When my friend, fellow Poundian, and coworker Jason Silvis left South Korea–I think in 2005–he gave me a copy of William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels, I imagine probably because the SFnal elements and the sheer challenge of the book would appeal to me. He had given the book a good hard try, but–at least from the pencil markings he’d made–didn’t get very far into it.
Having just finished reading the book, I can see why. It’s a flawed book, even for a first novel, and not easy reading by any stretch of the imagination… or, rather, I think more to the point, by the normal standards of literary style, it’s just not reasonable reading.
What I mean to say is that Vollmann is excessive, in just about every way possible. If you open to a random page, you may find a chapter that runs for a couple of pages, with pretty normal-looking prose. Or you may find yourself mired in the middle of a block of text–is it really a paragraph?–that runs, unabated, for four or five pages in a row. The individual sentences in those sections, as often as not, are half a page or longer–again, to the point where one begins to feel that perhaps, words like “paragraph” and “sentence” aren’t quite applicable to these unearthly, gargantuan, mutant structures.
The book is also excessive in other ways, including ways that are more endearing: for one thing, it does what I think of as a Flann O’Brien trick, presenting a “Transcendent Table of Contents” that stops including page numbers about a third of the way along, because most of the contents–the decline and failing of the heroes of the story–isn’t part of the novel. (Flann O’Brien’s trick is much less audacious, and much more subtle, but makes the same point: he begins his novel At Swim-Two-Birds with the heading “Chapter 1,” but there are no subsequent chapters.)
O’Brien’s book comes to mind for other reasons: it features a degree of what we’d started to call “meta”–a thing we’ve begun in North American culture to celebrate and to regard as some great, astonishing achievement, as something “new.” The difference, for me, is that “meta” for “meta’s” sake often ends up being, I don’t know, more like junk food. Meta won’t make a dull story interesting, and won’t make an idealess inquiry thoughtful. It may make it entertaining for the fanboys and fangirls who yelp out, “Monty Python!” or “Buffy!” when they catch a stray reference, but more is needed.
O’Brien uses his metafictional play to discuss the art of fiction and imagination (characters in an author’s book revolt against the tyrannical control of the author, among other things); Vollmann does the same thing, but with a rather different angle. He seems to envision the novel itself as a kind of computer program, being run by the author (Vollmann); however, within the program is a hostile intelligence (Big George) who is subverting and altering the narrative, deleting characters and fighting for control of how the program runs.
(And, I mean, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos are pretty meta, but to a purpose. An ultimately crazy purpose, but still, to a purpose, and with a rare degree of style…)
The primary conflict in this debut novel by Vollmann is between the evil forces of electricity, and the bugs: yes, that is a pun, since after all this novel is conceived as a computer program. But electricity is symbolic, of course, as are the bugs… not allegorically, though, but rather… well, it feels like a set of multi-axis metaphors, in a way a bit like a tesseract. In an email to a friend, I tried to unpack this strange book:
It purports to be a novel about how bugs (yeah, insectile beings, though some look human) are fighting to liberate the world, and “the forces of electricity stand in evil opposition.” You can read it a dozen ways, but I sort of read it as a hypercube of geeks vs. jocks, of political radicalism in a capitalist/corporate dystopia (ie. in modern America), and as a guy trying to figure out how to write a novel and deciding that novels are hypersterile technocratic structures (ie. computer programs) riddled with “insects” (ie. “bugs”) and that you cannot write a novel without a fundamental tension between the two: the wild, anti-establishment, radical, insectile, versus the antiseptic, controlling, conservative, and repressive. Which leads to brutality all around. His female characters suck, but his male characters are sort of fascinating because they’re nerds and jocks who get sort of lasered through a prism: nerd as political radical; leftist as proto-mujahideen; violent insurgent as computer program glitch; computer program glitch as sexist self-excusal. (And similar rainbows of WTF for jock, industrialist robber baron, spies, brutal father figures, and so on.)
