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William T. Vollmann: You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon

When this novel – Vollmann, somewhat tongue in cheek, calls it a cartoon – first appeared in 1987, those of us who worshipped Thomas Pynchon saw it as a worthy successor to Pynchon. It was long, it was an allegory about the history of the United States and the various unpleasant things that happened in the history of that country, it took the side of the angels (in this case the bugs) and it played around with science and technology. Its epigraph was Only the expert will realize that your exaggerations are really true, from the (to me) obscure artist Kimon Nicolaides and its dedication started This book was written by a traitor to his class. It is dedicated to bigots everywhere. It was written not only in San Francisco but also in Karachi and the Anaktuvuk Pass (can you write a book there?) It contains a large opening chapter on the history of electricity, which is not exactly what you would expect to find in an encyclopedia but rather a tale of power (in all senses) in the United States.

We start straightaway with the author announcing his intentions to resurrect his cast of characters, from his hero, Bug, to Wayne ready to hurt somebody to the all-powerful Mr. White. The story is classic good versus evil but told in Vollmann’s unique way. The good guys are the humanoid insects, led by Bug. The insects, led by the Great Beetle are against all humans, who have tried to exterminate them over the years. The bad guys are the Society of Daniel, one of those mysterious societies found in all great conspiracy novels, but who are actually electrical engineers. Mr. White has built his empire on electricity and he intends to hold onto power. In short, he is a caricature of all those famous American industrialists who appear in other conspiracy novels. The novel is essential about the wars between these groups but all done as though it were a gigantic computer game. (Vollmann was a computer programmer when he wrote this novel.) The author himself has his own struggles, particularly with Big George, who takes over at times. Big George seems to be some form of computer intelligence, Max Headroom-like, who vies with the author for control of the story.

The whole story is rambling, chaotic and brilliant. As with other brilliant authors, we learn a lot from Vollmann’s digressions, particularly on electricity. At times, we lose the plot thread but that doesn’t matter. At times, it is infantile and at times downright stupid but it always comes back. It jumps all over the place. It is witty. It exposes the bad guys. It is essential reading.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Atheneum