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

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Jake Arnott’s lat­est novel is The Fa­tal Tree (Scep­tre).

AJake Arnott

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

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