Reviewed by Jack Messenger
The Anarchist Thing to Do
by Michael Raship
ISBN 9780998470801, 336 pages, July 12, 2017
Michael Raship’s first novel, The Anarchist Thing to Do, is an accomplished, delightful and engrossing book, full of gentle comedy, sadness and hope. Its story parallels the social changes spanning the 1960s to the 1980s within the United States, as revealed in the evolution of a radical anarchist family of hippies: parents Kaye and Horton, children Skye and Jude.
Skye narrates the story of her family, commencing with childhood memories of life in a Vermont commune, before a relocation in 1975 to Glendale, momentous in its consequences. In Glendale, Horton and Kaye run the White Elephant, a second-hand store and venue for classes on anarchist political theory and vegetarian cooking, meditation and poetry, even belly dancing.
All families have their internal mythologies, comprising the stories they tell in order to understand themselves and their interrelations. When a family regards itself as outside mainstream society and is fundamentally opposed to all forms of authority, its mythology has to be particularly robust. Thus, Skye begins with a familiar family tale:
The story of my family, as it was told to me and my brother Jude when we were children, began with myth and magic. ‘Kaye used to be a genie,’ Horton would say to us. ‘Honestly. That was how we met.’
Horton and Kaye were anarchists; our family was an anarchist family. These basic facts motivated everything we did. Until Jude and I were six, our whole world had been Far Gone Farm, a hippie commune in the Vermont woods where everybody tried to live according to the political ideals that Horton had outlined in his book, The Principles of Contemporary Anarchism.
The children’s complete acceptance of this lifestyle and the commitment to anarchist ideals it entails comes across almost as a state of grace, an edenic innocence amid a corrupt and unjust society. Not at all sinister, it is in fact humorous and strangely moving, in part because the philosophy of anarchism is so anti-authoritarian that nothing feels imposed on anyone. Skye and Jude’s journey to adulthood gradually exposes the faultlines running beneath the surface of this way of life, culminating in a more clear-eyed, forensic examination of their parents that leads to partial disillusionment, tragedy, disaffection and then to redemptive reconciliation.
Thematically, The Anarchist Thing to Do is concerned with the passing of time and what it does to a family and a nation. As the political and social triumphs of the 1960s and 1970s – the civil rights movement, feminism, popular protest against the Vietnam War – recede into history, and the era of Reagan and conservatism sweeps all before it, how are ideals preserved and hope kept alive? When exactly do the music and the clothing, the long hair and the drugs, cease to function as revolutionary alternatives and instead become mere exercises in nostalgia disguising powerlessness, defeat and a refusal to engage with new realities?
Only the children can begin to answer these questions. At one point, an encounter between Skye and Jude after they have left their family home in Glendale is described in terms of unlikely survival:
… we regarded one another with the disbelief of survivors meeting again after separate miraculous escapes from calamity.
Skye’s first boyfriend is made to bear the weight of her need to escape the past:
I loved and needed him so much that he seemed exempt from generalizations that applied to the rest of humanity.
As these brief extracts indicate, The Anarchist Thing to Do is immensely readable in a way that reminds me of Salinger, whose shorter works are particularly admired by Skye and Jude – I suspect because their descriptions of family life are as eccentric, hermetic and all-encompassing as their own. Embedded in a rich tradition of American storytelling, The Anarchist Thing to Do is a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding book, written with great assurance by an author who rarely puts a foot wrong. I thoroughly recommend it.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more (and grab some excellent freebies) here: https://jackmessenger.co.uk