I SPENT A LARGE CHUNK of my free time in high school working my way through the public library’s science fiction collection — a single bookcase crammed with mass-market paperbacks. When I came across Robert Anton Wilson’s Masks of the Illuminati, I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. I remember that bright red cover with the eye in the pyramid staring out at me, with the promise that Albert Einstein and James Joyce had teamed up in Zurich in 1914 to solve a terrifying mystery. Well, I knew who Einstein was, of course, and I’d at least heard of James Joyce, thanks to a passing reference in Philip José Farmer’s biography of Lord Greystoke, even if I hadn’t read anything he’d ever written at that point. Plus, it was published by Timescape, the science fiction imprint that had introduced me to Philip K. Dick — that was a good sign. And then there was that tagline: “Peel back one evil, and find another…” Okay, I’m sold, let’s take this home and give it a whirl.

A quick summary, for the uninitiated: Joyce and Einstein are drinking the night away in a tavern in Zurich on June 26, 1914 (which historically informed readers will recognize as the eve of World War I). A panic-stricken Englishman, Sir John Babcock, runs into the bar, insisting that he’s being pursued by a demon. They decide to hear him out, and he tells them the story of his instruction in the occult sciences, and how he gradually came to be tormented by supernatural forces which, he believes, are being orchestrated by Aleister Crowley — who, although I hadn’t known it before then, was indeed the most notorious occultist of the 20th century. Babcock is not, shall we say, entirely wrong.

There was enough material in the novel that I knew to be real, along with material that my impressionable teenage mind had tentatively accepted as real (namely, strategically placed references to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos), for me to accept Wilson’s occult material without hesitation — including its connection to the Illuminati, a secret order stretching back centuries that was either interfering with or outright controlling historical events in the political realm. You need to understand that, in the pre-internet 1980s, the Illuminati was genuinely obscure; there were virtually no references to the group in the mainstream culture, and the few books on the subject were not readily available in suburban public libraries, or even the bookstores of Boston and Cambridge. (I probably could have found stuff in the local occult bookstores, but the insistence of 1970s pop culture that satanic forces were real had already left its mark on me, so that wasn’t an option.) Somehow, my hometown library did have a copy of Crowley’s autobiography, but that just reinforced my impression that the dude was bad news, and so matters largely stood until someone with an esoteric bent happened to donate a box to the library’s used book sale and I was given first crack at its contents. That’s how I discovered The Illuminatus! Trilogy, the sprawling three-volume novel Wilson had co-written with Robert Shea a decade before Masks.

Masks is a stylistically experimental work, deliberately evocative of Joyce’s Ulysses in many respects, but it’s also a carefully calibrated narrative. Illuminatus!, by contrast, is all over the place, changing perspectives seemingly at random, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. Rather than refuse to give answers about the Illuminati, it gives all the answers, blatantly contradicting itself, then calling attention to those contradictions, with liberal doses of a parody religion, Discordianism, created by Shea’s and Wilson’s friends. I wasn’t necessarily any closer to understanding the Illuminati when I was done, but I did start keeping an eye out for anybody else who might have read the book. Then, roughly half a decade later, a band out of England put their Illuminatus! fandom front and center.

In 1976, just before embarking on his career as a musician, Bill Drummond was working as a carpenter and set designer in Liverpool, when Ken Campbell decided to develop a stage adaptation of Illuminatus! A decade later, after producing albums for Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes — as well as a frustrating stint as an A&R man for the WEA record label — he started talking with fellow musician Jimmy Cauty about launching a hip-hop band. Cauty, as it turns out, had worked on the London run of Illuminatus! (well after Drummond had abruptly walked out of the Liverpool theater and never come back), and their mutual enthusiasm for the novel inspired them to name their band The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, or the JAMs for short, an accidental misspelling of the name of a secret society of anarchistic rebels Shea and Wilson created to do battle with the Illuminati from before the fall of Atlantis to the present day. As the JAMs, they were reasonably successful in the United Kingdom, then managed to land on the top of the pop charts with a mash-up of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part Two)” and the Doctor Who theme. They released the song as The Timelords, before changing their name yet again to The KLF.

It was under this last name that they’d achieve their biggest fame in the United States, building an underground fandom with dance tracks like “What Time Is Love?” and “3 A.M. Eternal,” then bursting into the mainstream with “Justified and Ancient,” a song they’d first recorded as the JAMs at the start of their run. For this version, however, Drummond and Cauty recruited country music legend Tammy Wynette to sing lyrics like, “They’re justified / and they’re ancient / and they drive an ice cream van” behind a choir announcing “All bound for Mu Mu Land.” In the video, Wynette sits in a throne atop a pyramid with steps leading down to the water, where two hooded figures who may or may not be Cauty and Drummond ride off in a submarine as Wynette and the backup singers and dancers gleefully wave goodbye.

