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Almost every day I read a new story, listen to a new podcast, or encounter a new thread of tweets chronicling the cancerous spread of internet cults and unfounded conspiracy theories. And, almost every day, I can’t help but think of a sparsely read novel written by a dude in the back office of an Arkansas dive bar in 1985. Though you’ve likely never heard of Charles Portis’ Masters of Atlantis, it’s revered among a certain circle of comedians. Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur calls it a “masterpiece”; he read it at the suggestion of The Office co-creator Greg Daniels. Bill Hader, Michael Cera, and Conan O’Brien also count themselves among its fans.
“It’s recommended and passed around more than any fiction book I know of, outside maybe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” said David Cross, who has the novel’s original cover art tattooed on his arm.
Portis, who died in February, is best known as the guy who wrote True Grit, but he also penned four other novels, each funnier and more extraordinary than his most famous work. Masters of Atlantis, his comic magnum opus, turned 35 years old this October, but its message has never been more relevant. It’s the perfect novel to explain QAnon, to explain Trump, to explain organized religion—hell, to explain America itself.
The story chronicles the life of a Lamar Jimmerson, a charming simpleton who stumbles into leading a cult known as the Gnomon Society. In the opening pages, Jimmerson is milling around post-WWI Europe, looking for work and fun before headed back home stateside. Portis wastes not two sentences before introducing the inciting action: Jimmerson bumps into a homeless man who offers to trade a small book in exchange for cigarettes. The homeless man introduces himself as Nick, an Albanian refugee from Turkey. The two eat dinner together, and Nick reveals he’s actually Mike, a Greek from Alexandria in Egypt. A page after that: Mike reveals his true identity to be Jack, an Armenian from Damascus. And that book he traded for smokes? Worthless. But he has another, far superior book to trade Lamar: the Codex Pappus, a collection of secret symbols and equations that proves the existence of Atlantis and provides the basis for the ancient, all-knowing Gnomon Society. And, oh yeah, his name isn’t actually Jack, but Robert. Through all of this, Jimmerson doesn’t even bat an eye. He’s hooked. Obsessed. He has to know more.
It’s the literary equivalent of falling down an internet rabbit hole. Jimmerson is sold a copy of the supposedly sacred, all-revealing Codex Pappus and shares his newfound knowledge with his equally naïve pal, Sydney Hen, as well as the duplicitous (but equally dimwitted) Austin Popper. Together, the trio become unlikely apostles for a brand-new religion.
On the spectrum of conspiracy theories, Gnomonry is closer to the relatively benign flat-earthers and moon-landing deniers than the horrific black hole of QAnon. Though the infamously press-shy Portis never stated on the record any precise targets for his farcical sendup, astute readers seeking to uncover the real-world roots of Gnomonry will likely find it a vague mishmash of ideologies, mixing bits and pieces from Freemasonry and Scientology with allusions to the famed lost city under the sea. “[Portis] is probably one of the widest readers I’ve ever known,” said writer Jay Jennings, a friend of the author and editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. “When he gets into a subject like, in this case, secret societies and their strangeness, he’s really omnivorous in his reading. It may just be a little three-word phrase that tells you all of that preparational reading went into one line.”
His fascination with the cults of yore sneaks into the details and dogma of Gnomonism. At least, in the specifics of the society that he’s willing to share. For one of the true genius Portis strokes is to reveal little of the actual content hidden within the Codex Pappus—if he’s revealing anything at all. Jimmerson’s rambling about sacred cones and all-explaining triangles may just be an idiot’s interpretation of an outdated or poorly translated trigonometry textbook, or perhaps some delirious misappropriation granting divine providence to Fibonacci’s famed sequence.
Though he intentionally avoids diving too deep into the minutiae of Gnomonism, Portis nails the reasons why cults, secret societies, and conspiracy theories grip certain members of society: namely, a desire for deeper truths and hidden meanings to explain a world that no longer makes sense. And, crucially, a dangerous abundance of free time.
