Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on February 22, 2016
The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a pretty weird book, even by postmodern conventions. The narrative jumps back and forth between 3rd person and any given character without warning. There are quite a few plot threads, and the transitions between these threads are practically nonexistent; nothing is really there to signify a change in scene, and sometimes one thread even jumps to another mid-sentence. Oh, and there are tons of characters, many of whom make low-key entrances only to show up again much later in the story. If this all makes Illuminatus! sound similar to Gravity's Rainbow, don't worry, the former is considerably easier to digest. Whereas Pynchon uses his vast wealth of knowledge to go off on tangents and add more historical background to any given event than what might be necessary (don't get me wrong, though, his books are very entertaining in their own way), Shea and Wilson essentially poke fun at all the insane (and not-so-insane) facts they dig up. Of course, half of these "facts" were made up, but that's where Illuminatus! really shines as an example of what postmodern literature can accomplish.

It is, to put it one way, the Skeptic's Bible, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, good job for noticing. Illuminatus! is filled with contradictions and outright lies, although unlike certain books that claim to be historically and factually accurate but are really not, the trilogy goes out of its way to make the reader question what he/she is reading. There is, of course, a lot of true information scattered throughout the book, and it becomes obvious that Shea and Wilson put a great amount of research and insight into writing this, but for every true story there are at least two false leads, two red herrings. Truly it doesn't take long to get why—for about 15 years—Illuminatus! was the quintessential work of conspiracy fiction, and the best part is that the book has so much fun with the genre; nowadays we're used to reading conspiracy thrillers that take themselves too seriously, but Illuminatus! satirizes such novels before they even became as famous as they are now. Not only that, but the trilogy takes shots at too many groups, individuals, and ideologies to count, but here are some notable examples: conservatives, communists, socialists, libertarians, feminists, Christians, cops, politicians, hippies, racists, not-racists, Satanists, spies, drug dealers, drug takers, prudes, college professors, the book itself...

Illuminatus! is arguably one the greatest philosophical novels ever written; it has a stance, sure, but it pulls the reader in numerous directions by presenting different philosophies. It then has the audacity to ask the reader, "Do you believe that?" Governments and authority figures as a whole get criticized, sometimes vehemently, but Shea and Wilson clearly had a message they felt needed to get out there, and even though the trilogy was first published back in 1975, its anti-authoritarian message still holds up today. In the post-Patriot Act United States, some of what happens in this book is eerily prophetic, and many of the socio-political issues being faced today were going on over 40 years ago. History repeats? I suspect that the more whacked-out portions of the book are Wilson's writing, although the man himself said that it's hard to tell who wrote what for the most part. The fact that this was written by two authors with differing writing styles and backgrounds and yet feels surprisingly cohesive for such a long and unwieldy tome is something to be praised, I think. 800 pages and I still feel like there wasn't quite enough to take in; it felt like we could be stuck in this huge fun-house of a book for a few hundred more pages. Of course, there was much more material written than ultimately published—about 500 pages were cut from the final product—but I kinda wish we eventually get an unabridged edition of the trilogy. Probably never gonna happen, though. Hail Eris!
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