Finish it!: Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

Finish it!: Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
Photo illustration by Marcus Jones
Photo illustration by Marcus Jones

The plot of Illuminatus! is difficult to describe, but I’ll try. The offices of a magazine are bombed, supposedly by a militant conservative group of some sort. The editor of the magazine has disappeared without a trace. Detectives assigned to the case discover that the cause is actually much more confusing than they originally supposed. Yes, this sounds similar to plots from other books you’ve read. But involved here is a conspiracy that may go back 18,000 years in the past. Or perhaps just back to the eighteenth century. Or maybe it’s all made up. It really is up to the way you interpret it. Okay, that also sounds like other books you’ve read. But Illuminatus!, at the very least, isn’t hack writing like Dan Brown’s.

Could I convince you to read it knowing that you can expect talking dolphin poets fighting off a secret government’s pop star-zombie Nazi army during a Woodstock-type rock festival? Or that it is full of Zen philosophy, Discordian ideals(look it up online), Freudianism, nympho free masons and outright nonsense? It is also chock-full of secret societies, conspiracies, LSD, giant golden submarines and escalating cold war issues. The humor and blatant non-seriousness of these woven stories leaves the reader with a feeling of not knowing what to believe. The overall feel is like you’re reading a parallel universe of an alternate history book. The trilogy sets out to break the reader’s mind down by stripping away preconceived ideas on each of the above topics and will have your head spinning after the first few pages.

The authors themselves were kind enough to review their own book on page 238:

“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, I’m sure, and the authors – whom I’ve never heard of – have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mismash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy.”

As to what the Illuminatus! trilogy is really like, imagine your uncle leading you along in an interesting and likely emotionally-drenched story, and then he cracks a joke out of nowhere, at which point you are likely not going to be able to ascertain whether it’s really funny or really messed up. Or like the feeling of watching a really good History Channel documentary which delves deep into secret societies or regimes and then sitting on the remote, causing the channel to change abruptly to Family Guy. It clumps chronologically separated moments into a thread of continuity that actually makes the books better off for doing so. History nuts aside, who really remembers precisely when historical events took place, rather than “in the past” or “in my textbook”?

Put your Dan Brown and hot chocolate down and request that the bookstore order a copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy. I had to get my copy at Ken Sanders Rare Books in SLC; I have yet to see a purchasable copy in Utah County. Be sure to call the store beforehand. Illuminatus! is a ‘Rated R’ compared to Dan Brown’s ‘PG-13’ – if that makes any sense. You’ll be happy you bought it.

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