Robert Anton Wilson's Masks of the Illuminati, while not as well-known as Illuminatus!, remains one of his more interesting fiction works. The style -- stream-of-consciousness, intermixed with "experimental" sections which imitate radio drama or an essay, and thoroughly fraught with language-play -- is a moderately gratuitous imitation of James Joyce. Perhaps more curiously, Mr. Joyce is also one of the book's chief characters -- along with Albert Einstein and an especially befuddled young English nobleman, Sir John Babcock.

At one level, the book is a psychological mystery story, in which Joyce and Einstein unravel the reasons for which young Babcock has gone quite so batty. At another, it is the story of Babcock's initiation and progression in the occult mysteries of the Golden Dawn. At quite another level, it is R.A.W. explaining rather dramatically his particular interpretation of Thelema and mysticism in general.

A novel, 355 p, © 1981 Robert Anton Wilson, Dell.


The characters and events in this novel, like those in ordinary life, are partly real and partly the product of somebody's disordered imagination.

Sir John Babcock is a young Englishman, orphaned at eleven (due to some Tarzan-related tragedy), wealthy, and troubled. Following his childhood fascination with the more esoteric romantic adventures of the day, he becomes an author himself, producing a book on medieval occult societies and the Cabala called The Secret Chiefs. His book gains him some very strange attention, and, when we meet him at the beginning of Masks of the Illuminati, he is at the end of his psychological tether, convinced that this attention is demonic in origin.

Babcock bursts into a Zürich pub in a state of wild-eyed panic, and collapses to the floor. Upon reviving, he is gradually coaxed into relating the tale of his troubles -- which involve Satanic conspiracies, giant scary shadow-bats, a disappearing Reverend, and a nefarious book that drives those who glimpse its contents to madness and suicide. A remarkable story, told to a remarkable audience; the drinking buddies who dust off Babcock and try to help him make sense of his dilemma happen to be two of the least conventionally-bound minds one could hope to encounter -- James Joyce, who has fled Ireland for less judgmental streets, and Albert Einstein, finished teaching for the day and preferring philosophical debates with Joyce to his own dissatisfying home life.

As Sir John tells of his troubles, we are introduced to a fiendishly-constructed web of deceit, magick, sleight-of-hand, dream imagery, and repressed sexuality. Joyce and Einstein offer quantum physics, postmodern interpretive skills, voluminous knowledge, humor, and the skeptic's razor as tools to aid in straightening out the tormented young man's Moebius-strip reality. But things get both much simpler and vastly more complicated when the notorious English poet/magician Aleister Crowley enters the picture.


All of Wilson's favorite elements are present in this book. There are deliberate falsifications and deceits, both by characters and by the author himself. There are quotations legitimate, altered, and invented, illustrations, sound effects, and sections of the story written as itemized list, film script, or Q&A session. There are dream and hallucination sequences. There is buried, coded magickal instruction and information. There are references both explicit and sly, often to character lineages familiar to readers of Illuminatus!. There are puns, wordplay, and absurd, Pythonesque slapstick. There are heroes (or are they villains?), villains (or are they heroes?), spirits, imposters, and Carl Jung. There are drugs, violence, and sex. And there is a mystery, which sort of resolves itself and sort of doesn't, living as it does in the midst of a thousand other mysteries.

Not as long as Illuminatus!, not as meandering as Schrodinger's Cat, I find Masks to be Wilson's most readable and enjoyable book of fiction.

A very strange dream, which seems to be blaming myself for my father's death and yet also suggests that such patricide is, symbolically at least, part of initiation. All mixed up with Mother Goose and the Order of Saint George.

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