You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon
By William T. Vollmann
Penguin Books, 1987
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
William T. Vollmann is almost as well-known for his eventful (to put it rather mildly) life as for his fiction, and that's kind of a shame because his fiction is as fascinating as his personality. Still, it's hard not to become fascinated with Vollmann the person, so let me relate a few of my favorite accounts of his own life to you, dear reader. He wrote this novel after-hours while working as a computer programmer, many nights sleeping under his desk and eating candy bars for dinner. This was after his stint fighting for the Mujahedeen in the Afghani-Russian war, but before the FBI investigated him as the Unabomber, before he personally delivered a Thai child prostitute to Child Protective Services (and threatened to kill her father, who sold her into prostitution, if he repeated the act with another child! To his face, no less!), and before he adopted a female alter ego so he could gain firsthand experience of sexual harassment. He's an author I'd love to interview, or at least talk to, since I'm ever so curious about what motivates him to live the life he lives.
So that's Vollmann's life, but what of Vollmann's fiction? The simplest way to describe it is historical fiction with a postmodern bent. That seems a little reductive to me, but hey! That's what these long-form reviews are for, to obliterate all reduction, right? Let's get into You Bright and Risen Angels, which can also reductively be described as historical fiction with a postmodern bent. Almost, because much of it is set in the then-contemporary 1980s, so call it more alternate history, yet Vollmann wrote this with an eye for revolutions from the Russian to the French to, yep, the American. In essence, You Bright and Risen Angels chronicles a war between insects, aided and abetted by a human revolutionary named Bug, and the forces of electricity, led by the immortal Mr. White and abetted by characters such as the obsessive mastermind Parker, the goon-with-gun Wayne, and the hilariously sleazy Dr. Dodger, whose endless litany of endorsed products makes for one of the novel's funniest running jokes. But of course, that's just the half of it. Along the way, we're treated to Mr. White's rise to power; his rivalry with Phil Blaker, King of Mars; the reasons for Bug's decision to join the insects; and, most frustratingly of all, the struggle over control over the story between the author (presumably Vollmann) and an explorer/computer programmer/tyrant/force of nature known as Big George.
Now, let me be honest here: You Bright and Risen Angels fails to live out the entirety of its considerable ambitions. Part of this is because Vollmann's ambitions strike me as too huge for a first novel to bear; certainly he'd grow much better at coordinating multiple plot threads, timelines and narrative modes as he moved through his career. The author's conflict with Big George is especially underdeveloped; while some claims are explicitly attributed to Vollmann and others to Big George, Vollmann fails to weave their conflict into the framework of the novel, and certainly fails to make good on a fascinating footnote on page 595, "This is a bookish novel because I, the narrator, know little of life, and I, Big George, will reveal no secrets." A shame there isn't more on the nature of storytelling itself here, since the revolutionaries-versus-reactionaries conflict screams out for it. The war between Mr. White and Phil Blaker is underdeveloped as well; Blaker hangs as a vague presence throughout the novel and makes some minor contributions, only to spring into abrupt and poorly realized action as the story moves toward its climax. I see this as Vollmann trying and failing to have it both ways; Blaker would've been fine as a vague presence, but for me to buy into his intrusion near the end, I'd have to get a lot more of the conflict between the two rivals beforehand.
Still, I can't deny that this novel is great at many other things. For one, while this book is underdeveloped in some places and overdeveloped in others (I found Vollmann oversold the love story between himself and Clara Bee, for instance), it's never boring even for a moment. That's the upside of it being overstuffed, it never flags or falters or lapses into dullness. I'll grant that some readers mind find it a little too manic - it's certainly not a book for everyone - but I'm a fan of big manic novels, and You Bright and Risen Angels certainly fits that bill. Furthermore, this novel's prose belies its author's insistence that this book is "a cartoon." Check out this passage toward the end, describing our revolutionary heroes: "Stephen Mole was content to see that his new companions were so rigorous. Already they were becoming hard and drum-like as a consequence of their way of life, and their voices were getting hoarse. Cosmic rays had peppered them. Their faces were blackened into swollen masks of desiccated purpose. They were cariously unclean, like today's supercharged worker. In their sleep they suckled their own breasts" (510). This is beautiful writing. Dig the surprising use of the phrase "drum-like," the auditory and visual metaphors, the way it efficiently characterizes both Stephen Mole and the other revolutionaries.
Vollmann's view of the revolutionaries, and really revolution itself, is a complex thing as well. On the one hand, the idea of the bugs as an oppressed force jumps out throughout these pages. Certainly Vollmann takes an unsubtle moment to get his point across, namely the moment that incites Bug's defense of the insects. An insect disguised as a human is murdered at a summer camp Bug attends, and Bug's inability to defend his friend inspires him to protect the insects in the future. However, the death of various insects is also part of this novel's background noise. Bugs are swatted, squashed, zapped, electrocuted, poisoned, on and on and on until I found myself sympathizing much more with insects than I had in the past. Certainly we see parallels between the treatment of insects and that of many minority groups in the United States and otherwise, especially given that this is 2016 and so few people want to admit racism is still alive and well in this country. It also allows him to interrogate the environmental impact of scientific and technological progress, and forgive the shameless lefty rant, but that's a wake-up call this country needs. There's something stirring about these passages, a sort of call for action, but that call is tempered by the episode where Bug and friends break into a computer lab owned by Mr. White and slaughter a group of innocent programmers. I'm not here to argue the merits of revolution, but Vollmann's complex relationship with the concept elevates this novel above propaganda for one side or the other, which definitely makes it more compelling as a work of art.
Vollmann went on to embark on a number of ambitious projects as his career went on. Perhaps the most ambitious is the massive Seven Dreams series, which chronicles the European conquest of the Americas, from the Vikings (1990's the Ice-Shirt) to the experiences of the Inuit in the early 1990s (1994's The Rifles). Vollmann has yet to finish this project, although its fifth entry, The Dying Grass, was published last summer and tipped the scales at almost fourteen hundred pages. His other big fiction project is a trilogy of novels about prostitutes; 1991's scorching Whores for Gloria, 1993's Butterfly Stories, and 2000's the Royal Family. Yet Vollmann didn't get his first true taste of prominence until the mid-2000s, when he released two of his best-known books: 2003's Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume study of political violence around the world (there's also a seven hundred-page abridgment, which I've read; the full version only got a limited print run and therefore sells for around five hundred clams), and 2005's World War II-themed Europe Central, which won Vollmann a National Book Award. He's also published a number of acclaimed short fiction collections, most popularly 1989's the Rainbow Stories.
So while he wrote better books, You Bright and Risen Angels introduces the curious reader to many of Vollmann's key themes and attributes. His fascination with history and revolution, his baroque prose and frankly gorgeous prose style, his sprawling stories, his multiple and sometimes conflicting narrative modes, his equal interest in the generalities of historical movements and the specifics of individual characters' lives, and the metafictional aspects that are as important to what he does as the historical ones. I find Vollmann a flawed author on a whole, a little more long-winded than I'd like him to be (the guy takes a pay cut from his publishers so his books won't be edited, but the longer ones I've read tend to feel about fifty pages too long - Europe Central has long passages that are simply more of what's already been established), but his historical and aesthetic concerns fascinate me, and he's definitely one of the more compelling personalities working today. Cartoon or not, You Bright and Risen Angels is well worth reading.