Weird, weird book… he actually labels it a “cartoon” and it’s surely cartoony and bombastic in a lot of ways. But…
The “But…” is important. The book isn’t easy, but I’m now leery of judging a work of creativity on that basis: I mean, once you’ve watched Bergman, or Lars von Trier, or something by the Dardenne Brothers, you feel like you’ve been watching kids’ movies, like your metric for difficulty is out of whack. It’s a bit like Asian aesthetics of food: you find yourself expected to work for the meat, to have to wrestle the flesh out of a crab or off the pig vertebra in your soup, rather than having it all pre-stripped off and mulched and, hell, half-digested for you into nuggets. The meat is more delicious, they say, if there’s bone; you find yourself suspecting that they think so because that way, you have to work harder to get at it.
But at the same time, this book goes far beyond that. There’s a point where it becomes almost recalcitrant; where it says, “I dare you to keep reading. I bet you can’t…” It is, in other words, a book that plays hard to get; a book that demands you really, really put effort in–at points, probably more effort than most readers will accept it has any right to ask of them. Sometimes, wading through breathless, unending sentences–or even skimming for the end of all the conditionals and qualifying phrases–I found myself thinking, “Come on, man, get on with it.” Yet I kept reading, in part because there’s a gorgeousness to a well-performed digression, and this book elevates digression to the level of the Prelude and Fugue.
And yet, once I was a certain way into it, I found myself compelled to continue, to see… well, not what happened, exactly: that seemed telegraphed by the detailed table of contents, after all. And anyway, the characters were all somewhat off-putting, to me, each of them somewhat disgusting and alarming in his own way. (Vollmann’s caustic sense of humor was more compelling than any of the characters, none of whom were particularly likable: where there were ones I sympathized with, like Bug, I sympathized for philosophical reasons, and not without massive reservations.)
Trying to find a way to talk about the book now, I find myself reflecting on a talk given by an academic back in Montréal that I attended during graduate school–a stupid, clownish talk that, in essence, seemed to boil down to, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is about the anxieties of sexuality as a human instinct in an age of nonreproductive sex-for-pleasure.” Except the talk was an hour long, featured endless bird puns–talk of “birds of a feather” and of Hitchcock “hatching his plot” and “feathering his nest” and so on. (Far too much Googling later, I see it was a paper by Lee Edelman (of Tufts University, apparently), titled ”The Birds is Coming’: Hitchcock, Futurity, Queer Theory.”)
The experience was execrable, mainly because, rather than making Edelman seeming clever or funny, the constant barrage of bird puns and the hyper-opaque presentation of the (finally, very simple) ideas Edelman wanted to get across, left me frustrated. The idea was interesting: the horror in The Birds had something to do with anxieties of reproduction and sexuality, and that from a “queer” theoretical perspective this was a particularly interesting thing. Sure, cool. We didn’t need an hour of bird puns and obscurantist language to dress up that idea.
When I tried to express my frustration to a classmate, saying that he seemed more interested in performing than getting his ideas across, and that if he wanted to perform, why not go into show business (or the circus–I think I said something unkind about him “clowning around” with his puns), she countered that I might be drawing a line between “performance” and “theory” that she felt was unnecessary. When I asked how these ideas were supposed to reach the general public–because, after all, isn’t that the kind of thing that thinkers want to achieve? People encountering and understanding and sharing their ideas?–she said something about the “trickle-down effect.” Which, at the time, made me wonder how English Departments would ever recover from their apparent–and, let’s be fair, self-inflicted–reputation of irrelevance among the public.
I haven’t abandoned that position, by the way: I think being able to communicate your ideas to regular folks is a good, and I think that all too many literary academics have built a cottage industry out of taking what are, ultimately, very simple ideas and dressing them up in complex, confounding language, jargon, and referential networks, just to seem cleverer than they actually are. That’s one reason I backed away from PhD studies in literature, actually: I didn’t want to have to constantly fight against that, and felt I could do more good in the world elsewhere.