“Things began to pick up towards the end of the decade,” Portis writes early on. “And then in 1929, with the economic collapse of the nation, the Gnomon Society fairly flourished. Traders and lawyers and bricklayers and salesmen and farmers now had time on their hands. They had time to listen and some were so desperate to seek answers in books.” As Gnomon mania spreads across the heartland, Jimmerson breaks ground on the society’s lavish limestone temple in Burnett, Indiana, “the most fashionable suburb of Gary.”
As the story unfolds over decades of Jimmerson’s life and Gnomonry balloons, each of the suddenly all-too-familiar signs of collective delusion are present. Weirdos, outsiders, fools, the angry, and the marginalized become ensnared by the ideology. Grifters and con men like Popper are all too happy to steer the gullible flock in wallet-lining directions. Contradictions zip over the heads of any and all True Believers. And, perhaps most importantly, a yo-yoing series of surefire predictions and grand declarations inevitably fail to materialize, only to be explained away by a minor miscalculation or infinitesimally small misreading of the tea leaves. The prophecy didn’t fail; it’s just delayed until TBD. Do not question the prophet, for the prophet remains unimpeachable.
This phenomenon of explaining away failed predictions occurs with comic frequency in the QAnon alternate reality. Q drops, as they’re called—the cryptic messages from the eponymous (alleged) “deep state” insider forewarning of imminent arrests of child-eating liberals and Hollywood types—always fail to come to fruition. And yet, somehow, followers manage to twist and contort each failure into another clue to even grander conspiracy. It’s been three years since some punk on 4chan posted his very first prediction, about the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state still walks free, yet the QAnon cult now looms so large that it seated an actual congressional caucus. Meanwhile, some followers have accepted literal time travel as the asphalt to pave over the plot holes of their new favorite religion.
Masters of Atlantis offers its own simple explanation for the failure of prophecy, such as the “Jimmerson Lag,” explaining why foretold events have yet to occur. Appropriately, it’s this harebrained apologia that leads to a schism in the Church of Gnomonry, with Jimmerson leading a sect devoted to an increasingly loose interpretation of the Codex Pappus and Hen retaining a purist wing. It’d all be unbearably grim if it weren’t so goddamn silly. Portis spins a blunt, matter-of-fact account of creeping ridiculousness—a delightful stylistic holdover from Portis’s erstwhile journalism days. His deft grasp on the syntax and diction of the all-American oddballs results in tickling, retrograde dialogue: “I watched you eating your macaroons. Not the straightforward bites of an honest man, just ratlike nibbling around the edges,” the deceitful grifter Popper memorably snaps at his former friend.
Reading Portis today is like reverse-engineering a specific strain of comedic voice present in some of the most popular comedy products of the past 20 years. To illustrate Portis’ influence is to draw a Glenn Beck–ian chalkboard connecting this book’s numerous high-profile fans.
Greg Daniels stumbled upon Masters of Atlantis in a used book store. He then recommended the book to The Office writer Michael Schur, who would go on to hire accomplished comedy writer Matt Murray on Parks and Recreation. Years earlier, while writing for Saturday Night Live, Murray had introduced Masters of Atlantis to Bill Hader, who became so enamored with Portis he even briefly secured the film rights to Portis’ third novel, The Dog of the South—a project he planned to develop and complete with Greg Mottola, who directed Hader in Superbad. Also in Superbad is Michael Cera, who currently owns the adaptation rights to Masters of Atlantis and is actively shopping an Atlantis TV series.
Cera’s buddy and occasional creative collaborator Clark Duke—who has a bit role in Superbad and earned a series regular role in Season 9 of The Office—is such a fan of Portis that he featured a quote by the author in the title sequence of his recent directorial debut, Arkansas. Duke first encountered Masters of Atlantis on the set of Hot Tub Time Machine, when screen partner John Cusack recommended the novel. Years later, Duke aimed to secure the rights to Atlantis, only to discover that Cera narrowly beat him to it. It was the first time the friends realized they shared an affinity for the author.
