A warning: this isnít a review so much as it is me just trying to figure out what the hell I just read and my thoughts on it.
Prior to this book I had read 2 Vollmann books, both primarily selected for their brevity: Whores for Gloria and Into the Forbidden Zone, the former a novella that forms part of his prostitution trilogy, the latter a kindle exclusive travelogue about going to Japan after the tsunami, mainly to report on the nuclear plants that had caused some damage. Both were incredibly disappointing.
I wasnít about to give up on him, though. I donít know where I heard it but I somehow got it into my head that his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, would be a good entry point into Vollmann-proper; after the fact, I regret this. Since starting the book, Iíve researched a bit more about the author and his body of work, and though never explicitly stated, the way this work is mentioned makes it seem more like something for completionists or people already in love with him.
I started incredibly excited, but that soon waned, and it wound up taking me like 4 and a half months to finish it. (For comparison, I was able to finish Journey to the West unabridged in 3 months.) The narrative is highly original, to the point where Iím not sure I can accurately summarize it: there are two authors, one presumed to be Vollmann himself, and Big George, an ambiguous figure. They ďbattleĒ it out for control of the narrative (I use quotations because itís never really in doubt who will winÖ) that is presented to us as words but could more accurately be described as a simulator, wherein electricity brings to life numerous figures and their interactions. This is not the first time this simulation has been played, but merely part of one we get a glimpse at.
Within this world, which presents itself as a cartoonish version of ours, the forces of electricity, led by a man who is more villainous than all the baron-robbers combined, and bugs duke it out. The main characters are humans whoíve defected to the bugs. Somehow this is a metaphor for the Afghani mujahedeen in the 80s.
Itís maddening. The prose varies from poetics that will make your head struggle to wrap around to crass bathroom humor, which some may like; I found it annoying and distracting. The cartoonish parts put me off for a while, as did the narrative flow. I donít really care about some kidsí experiences at summer camp, Iíd much rather hear about their time later on as revolutionaries.
The characters are also, for the most part, pretty one dimensional. The main characterís transformation from the ultimate loser into a revolutionary killer was hardly touched upon. Most of the other characters get even less development. The final section of the book, following a traitorous character, is great stuff, and could even probably stand on its own as a short story (helped, no doubt, by the entire section being a long digression; if you want a concrete ending or answers as to what happens to everybody, this may not be your book).
And yet, despite the strings not coming together at the end, the last 100 or 2 pages did really grab me (there were glimmers there of the best contemporary American writer I keep hearing about). The book itself needs a lot of work (Vollmann, I remember hearing, has since disregarded his first novel) but there is a great story here, the problem is is that thatís not what Vollmann focused on. Iíve heard some people say this is loosely based on Vollmannís own life, and indeed there is some credence to that idea, explaining all the seemingly irrelevant parts, but that knowledge does not instantly make it better. There were points where I hated this book, moments where I cringed whenever I read about Vollmann, but now that Iím done with it, I am glad I read it. It was ultimately good enough to make me want to get some more Vollmann, maybe the Ice-Shirt, at some point in the near future, but I donít ever see myself ever wanting to make the trek through this beast again. Iíll probably donate my copy to something. If you already love Vollmann, you should probably check this out; otherwise pass.
I'm fluctuating between 3.5 and 4 stars out of 5. I'll be nice and round up.