Three 1975 novels (The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan) together comprise Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy.
New York Detectives Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon are assigned to investigate a bombing. Someone has attacked the office of a left-wing magazine, Confrontation. The detectives soon discover that their case may broaden to include tracing a missing person: editor Joe Malik.
Malik left notes that greatly confuse the two detectives. Malik’s paranoid ramblings document a world secretly run by a cabal known as the Illuminati. The ramblings are self-contradictory. More importantly, they give no hint as to Malik’s current location.
Meanwhile, in an entirely different part of the world.…
Confrontation reporter George Dorn is arrested and thrown in jail on drug charges when he lands in Mad Dog, Texas — a town that gives rabid animals a bad name. He’s facing life in prison (possibly a very short life). Much to his surprise, he is broken out of prison by a covert Discordian strike force. Led by Hagbard Celine, the Discordians oppose the Illuminati. The Illuminati, it seems, are real.
Elsewhere, the UK’s Agent 00005 Fission Chips, a paranoid operative assigned to the more outré and inconsequential intelligence cases, is dispatched to the tiny island of Fernando Po to see just what the Russians (or possibly the Chinese) are up to. Of course, if the Russians (or possibly the Chinese) are up to something, Her Majesty’s government needs to know what it is before the Americans hear about it and react inappropriately. Chips finds no evidence of Russians or Chinese, which to his mind proves that his old enemies BUGGER must be up to something.
The people who run the US, the SU, and China are more rational than poor Chips. The fact that there is no evidence of Russian, Chinese, or American activity on Fernando Po confirms the various powers’ suspicion that one or the other (or both) of the other two must be up to something. The American president in particular is determined to avoid looking weak; fortunately an American scientist has come up with a weapon even more ferocious than the H‑Bomb, a weapon with which the US can threaten Russia (or possibly China) if the Russians (or possibly the Chinese) refuse to remove from Fernando Po the troops they do not have there.
A world stumbling towards an unnecessary nuclear (and worse) conflagration is all very stressful. Thank goodness for distractions like the upcoming rock festival in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. Although perhaps the attendees would be less relaxed if they knew that that Ingolstadt is the birthplace of the Illuminati. If they knew that the festival is the linchpin in the Illuminati’s plan to win immortality for a few and end the world for the rest.
This trilogy is so so 1970s. It’s as if drugs, sex, the occult, polyester, Studio 54, post-Watergate America, and the Playboy letters page were to have a monstrous baby. In other words, expect disco-era attitudes towards, well, everything.
Remember the good old days when paranoid ranting and deranged conspiracy tales were only found in satirical thrillers and not in the tweet stream of American presidents and media figures? Ah, memories.
Shea and Wilson got the idea for this tome working at Playboy Magazine, where there was a constant flow of letters vigorously asserting the existence of various conspiracies. What if, they asked themselves, what if all of the conspiracies were true? And thus this book was born.
On occasion reviewers are tempted to ask “what drugs were the writers taking when they wrote this?” Generally this is an uncharitable reaction to bold creative choices. In this case, however, Shea and Wilson probably not only did rather a lot of drugs, I expect Wilson carefully documented what drugs he took and when. And in what heroic quantities.
I first read The Illuminatus Trilogy in the Dell mass market paperback. Wilson later peeved at length re the draconian cuts to the original manuscript that were exacted by mean-spirited editors and publishers. The Dell paperback was 900 pages long. If Shea and Wilson had gotten their way, the trilogy would have been even longer1.
What we did get is a narrative that is exuberant and wilfully self-contradictory, a farrago of paranoia and wild tales deliberately designed to make no sense. Because it’s so much harder to spot the actual army of undead Nazis when Nazi sightings are interspersed with thousands of crazy reports that are most likely deranged fabrications. Probably.
Shea and Wilson expose us to a cast of thousands and reams of gratuitously self-indulgent prose and plotting. The trilogy really shouldn’t work as well as it does. This may be an extraordinarily 1970s thriller2 but it was in its day an extremely influential extraordinarily 1970s thriller. Perhaps worth a look if only to get a glimpse into an era now long gone.
1: I reread my MMPB, hence have no idea if the current 800-page-plus trade version restores the cuts or not.
2: Specifically, one of a number of immediately post-Watergate books, written in a brief window when it seemed as if presidential malfeasance could have actual consequences)