently very little collaboration in the trilogy, but rather the authors writing different sections, and out to one-up each other all the time.
Considered as individual books, The Eye in the Pyramid has the benefit of some form of narrative propulsion, and Leviathan of a double-climax, completing the ‘story’, but The Golden Apple is a classic middle book, solving nothing, answering nothing, just a haze of incomprehensibility, although that may have been my over-tired mindset when reading that part of the trilogy. I shalln’t be going back to give it a fairer hearing.
There are books that you do not like but that you nevertheless go on to finish, ‘to see what happens’. This wasn’t the case with The Illuminatus! Trilogy but there was an element of that to my determination to read until the final page, and that itself was not even the urge to finish ‘to see if there was any point to this’, but simply to read and end, because it was there. I will finish this. I can’t even say that I disliked the book: in the end it was something that was not for me, not now, nor probably for the younger me, who does not seem to have been influenced by it one way or another.
One for the Charity Shop.

6 thoughts on “Some Books: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘The Illuminatus! Trilogy’

  1. Yeah, I’ve been a regular ever since you wrote the stuff on “Dan Dare” – I was a fan from a few years earlier – “The Man from Nowhere” onward, until it went b&w and lost its way…I can’t say I always agree with you – for instance, you were quite critical of the Lion’s “Captain Condor”, which I would argue in that 1960-65 period actually had some good stories, better structure and plot-line than Dan Dare. But (football and some more obscure movies and TV serials aside) I always enjoy your opinions. On “Illuminatus!” I have to admit I brought the trilogy and read it, but, yes, eventually they went to the charity shop! I think I first saw about it in “Future Life” magazine. I think Wilson and Shea were pretty much in the Charles Fort mode of thinking – have a pop at conventionality, throw in everything, question everything, and if someone is shocked or confused – so much the better! Wilson actually was quite an interesting character, intelligent, but wacky, and yes bombed out of his mind part of the time! I still have his “Cosmic Trigger” non-fiction (?) book, which is a crazy autobiography, but interesting to his thinking. He comes somewhere between Timothy Leary and Philip K. Dick (both, of course, were heavily into the mind-expanding drug scene). His teenage daughter was senselessly killed in a bungled robbery. He died comparatively young, like Dick. At the same time he was convinced he was in communication with beings from Sirius! Sadly, perhaps, we live in times that are less tolerant of eccentrics or wacky commentators. I would recommend reading the “Comic Trigger” book just for the sheer scale of his vision. He was also convinced (wrongly, alas) that humanity would rapidly evolve mentally and intellectually in the “next 40 years” from the 1980s. Johnson and Trump are proof of how off the beam that optimism was!

  2. Hi Garth. I recognised your name from another coomment, some time past, and I really appreciate your ongoing interest. I’ve got to say that I don’t agree with you over Captain Condor, bu I am biased as the Keith Watson Dan Dare was my introduction to the character, and the nostalgia of that period is overwhelming. As for ‘Illuminatus’, I think your characterisation of Shea and Wilson’s motives are probably spot on. I’ve never thought of reading anything else they/either wrote, but if I can find a copy of ‘Cosmic Trigger’ cheap. I’ll grab it and post it. Might not be too soon: spare cash is going to be tight for a bit whilt i save up for something I want to do in November.

    Thanks for commenting again: with you on Trump/Johnson!

    1. I especially enjoy your 1940s movies ‘reviews’, even the ones I don’t remember or never got round to seeing. “Maltese Falcon” has to be one of the greats – ever! I vaguely remember the crazy Laurie Anderson “O Superman” song. I tried playing it my wife’s 13-year-old grandson and he hated it, but his father – who is heavily into the music scene – recognised it straightway – she was Lou Reed’s missus apparently. I loved it. It sort of gets into your head!

  3. Good review, and I wish I could disagree with you. Problem is, I’d read Lafferty’s _Fourth Mansions_ before ever picking up the Illuminatus Trilogy. To see them attempt to do the same thing with far less skill, depth, or precision, making up for the lack with gratuitous sex scenes just irritated me. Oh well, it gives all the sub-genius adherents something to talk about.

    1. To be honest, I’d never have thought of comparing them. You certainly can’t do that to Illuminatus’s favour. Lafferty only ever *seems* to be ramshackle.

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