Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, May 04, 2006

You Bright And Risen Angels

I don’t get the appeal of William T. Vollman. I’ve slogged through Europe Central and now You Bright And Risen Angels, but that’s it. I won’t be reading anymore of his books.

It’s not that Vollman lacks talent as a writer. He is obviously a man of great intelligence, and writing seems to come easily to him, and that may be the problem. He seems to be compelled to write, and at great length, about anything that captures his fancy. For example, he recently published a non-fiction book, a commentary on the mathematical writings of Copernicus, even though he admits that the doesn’t really understand them. That’s all well and good but why inflict it upon the world? To recycle a bad joke, if you look up “logorrhea” in the dictionary, you’ll see Vollman’s picture there.

As regards You Bright And Risen Angels, I found it to be more interesting than Europe Central. It’s the story of the forces of electricity, led my the ruthless reactionary, Mr. White, against the revolutionary bugs of the insect world. As one might expect from such a description, this is a surrealist narrative, a surrealism of the sort in the prose poetry of Leautreamont, who is one of Vollman’s icons.

There are other influences as well, like H. Rider Haggard. The spirit of his adventure novels is apparent here, but even more so are the conventions of the comic book. Vollman’s story is characterized by their stark Manicheism, with is good versus evil view of the world. There’s the same outrageous fancy of the Superman versus Lex Luthor battles, and the same adolescent contravention of all physical restraints. The characters, good and evil, are little bound by the constraints of space and time.

That might explain the appeal of this novel to a younger generation. Many of them take comic books seriously, even going so far as to call them graphic novels. I frankly fail to understand that. I’m an old fart, but I also devoured comic books as a kid, though I never considered them to be anything more than simple entertainments.

The source of Vollman’s antagonists is obvious, as revealed by an interview he gave in which he stated that he wrote most of the novel while working as a computer programmer. In the world of computing, a defect in a program is called a bug. The origin of the term is interesting. The first electronic computer appeared in World War Two. It worked with vacuum tubes, which were rather fragile devices compared to today’s electronic components, and one of the big problems with this first computer was roaches. They would get into the circuitry and short it out. Hence, hardware problems came to be termed “bugs”, and the word soon migrated into the world of software. Hence, we have Vollman’s forces of electricity versus the bugs.

I would call You Bright And Risen Angels a comic novel, though I have to say that it left me dry. For example, Mr. White rules the world through the offices of his corporation, White Power and Light. Ouch. That’s just plain corny. Vollman engages in a lot of parody as well, but I didn’t get it. He parodied the corporate world, but also the revolutionary groups of the sort that were active in the 1960's and ‘70's, but I found myself asking what the point of it was. The most effective parodies are those that are used to make a point, and I couldn’t figure out what Vollman’s was. He might have been wishing a plague on both of their houses, but I didn’t really get that feeling. I might get a better handle on it if I reread the book, but I can’t bring myself to do that.

I’ve seen You Bright And Risen Angels compared to Pynchon’s works. He also writes long, rambling books characterized by a lot of surrealism, but that’s where the comparison ends in my opinion. Pynchon is a notoriously reclusive figure, and little is known about his personal life. However, quite some time ago, Pynchon ran off with his best friend’s wife. The cuckolded friend responded by giving an interview in which he offered a lot of personal information about Pynchon. At one point he said that Pynchon picked up a copy of his Gravity’s Rainbow and, while paging through it, said that he couldn’t remember what he meant by a lot of it because he was so stoned while he’d been writing. Likewise, Vollman has claimed that he wrote most of You Bright And Risen Angels while high on crack. To me that explains the difference between Vollman’s book and Pynchon’s work. Pynchon tends to become absorbed in the moment, playing off the imagery he finds there, mining it for deeper meaning. Vollman, on the other hand, is always moving on, moving on. He’ll run off on some tangent, leading the reader through any number of seemingly unrelated escapades, only to circle back around to around to the main narrative. I like to think that Pynchon’s surrealism is centripetal, while Vollman’s is centrifugal. I’m a brooder, and I prefer Pynchon.


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