David Cross bonded over a shared Portis fandom with pal and Mr. Show co-creator Bob Odenkirk, who wrote for Saturday Night Live from 1987–91, overlapping with Daniels’ stint in the sketch show’s writers room. Also present in 30 Rock at the time? Daniels’ college friend and early writing partner Conan O’Brien, quoted on the back cover of the Overlook Press’ early-2000s reprint of Atlantis: “One of the few laugh-out-loud novels I’ve read.”
For this collection of veterans from the turn-of-the-century alternative-comedy boom, Portis is a hero, and in their work you’ll find flourishes of Portis DNA rippling through scenes, riffs, characters, and jokes.
“One thing that Portis does brilliantly in Masters of Atlantis is maybe a variation of what would come to be called ‘cringe comedy’ when people talk about The Office,” Daniels told me over email. “I think it’s taking flawed, stupid people making bad decisions and enjoying and pursuing the pathetic, clumsy foolishness relentlessly as far as you possibly can. Nobody enjoys following that road to its very end as much as other comedy writers. Normal people enjoy going there for a laugh, but then want to get back to following a character pursuing a valid and reasonable objective. Comedy writers love a bad, implausible, half-baked goal, and Masters of Atlantis is all fools self-importantly pursuing nonsense.”
Schur drew an even more direct connection between Masters of Atlantis and The Office. “The Office was always pitched as a guy who had an enormous blind spot for the way that people saw him. His vision of himself and the vision other people had of him was completely different,” Schur told me. It was in the context of blind spots that Daniels first recommended Masters of Atlantis to him. “If you want to read to read a 300-page book that absolutely nails in the funniest and most eloquent way what it is that humans are searching for, this is the book for you,” Schur added.
As with most great comedies, if you peel back the gag lines of Masters of Atlantis, you’ll find a searing, incisive examination into the soul of man, the Sisyphean struggle to find truth, meaning, and purpose—and the intoxicating capacity of any man, book, or ideology that promises you such elusive things. You get the sense Portis hates humanity but loves humans. He indicts the world but treats his characters gently, a reminder that even the most gullible, the dumbest, and the most opportunistic are people simply seeking answers. Portis would probably love to sit downwind from the proverbial crazy uncle preaching about Kamala Harris installing 5G networks in a devilish plot to upload Che Guevera propaganda and all five seasons of Netflix’s Queer Eye straight into the brains of regular everyday ’Mericans.
But that’s Portis for you, a cultural anthropologist of the weird and, more specifically, the weirdos. In the end, Masters of Atlantis is never really even about the fringe theories but the people who read and believe them all without a single critical thought crossing their mind. “I think Portis would write a great book about Alex Jones’ friendly cameraman who never questions any of the crazy shit he’s saying,” Bill Hader hypothesized to me over email. “And then mid-book he’d quit and start running fishing expeditions in Galveston, and Alex Jones would completely vanish from the story.” It’s about as succinct and spot on an elevator pitch for Portis fan fiction as I can imagine.
Masters of Atlantis
By Charles Portis. Overlook Press.
By the end of Masters of Atlantis, Jimmerson, Hen, Popper, and what remains of the warring factions of Gnomonry put aside their differences and live peacefully as old men in a Texas trailer park, playing dominoes and reminiscing about their youth. The exceptional sway they once commanded is now an afterthought, a slight irritant, distracting from what they wanted all along: personal connections and shared understanding. The true secret meaning of life was the friends made along the way.
Yes, there’s a grave irony in glorifying and proselytizing a funny book chock-full of warnings about glorifying and proselytizing funny books. But hey, I’m just a guy with a desire for deeper truths and hidden meanings to explain a world that no longer makes sense. And, crucially, a dangerous abundance of free time. Portis seems to have all the answers.