But at the same time, I’m a little more leery of simplicity for palatability’s sake than I once was. I think maybe we laud easy digestibility a bit too much, especially those of us raised on a steady diet of TV. Like it or not, whatever the astonishing potential of the medium, in reality most TV is easy. Most TV aimed at grownups really does function on the level of the YA novel: simplified, sanitized, with the familiar compartments that… well, it’s not that they don’t require much thinking, so much as they enable one to persist in unthinking simplification of the world. The point being, even those of us who aren’t exclusively readers of YA, must have been affected, in our aesthetics, by the kinds of stories we’ve encountered across various media: comics, TV, films, and books alike… and that does shape our sense not only of how stories work (how stories ought to be structured, for example) but also in the form of limitations that define a “good story”: character growth or a highly sympathetic character being a necessity, say.
All that makes me leery about my own internalized assumptions about what books are supposed to be, as a technology, and what they’re supposed to–and can–do. I think most writers I know would agree that one must use the simplest language possible to get a story across, but “simplest possible” isn’t always simple, because the story isn’t simple–especially when you recognize story is more than plot or character. The simplest model possible for a lot of recent physics is complex enough to take years to understand; the simplest possible model of the human brain is well beyond our ability to formulate at this point, and our partial understanding–expressed in the simplest possible terms–is big enough in scale to overwhelm anyone. Likewise, I’d argue that plenty of ornate writers are writing as simply as they can: the ornate texture of the language is necessary to the texture and mood and feel of the story.
It’s not, ultimately, any better to fetishize simplicity than it is to worship complexity, in other words. Down one road lies Hollywood; down the other, the obscurity of Derrida. But the funny thing is that many of the writers I know recognize Derrida as dangerous territory (because it inhibits sales) while consciously or unconsciously emulating Hollywood. Some authors are aware of that, but many more, I think, aren’t consciously choosing that aesthetic. When they seek and find their voice, the seeking and finding happens within constraints of which they may or may not be conscious, and toward which they may or may not realize they could choose to be critical.
(Which is probably fortunate in terms of their sales, mind you. In terms of their work, I don’t know. It’s like trying to imagine what someone looks like fifty pounds heavier, or fifty pounds lighter; you can’t know what that looks like by imagining it.)
Which brings me back to Vollmann. Reading You Bright And Risen Angels was perhaps the most peculiar experience I’ve had with a book in a while: it was by turns engrossing, off-putting, baffling, obnoxious, hilarious, surprising, troubling, and mind-bending. It’s a bit like watching a really intelligent movie: your unconsidered emotional reaction–”Did you like it?” asked as you walk out of the cinema–doesn’t and can’t really suffice as a response. I did like it. I also sort of hated it, sometimes; or, rather, I felt resentful of it; I felt overwhelmed by it, too, in ways that were new to me, and found myself both resisting the text, and cheering at its sheer audacity all that once.
In a sense I felt like maybe Vollmann’s chief achievement in the book was to make me experience reading in a way I haven’t for a long time: as a kind of work that paid off, as a kind of labour that involved both pleasure and pain. I do know that the day I finished the book, I went online and started researching Vollmann’s career, reading and listening to interviews with him, reading about other books he’s written. I found myself split between regretting not having dug into the book earlier, and feeling like I’d come to it at just the right time. In other words, it made a real impression on me. Had I tried to read it when I’d been given it, about eight years ago, I might not have been ready for it. I don’t know.
The interviews with Vollmann seem to hint at a sort of key to all this, too. I find him a figure as fascinating as his characters: he seems impossible to put into a box, impossible to label along any given axis. He is profoundly hostile to certain things that you rarely see anyone oppose, and views of his that seem repulsive on the outset, take on a challenging complexity when you hear him unpack them. He’s a complex, puzzling sort of guy, by all accounts, and the biggest challenge I find is figuring out to which degree he’s flouting expectations and conventions, as opposed to just engaging in self-delusions or rationalizing things. His fascination–and relationship–with prostitutes is one example among many: he recognizes that the sex trade involves the exploitation of women,though he argues that exploitation is pretty much universal in a capitalist society; he also sees prostitutes as human beings, in ways that I sense most middle-of-the-road liberals who are intellectually horrified by their exploitation never seem to quite manage. While his female characters are terrible in the novel, he also seems to recognize that he doesn’t understand sexism all that well; his more recent solution, supplementary to his usual reading and study–to go out in drag, as a kind of long-term research project–seems utterly naïve, but at the same time seems a lot like a more strenuous effort than I’ve ever seen most men make to acquaint themselves with the problem. Going out in drag may not really give him much insight into what it’s really like to be a woman, but even if it’s wrongheaded, he’s at least out there, trying to learn more about it. The money may be weird colors, with unrecognizable faces on it, in other words, but he’s certainly putting it where his mouth is.
