2023: A Trilogy by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu
There is an intriguing story at this novel’s heart but it is too enslaved by its sources
s with any book that has a number for a title, one expects a little numerology, and it’s no surprise that the grand precursor of this genre is used to balance an equation and establish a mise en scène. In 1948 George Orwell writes Nineteen Eighty-Four on the isle of Jura; in 1994 Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty go to the selfsame island to burn £1m of royalties from their group the KLF. They vow not to talk about this event for 23 years, which takes us up to 2017 when they produce 2023, a “utopian costume drama”, supposedly written on the island of Jura in 1984 by Roberta Antonia Wilson using the pen name “George Orwell”. The significance of the numbers 23 and 17 can be traced to the “23/17 phenomenon” mentioned in the Illuminatus! trilogy (1975), a series of novels that featured fictional conspiratorial group the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (who lend their name to Drummond and Cauty’s earliest musical incarnation), written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
“I expect the reader’s palette is reasonably broad,” Roberta Antonia Wilson remarks at the end of the first chapter of 2023, “so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature.” The use of palette, the range of colours used by a painter, rather than palate, meaning a sense of taste, is curious. A simple mistake a more diligent editor might have spotted? Or something unconsciously deliberate?
There are flashes of playfulness – an early alternative novel by “George Orwell” is Fish Farm, set in Scotland (which is particularly apt since there is currently a campaign to prevent such an industrial complex being sited on Jura). And one has to acknowledge the ambition in creating a utopian rather than dystopian setting. In 2023 world peace has been achieved, there is sustainable energy, abundant food and universal social and religious tolerance. Everything is controlled by the “Big Five” corporations of Googlebyte, Wikitube, Amazaba, Facelife and Appletree, all headed by female versions of familiar chief executives such as Marcia Zuckerberg and Stevie Dobbs.
We follow Winnie Smith as she muses that “it would be great if there was a secret society that actually controlled everything”, which reflects that peculiar wishful thinking that inhabits the mind of conspiracy theorists. It was this cognitive dissonance that was pursued by the writers of Illuminatus! when the genre still had only cult status. In the 1980s and 90s the KLF channelled a hypnotic alchemy of arcane wisdom and pop culture references to take the music business by storm; by 2017 a post-truth world treats conspiracy theory as mainstream and internet message boards buzz with accusations that leading R&B acts are members of the Illuminati.
Winnie’s 2023 testimony soon gives way to a frenzy of disparate backstories. The Beatles attempt (and fail) to end the Vietnam war, M’Lady Gaga is driven around in a pink Rolls-Royce by Parker from Thunderbirds, Banksy plans a Christmas No 1, Subcomandante Marcos appears on horseback on the Westway flyover, Vladimir Putin invades Poland and so on. There is a Discordian sense of chaos, a riotous subplotting against any dominant narrative, but we are never really involved as all is rendered as exposition or reported action. There is a running commentary, but we never get close to any of the characters. An impressive guest list continues: Nina Simone, Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Arthur Scargill, EH Gombrich – but we’re left thinking: what if everybody turned up and there was no party? The tone eventually becomes timid and apologetic, acknowledging that the reader might get “totally bored with these knowing references” and “if you don’t like the style – and I would hate it – then there is little I can do about it.”
Which is a shame because they clearly still have a compelling story to tell. Their work forms a most intriguing chapter in the history of popular music and conceptual art. And Drummond certainly can write engagingly, as proved by his excellent memoir, 45 (2000). Fiction, of course, is another matter. Part of the problem here is that there is too much borrowing and simply not enough stealing. The KLF’s boldness in making other people’s riffs their own in music is utterly lacking in their prose style. Perhaps they forget that Orwell himself “sampled” whole sections of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s earlier dystopian novel We (1924). His own kind of pop sensibility created linguistic mash-ups that still resonate: newspeak, thoughtcrime, doublethink and terrifying concepts that inadvertently anticipated reality TV franchises such as Big Brother . Instead 2023 is enslaved by its sources, and we’re merely left to notch up the references along the way.
The KLF and/or the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were a “utopian costume drama”, at once sublime and ridiculous. Despite all the occult references and oblique strategies they probably worked best as showmen rather than shamen. Their most provocative act, burning the money, was actually their most banal. If it seems more a reverse conjuring routine than a ritual sacrifice perhaps that was the point. Drummond has said: “They thought we were using our money to make a statement about art, and really what we were doing was using our art to make a statement about money,” and 2023, despite all its formulaic cleverness, neither adds to nor subtracts anything from that.
384pp, Faber, £17.99
To order 2023: A Trilogy for £14.99 go to bookshop. theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Bill Drummond at an ‘art happening’ last month, 23 years after burning £1m on Jura