After three weeks and over 600 pages of this novel, it is sad to say that my parting thoughts were, “it’s finally over” (thought with an immense sigh of relief and a sarcastically tearful reflection that I could have read five other books I truly loved in that time). You Bright and Risen Angels is the postmodern maximalist author William T. Vollmann’s debut novel chronicling the history of electricity and the subsequent war between the bugs and those electric creators. It is maximalist to the extreme, featuring diverging plots and side plots; it is cartoonish to the extreme featuring scenes that can only be described as if they are dreamlike where things seem to keep getting stranger although everyone thinks they’re normal; it is also postmodern to the extreme, featuring a framing plot that is something I’ve never seen done before. But when I say extreme, I, unfortunately, do not mean that these are simply taken another step up from their typical usage, instead, they are extreme to a fault and then some. Postmodern maximalism is typically my favorite genre, but this may be the first time I have found how poorly it could go if taken too far.
Note: I want to start though by saying that most people who are well-read in William T. Vollmann’s bibliography tend to agree that You Bright and Risen Angels is very much an outlier in his oeuvre. It is apparently more cartoonish and weird, more unfocused, and simply not as polished. So although I am going to be criticizing this novel heavily, I wouldn’t take this as a stab at the author’s typical output, simply at his first. I have heard he gets far, far better with time but since I haven’t read anything else by him I cannot comment on that personally.
It is telling that the main praise I hear for this book when scouring the reviews and comments on it is that it “creative”, even “highly creative”. Some say it’s one of the most creative works they’ve read, even. But rarely do I see anyone commenting on its ability to move them emotionally, or to teach them something new about themselves or the world, or about its beautiful language. It is simply creative. But to me, that creativity is there but is not something I would praise. Vollmann took a weird concept (a story being told through a computer program or computer game by the programmer himself and some shape-shifting electronic entity within the computer know as Big George) and used it to tell an equally strange story. This story is of the creation of electricity and its personified form of the blue globes going to war against the natural force of the bugs. There are characters seemingly half-human half-bug who side with the bugs, and there are the creators of electricity and their Society of Daniel who side with The Blue Globes. The feud also works on the symbolic level, depicting class-warfare and/or the destruction of the natural world by the industrial movement.
Reading the above description would have made me excited to read this novel. But it seems that these events are rarely focused on, or are touched on in such obtuse ways that I rarely understood the purpose of what I was reading. The cartoonish nature leaves every character one-sided and did not allow me to engage in any form of empathy or compassion. These characters are fully formed in their shallow personality from the opening lines of their introduction, and rarely make any progress towards development by the end. Their different missions may occasionally seem to have a purpose but then go off into something so strange and non-connected to the story that I lose track of what is going on or what the original intent was.
It doesn’t help that the book is written in paragraphs that take up one or sometimes up to five pages without a break. And that sentences are half a page long, filled with ten plus semicolons. It is as if Vollmann decided to use periods instead of paragraph breaks and semi-colons instead of periods. Having recently read and adored Krazsnahorkai’s Satantango which uses a variation of this style, it is not just that I don’t care for the structure, but that the structure seems to hold no purpose to the story nor show any inner beauty in the written word or authorial voice – instead, it seems to simply confuse the reader and desire to show off the author’s ability to write in an experimental way.
You Bright and Risen Angels feels like an attempt by a young, inexperienced, and upcoming author to write in the style of his favorite authors (likely Pynchon and other postmodernists) while showing off that he can be as weird, intelligent, and obscurely referential as they are. It is akin to something like The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace (another seeming attempt to show off before the real talent took hold) but unfortunately doesn’t even contain the level of fun and humor that that book had. This book was not only unnecessarily weird and confusing and devoid of emotion, but it was not enjoyable in the least. After the first part of the novel (which lasted nearly 100 pages and felt like 500) I was excited to get into the main portion. The first pages of this next section grabbed my attention and then once again so quickly let it go for over the next 500 (which felt like 1500). Almost every time I picked up the novel for the three plus weeks it took me to finish, I honestly dreaded continuing. I don’t know how I managed, but I believe it is important when reading highly complex and maximalist authors to understand their roots and their progression of theme – so I pushed on.
There are some good things though of course, and I find it hard to say that it is an outright bad novel – it is simply one I really did not enjoy and don’t think I’d ever have the willpower to read again. There is an impressive control of modern colloquial English despite it not being necessarily beautiful. Vollmann also has a talent for postmodern themes and for engaging the audience’s higher thought processes. And there are even certain scenes that I really did enjoy (such as Wayne’s mission at the bar or the door-to-door salesmen) but they were few and far between. In summation, the book felt like I had a dream where things just kept getting weirder and more confusing and pointless, and then I woke up to think, “what the hell was that all about?”, only I was forced to relive it and relive it, again and again for three straight weeks when I knew there was something far better I could be doing. It is honestly not something I could recommend to anyone. I know there are people who enjoyed it, so if the synopsis sounds up your alley and you have experience with this style of novel, then give the first 30-50 pages a go. If you like it by then, you’ll probably like the rest, and if you don’t, then you’ll likely be like me.
See my Goodreads review here: Goodreads
See other book reviews or what I plan to read next here: Book Reviews