After finishing the novel, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the question of flaws in art. A while back, I posted about “The Ragged Edge,” namely, a notion of mine that when someone’s fighting to break the boundaries of a given artform or genre, sometimes a ragged edge is inevitable–that flaws and a certain lack of polish can be unavoidable, when one is pushing for a certain degree of artistic intensity. One of the comments, Justin Howe, suggested that the finely crafted effect of a ragged edge is, in fact, better achieved through control, a claim I understand, and agree to a point, except I think there’s also such a thing as a real ragged edge that can survive the editing process, and that does reflect something of the heat in which the work is produced. It’s as unmistakeable as even the most edited-down John Coltrane track, in a landscape of Kenny G, too: because, sometimes, the endlessly perfect-polished narratives remind me, just a little, of Kenny G. Every note in its place, and not a goddamned surprise to be heard.
I’d hold up You Bright and Risen Angels as my counterargument’s example: the book is massive, insanely ambitious, pushing so many envelopes at once that you start to wonder whether it’s a novel at all, or some other kind of text, demanding a whole different method of reading–at least, compared to my usual method. To me, it does seem to constitute a kind of performance, which is not to say, a new kind of permissiveness. It probably could have done with some editing, but I don’t think the book could be edited into a form where it behaves to the point most readers would conventionally expect… if it did, it would lose a lot of what I think make the book special.
Which is to say: the novel has flaws. And those flaws, in a sense, seem to signal something positive: they’re the cracks in the engine-block that come from running the damned vehicle at speeds that set new records, or from making the vehicle to extreme feats of performance. They’re flaws, in other words, inherent to deep structure of the text, and they’re flaws that are simultaneously features. (This is not the “it’s not a flaw, it’s a feature,” argument: something can be a flaw and a feature at once.)
In any case, I really don’t know quite what to make of the novel, but I can say that the experience in the end turned out to be positive: I certainly feel as if I must read more of Vollmann. I also feel more aware of the gaping holes in my reading background: to say, “It made me think of Burroughs,” ultimately means little, as I’ve only ever read Naked Lunch. (And hated it: I think it was one of the only novels I tried to read in grad school and never finished, and I sat down and read Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four right after just to cheer myself up afterward, no word of a lie. But again, maybe it’s about the point in my life I was at when I read it; what I’d make of it now, I have no idea.) And unfortunately, I haven’t read Pynchon, one author to whom Vollmann often gets compared, either. He is on my list for 2014, but I haven’t gotten to him yet.
So what I mean to say is that perhaps what looks to me like something invented new, sui generis, a creation of Vollmann, when in reality it’s just part of a literary genealogy I’m not so very well-acquainted with. I don’t know, and can’t say who Vollmann’s literary precursors are, personally. I know most people, reviewing a book, try to trot all that out–to demonstrate that they’ve done their homework. I’ve done my homework, but it looks like it was for some other class, so I’m sorry, but I got nothing, folks.
Nothing by my reaction, and my reaction amounts to a bunch of questions like the ones above. Questions, more than answers, is what I’ve got. And that, to me, is refreshing.
In the meantime, listen to this interview with Vollmann regarding his nonfiction work, Rising Up and Rising Down, which he considers his life’s work. It’s fairly pertinent to one of the novels I’m drafting at the moment, so I think it’s the next Vollmann I’ll dig into. (The abridgment, that is: I don’t have $500 to spare for the full seven-volume edition put out by McSweeney’s, much though I’d love to read it.) If you enjoy this interview, here’s more.
Bonus: Marc Laidlaw did a gorgeous cover for the book, which I (honestly) think ought to be the official cover. It’s seriously amazing. See it here.