Cabinet of Subversive Books: Volume 1
In the new Death and Taxes series “Cabinet of Subversive Books,” we profile some of the most subversive books on the planet.
This new series will profile fiction and non-fiction, both popular and underground, children’s and transgressive, poetry and tomes, comic books and even romance novels. And if you don’t see one of your favorites now, don’t despair, for it might well make an appearance in due time.
Reading these books won’t get you arrested, but they will bend and distort one’s mind with wonder and titillation, and hopefully radically shift one’s thinking about civilization.
Feel free to make suggestions—I will read them and report back. But some favorites will have to be kept to myself, folks (even if suggestions are made), because an artist never reveals his most important sources.
Nevertheless, the books to be found in this series will send readers off in a number of fruitful tangents, by which they might (might!) come across my more secret hoard.
1. “Story of the Eye” by Georges Bataille
Rarely does a book so effectively and completely challenge the very idea of storytelling as Georges Bataille did with his novella “Story of the Eye.”
Without the novel, there would be no William S. Burroughs, no Chuck Palahniuk, no Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho.” Indeed, an entire class of erotic and transgressive literature simply wouldn’t exist, or perhaps it would, but with much different contours and colors.
“Story of the Eye” is transgressive, surreal, disgusting and subversive all the way through. The book itself is a subversive act the moment it rolls off the printing press. Joyce had toyed with transgression with “Ulysses,” as did the Marquis de Sade and the Surrealists, but none of them so singularly offended sensibilities the way “Story of the Eye” did in its time. Even now it is quite shocking to the modern reader.
For instance, one is greeted with a French nymphet squatting over a saucer of milk on a hot summer day and saying to her teenage boyfriend, “Milk is for pussies.” That is, perhaps, the mildest, most tender moment of the book.
2. “The Crying of Lot 49″ by Thomas Pynchon
Disregarded by Pynchon as a “potboiler” and a “short story but with gland trouble,” “The Crying of Lot 49″ is from start to finish a book about an underground, subversive movement. Yes, it’s also about paranoia, hallucination, drugs, and an anti-odyssey about two warring postal services; but, it’s main preoccupation is with the underground organization Tristero.
Tristero, as experienced by the main character Oedipa Maas, is something of a prefiguration of the internet, and more particularly Tor relays: a means of communicating in secret by the use of mailboxes disguised as rubbish bins labeled “W.A.S.T.E.” (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire), with the tentacles of Tristero signaled by its muted post horn symbol.
The ideas that Pynchon bandies about in “The Crying of Lot 49″ seem to have bloomed with collectives like Anonymous and LulzSec, and its organization battling a monolith is echoed in WikiLeaks’ free information campaign against the US government.
(For more on the connection between “The Crying of Lot 49″ and subversives or dissidents, read my article “An Argument for an Underground Postal Service in the Digital Era.”)
3. “The Jokers” by Albert Cossery
[Illustration by Marianne Chevalier]
Albert Cossery is unfortunately largely forgotten, owing to the fact that he wrote in French, but also because he wrote about the Egyptian underworld of dandies, loafers, anarchists, revolutionaries, pranksters, etc.
“The Jokers” follows a group of four dandy pranksters who set about subverting the Alexandrian Governor with some clever propaganda.
Cossery was a philosophical dandy who distrusted those with careers and championed outcasts, which is in and of itself politically subversive. His attitude was naturally reflected in his characters, most especially the characters found in “The Jokers.”
As noted in my article “Albert Cossery and the Political Subversion of the Transcendent Dandy,” with “The Jokers” Cossery creates “a vision of the world where dandies subvert authority by engaging in pranks every bit as vibrant and biting as Banksy’s street art.”
4. “The Invisibles” by Grant Morrison
“The Invisibles” comic books by Grant Morrison collectively are some of the finest pieces of subversive work ever written and illustrated. Morrison himself is an icon of subversion, amongst other things (he’s a proponent of chaos magic, for instance).
In many ways, Grant Morrison is the William S. Burroughs of comics. In fact, if Burroughs had been born four decades later, he might have been a co-conspirator of Morrison’s.
The Invisibles are a rag-tag team of five individuals: King Mob, a time-traveling subversive and assassin; Ragged Robin, a time-traveling telepath; Lord Fanny, a Brazilian trans-sexual shaman; Boy, a double agent in the NYPD; and, Jack Frost, a Liverpudlian teenager with extraordinary abilities.
The Invisibles are in a constant battle with the Outer Church—inhabitants of a parallel universe who have infiltrated the Invisibles’ universe in the form of politicians, police and pretty much every other authority figure.
The comics are mind-bending and transgressive. Even the character King Mob is Morrison’s homage to the radical Situationist-inspired group King Mob, famous for the following graffito, “Same thing day after day- tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work -how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up.“
5. “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman
Controversy exists over the source of the book’s subversive instruction manual. It seems that a lot of the aggregate ideas were taken by Hoffman from Emmett Grogan’s papers (who’s book “Ringolevio” I will profile in the next installment)—I certainly believe that this was the case. (Grogan was a co-founder of radical community action group The Diggers.)
In fact, Grogan’s fellow Digger and San Francisco Mime Troupe co-founder Peter Coyote lambasted Hoffman for giving away subversive secrets in a Los Angeles Times interview, saying:
The FBI couldn’t infiltrate us. We did everything anonymously, and we did everything for nothing, because we wanted our actions to be authentic. It’s the mistake that Abbie Hoffman made. He came out, he studied with us, we taught him everything, and then he went back and wrote a book called ‘Free,’ and he put his name on it! He set himself up to be a leader of the counterculture, and he was undone by that. Big mistake.
After these condemnations, how then do I recommend “Steal This Book”? Simple: Regardless of its true origins and the controversy surrounding the publication of its contents, the book is of value as a historical artifact of subversion; and it might well inspire others to collect and disseminate other ways of subverting and challenging authority in the present and future.
And some of its contents are still applicable: How to build a pirate radio station; how to find free food; preparing a legal defense; knowing your civil rights; free education, and so forth.
Stay tuned for Volume 2 of “Cabinet of Subversive Books.”