It’s hard to convey the level of excitement I felt discovering a band that called themselves the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, even with the spelling mistake. For those with more mainstream literary tastes, imagine a band in 1990 calling themselves Trystero or maybe the Yossarians. (Apparently there are bands going by those names today, and it turns out there actually was a band back then called the Droogs, which was going to be my next choice…) Anyway, a band comes along with a public persona that clearly references that novel that totally blew your mind back in high school? It’s pretty cool.

But it was not to last. Drummond was always ambivalent about success; as he wrote in 45, a collection of autobiographical sketches published in 2000, “Successful bands by their very definition are as interesting as packets of corn flakes.” And so he and Cauty set about sabotaging themselves in spectacular fashion. Invited to perform at a British music awards show, they had the grindcore group Extreme Noise Terror join them onstage, ending the performance by firing blanks from a machine gun into the amphitheater. (That was a step back from the original plan to douse the crowd with buckets of sheep’s blood.) Then, on August 23, 1994, the band converted its earnings into hard cash — one million pounds — took it to the island of Jura, just off the coast of Scotland, and set it on fire, capturing the whole process on film. A year later, they would begin screening that film for befuddled, often angry audiences. Soon after, they announced that the KLF would go on a 23-year hiatus, which also involved removing all their recordings from circulation.

And that brings us to August 23, 2017.

I first heard about the promise of a new book by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu in early February. 2023: A Trilogy was described as “a utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past,” and that was basically the full extent of the information publicly available about the book until late June, when Faber & Faber sent out advance reading copies. There was a twist, though: apart from a two-page table of contents, a seven-page introduction, and a four-page afterword, those advance copies were completely blank. The material we were allowed to see in advance presented a framing story, in which two undertakers named Cauty and Drummond visit Jura, discovering a memoir that tells the story of a pair of young Ukrainian women who called themselves the KLF and released an “acid opera” called Turn Up the Strobe (a lyric from “Justified and Ancient”) that may just have helped tip the former Soviet Union over the edge. This version of the KLF was, in turn, inspired by a novel called The Twenty Twenty-Three! Trilogy, written in 1984 by “George Orwell,” the pen name of Roberta Antonia Wilson, which, after finding a Ukrainian edition and translating it back into English, the undertakers Cauty and Drummond have arranged to have republished by Dead Perch Books.

The table of contents confirmed that Illuminatus! was a substantial influence on 2023. Wilson and Shea titled the first two sections of their novel “The Eye in the Pyramid” and “The Golden Apple”; the opening volumes of this new trilogy were “The Blaster in the Pyramid” and “The Rotten Apple.” The novel itself was embargoed until the August 23 publication date, so it wasn’t until then that we’d learn just how deeply the JAMs had mined their source material.

I’ve often joked, when novelists are caught blatantly plagiarizing from their predecessors, that they should invoke the Kathy Acker defense — that, to quote the narrator of My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a writer “can talk by plagiarizing other people’s words that is real language, and then […] make something” out of that stolen intellectual property. The JAMs fully embrace this approach. The epigraph to “The Blaster in the Pyramid” twists the Ishmael Reed quote that precedes “The Eye in the Pyramid,” and then the opening lines reveal the other primary source:

It is a bright warm day in April 2023, and the clock is striking thirteen. Winnie Smith, her Levi’s slung low and her T-shirt freshly unbranded, strides through the gates of Victory Mansions.

The posters from 1984 are there, too, only now they say “AppleTree Is Watching You.” (AppleTree is exactly who you think it is, and along the way they’ve bought out Sky News and Al Jazeera, the latter of which now forms the backbone of the iPhone’s news service, iJaz.) Instead of “WAR IS PEACE,” Winnie’s local Starbucks brandishes the slogan “WAR IS OVER” (the company cut a deal with Yoko Ono). She’s bought a blank book, along with a bottle of ink and a Parker fountain pen, so she can start writing a diary, “like Adrian Mole or even Anne Frank.” She even experiences “vivid, beautiful hallucinations” of sexual violence aimed at a stranger she glimpsed on the street, and realizes afterward that while she was going through that flash of hatred — which almost certainly lasted two minutes — she’s written five lines in her diary:

I HATE GOOGLEBYTE
I HATE WIKITUBE
I HATE AMAZABA
I HATE FACELIFE
I HATE APPLETREE

There are further borrowings from Illuminatus! as well, from the conceit of the narrator’s shifting consciousness to the presence of Winnie Smith’s boss, Celine Hagbard, who was once a man named Hagbard Celine, the most prominent antihero of the source novel. Roberta Antonia Wilson, whose diary entries appear at the end of each chapter, is unapologetic about her plagiarisms:

I expect the reader’s palette is reasonably broad, so they will notice I have borrowed from two monuments of twentieth-century literature. I do not feel the need to defend this on artistic grounds. I just hope that if this book is ever published, the holders of the copyright in both of these previous works of great literature will only feel honoured I have chosen to embrace them in my work of fiction.

