I can't quite recall WHY I read Illuminatus! (or more properly, The Illuminatus! Trilogy).
Steven King may have referenced it in Danse Macabre (still my favourite of his books). It may have gotten mention in Dragon magazine way back in the day.
In any event, my 1984 Dell printing was pretty much brand-new when I got it, so it was a good healthy number of years ago. It was like reading a nuclear explosion. I was sixteen years old, and the most challenging stuff I'd read up to that point was probably A Tale of Two Cities. I didn't know anything about drugs, about hippie culture -- I barely knew anything about politics and certainly didn't get more than the barest number of the thousands of references scattered through this bewildering -- but hilarious -- novel. Shea and Wilson basically invent the conspiracy theory tale in these 800-some pages (and apparently that's with 500 or so pages cut out) and none of their imitators in the decades since has even approached the invention and audacity that makes this book so overwhelming.
Geez, was that all one sentence? Whoa.
"It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton." What kind of opening sentence is that? The constant switching of narrator voice -- at points it's actually impossible to tell anymore who's speaking, and what point of view we're supposed to think they're presenting. Which is of course half the point. The book itself is a mammoth conspiracy tale, and like any good conspiracy, includes plenty of truths and half-truths in amongst the outrageous lies. And on page 722, the greatest joke of it all, the fourth wall gets blown away (is there a fourth wall in books?), and I the reader get pulled right in on the whole joke and it still works.
Like most genre-defining works, I think Illuminatus! actually reaches and even exceeds all the boundaries it creates. This book goes as far as any conspiracy book can possibly go, and then goes farther. There's really nothing left to write here - the spawning point is also the graveyard.
But there's something else that this mad tale has left us: the mashup. Because a conspiracy theory always has to be a mashup. The whole point of a conspiracy theory is to assert the connection between elements that otherwise do not appear to share anything. When George Dorn gets told that Abdul Alhazared, George Washington and the assassination of John F. Kennedy are all related to the ancient rulers of Atlantis, THAT'S mashup happening. The more elements you can tie together, the less probable your whole edifice becomes, the BETTER. And sometimes it seems like the mashup has become the default genre. From Kill Bill to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to, um DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, everywhere the mashing together of genres and massive "referentiality" are making up wholly new paradigms. Nowadays everyone knows what "steampunk" is, but fifteen years ago? Not so much. But it hasn't taken very long. Only five years back, the suggestion to "Define some genres" resulted in creative hilarity, and all of the genres defined therein count as mashups -- from "Trucker: The Cavalcade" to "Lovecraftian Ringwaldpunk".
I think all this fun stuff really does owe a big debt to Shea and Wilson's mad, psychedelic vision of the late 60's. Reading those dense paragraphs of lurid sex, violence, drugs and utter insanity (I'm making it sound pretty awesome, aren't I?) was and remains an absolute trip. This book is amazingly smart, amazingly well-informed and structured so beautifully it's almost impossible to see it -- the whole thing just flows from start to finish in a single uninterruptible stream. Crazy.
And the book remains one of those books that EVERYONE has heard of (or at least is familiar with the concepts it invented), but surprisingly few people have actually read. I don't think it quite qualifies as A One Nobody Knows, but sometimes it seems that way. But regardless, the idea of mashing together random references from history, pop culture and science has become an entire field of genres. Practically every comic book published nowadays owes a debt to this book, and plenty of Hollywood's output, too. It's definitely, in the words of Nuclear Platypus, "a real slobberknocker".
And if you don't get that, you haven't followed enough of the links I've so thoughtfully provided for you in this post. C'mon, start connecting some references here! Everyone's doing it!