It would be unfair to call Drummond and Cauty’s approach “cut-and-paste,” because they do tweak the texts. Instead, we should think about their borrowings as détournements — the Situationist term for cultural appropriations performed in service of deliberate subversion and counterargument (or, perhaps, the development of a new argument only tangentially connected to the source material). It’s also a literary form of collage that mirrors the sampling techniques the JAMs employed in early releases like “The Queen and I,” which superimposed record scratches, electronic drum beats, and a synth riff that sounds like Donald Duck singing along to the chorus of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” (The Swedish pop stars were not amused, and every unsold copy of the album on which the track appeared was destroyed.) Or the brazenly titled “Whitney Joins the JAMs,” which loops riffs from the themes to Mission: Impossible and Shaft around the chorus to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” while Drummond cheers jubilantly in the background: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Whitney Houston joins the JAMs!”

(Were Drummond and Cauty aware of Canadian multimedia artist John Oswald, whose lecture on “plunderphonics,” or “audio piracy as a compositional prerogative,” was presented two years before the JAMs released their first record? If they were, nobody seems to have ever asked them about it publicly.)

Eventually, 2023 scales back on the direct borrowings, but it still remains a heavily collaged work. Although the novel’s central conceit is that it springs from Roberta Antonia Wilson’s emotional breakdown in 1984, it’s clearly a work with our 2017 very much on its mind. Its cast includes Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama, Banksy, Subcomandante Marcos, and even Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, recast as two-thirds of Extreme Noise Terror, backing up lead vocalist Alan Moore. At times, it looks like the authors are weighing in on what’s been happening in the music world since they withdrew from the scene, like the frequent skewering of “M’Lady Gaga […] a popular singer whose star has been fading.” But there are other themes that seem to nag at them on a more personal level, such as the prominent role given to former pop impresario Jonathan King (whose enthusiastic response, as producer of the awards show where the KLF shot at their audience, is said to have further broken the band’s spirits). As even Wilson acknowledges at one point, “readers who are not of a certain age and did not grow up in the UK [may] get totally bored with these knowing references to icons of a very localised popular culture.”

Indeed, 2023 is not, as a novel, terribly welcoming to readers who aren’t already familiar with the JAMs, and from a classical literary perspective it’s actually something of a mess — but that’s the point. In another essay from 45, Drummond passes along an insight from another of his collaborators, that “the prime motivation of the artist is to create masks with which to hide his true self.” 2023 presents a whole series of “Cauty & Drummond” masks: the undertakers who discover the novel in its prefatory frame, the members of the fictional version of Extreme Noise Terror, the “real-life” friends of Roberta Antonia Wilson … but also Winnie Smith and a young conceptual artist who renames herself Yoko Ono, who team up to become the novel’s Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and immediately become the most famous artists in Britain, as well as the barely glimpsed Ukrainian duo who performed as the KLF in the early 1990s and were, according to legend, due to reappear in 2017.

And we haven’t even touched upon the afterword, which details Dead Perch’s plans to launch 2023 on August 23, 2017, “in a boarded-up derelict Victorian terraced house in the Dingle area of Liverpool” while footage of the Ukrainian KLF’s music video for “2023: What the FUUK Is Going On?” plays in a room upstairs, with books for sale at a nearby corner shop. It turns out that a three-day book launch began at precisely 12:23 a.m. on August 23 at a radical indie bookstore in Liverpool — and though that shop is actually a few miles north of Dingle, it is the closest bookstore to the Florrie, a Victorian-era community center that had fallen into disuse but was restored and reopened in 2013, and was the site of a volunteer-choir performance of “Justified and Ancient,” with Jarvis Cocker filling in for the late Tammy Wynette. Even viewed through YouTube footage well after the fact, it’s quite the spectacle — and, much like the novel itself, an example of what Drummond described in 45 as “the grand — but at the same time private — gesture,” a provocative public display that appears to have an intricate personal symbolism deeply embedded in its structure.

It’s been suggested that neither Drummond nor Cauty had actually read Illuminatus! all the way through when they formed the JAMs, and that they just latched onto the general idea as something that sounded really cool. I’m not convinced. And if there was a point at which they hadn’t read it fully or closely, one or both of them have caught up since then. Through its appropriated details, 2023 indicates a fairly close reading of Shea and Wilson, even as it uses those details to reach significantly different conclusions. But that’s what we all do with the pop culture we consume, isn’t it? We tease out what strikes us as the shiniest bits, then shore those fragments against our ruin, crafting from them an identity that only we ourselves can ever fully understand.

¤

Ron Hogan helped create the literary internet by launching Beatrice.com in 1995. He is an active presence in New York City’s literary scene, hosting and curating events such as Lady Jane’s Salon, the first monthly reading series dedicated to romance fiction.