on September 21, 1999
In the way the best caricatures can tell you the truth in corrective-lens fashion--to distort the view against your own distortion so you see it plain--Vollmann's first book--which he calls not a Novel but a Cartoon--caricatures the outlandish oppression & cruelty of the human being: especially the human male, especially the American. Seeing where Vollmann's career has taken him--on a nightmarish reporter's journey through the 3rd World, into the ragged world of the San Francisco Tenderloin, deep into an ambitious 7-novel project recounting the history of the New World--it's no surprise to see his concerns with power & preterition set up here in his first work. A tale of America's dream of the bullying, Protean, endlessly inventive, heartless power of money, this Cartoon pits the authoritarian powers against the scrappy underdogs: Electricity(Power) vs. Bugs(the little guys). If this reminds you of Thomas Pynchon's fabulist (& fabulous) Gravity's Rainbow, there's good reason. Vollmann's the next ecstatic drop running up that literary vein. Along with all this, there's the metafictional struggle to tell the story throughout, as 2 narrators (at least 2) wrestle over the helm: 1) a lowly employee with subversive tendencies & sentimentalities whose affection for the characters & obsessions about his ex-girlfriend sneak into the telling, and 2) the being who gives him dictation, the shapeshifting, immortal, amoral Big George, whose exaggerated accounts of his own adventures are a pastiche of every Big Fish tale ever spun in America's history, but who nevertheless is in the service of the kind of truth that only comes with the heartlessness of the fact that everybody (else) dies. Lodged, of course, in the best sort of eyebrow-raising fiction. I, the reviewer, am trying to tell you that I liked this book, and that I am a picky reader. But I, the writer, keep getting mixed up as to how to get you to buy it. For the sake of postpostmodern literature--for the sake of the longevity of the love of literature--read this insane, awkward, gorgeous thing.
on August 10, 2005
I've been a Vollmann fan for years, but his first novel had always given me fits. I have what I refer to as the 'permanently unfinishable' shelf (4 attempts to read over the course of a couple of years), and I was on the last attempt for this novel. Finally finishing Coover's The Public Burning definately helped me relax into the quasi-cartoony world that YBARA offers. If you like the parody and allegory of this novel, then I think you would also like The Public Burning.
It is overwhelming in its scope and pathos. It takes on history and politics and love--all the bad forms of it anyway--with a very dark sense of humor and with a lush (sometimes too lush) use of language. It is a fantastic adventure that requires a total suspension of disbelief, and that is where I think I failed early on. The novel is part science (or at least computer) fiction; what I mean specifically is that the world he creates has its own scope and honesty though it takes place 'here.' If something, like a praying mantis bartender that no one really seems to mind except Wayne, really doesn't make sense, just mark it in your head and move on. In the end, it will either make sense or drop off like the molting shell of certain beetles.
I did have 2 problems with the novel. The first is the language. Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, DF Wallace and Vollmann are heroes of sorts for me because they don't fear complex language if using it makes the story more enjoyable. YBARA commits the first novel sin of going just a little too far in that arena. But it is an astounding first novel regardless.
The second problem is one that I also have with Wallace's Infinite Jest. It seems to assume that there will be a second part. YBARA refers to dozens of events that will eventually occur, but then it stops far short of getting to those events. I understand that this is a mode of storytelling (not unlike the epics and eddas that Vollmann takes up after his first novel), but the structures of the two are different. YBARA didn't read like those epics, it read more like a serial. This is both somewhat exciting and somewhat daunting. I mean . . . What if he does write a sequel?
When this debut novel appeared in 1988, Pynchon's "V." (world domination, reactionaries vs. revolutionaries, sinister technology) as well as inevitable Burroughs (cut-up, prickly, bugs) inspired critical comparisons. For a writer just over thirty, this represents a promising, if raw, post-modernist epic produced by an Ivy League (via Deep Springs College, which one senses in the remote version of the School of Daniel) grad immersed in computers (Vollmann wrote this while living under his Silicon Valley cubicle, subsisting after hours on candy bars from the vending machine) and avant-garde techniques, pitted through a doomed humanism suspicious of leftist platitudes as well as capitalist slogans, self-help get off your duff and quit your guff vernacular (sent up here often via Dr. Dodger and Mr. White, the forces that conspire to ruin lots of lives and lots of ecology) and corporate blather.
Vollmann sustains the energy in the same manner as most of his works to date which I've been reading. That is, he postpones fulfillment. Big George, the mysterious force that narrates this along with what seems an alter ego (as is common not only in a debut but throughout Vollmann's career, a blurred fictional-factual stand-in who channels and also questions the real-life author's claims to verisimilitude), tells us early on that a key revelation of the Kuzbuite ideology (which generates the opposition to the well-named electrical force in this computer simulation between big and small as the White Power & Light monopoly) will not be revealed for 400 pages. 400 pages in, two-thirds of the way through, this reader felt the pace lag, as still many more adventures in the Arctic, digressions, and side trips awaited. Sure, some of these are wonderful.
Frank canvassing in the rain of the East Bay suburbs for the cause, Bee dumping the lovelorn "other" narrator, a dramatic fight at an Oregon bar and pool joint, the reveries and terror of summer camp, the privileged affinity group at a college much like the author's alma mater Cornell or his father's Dartmouth who tries to overwhelm the system and revels in its inefficiency, Bug's hitchhiking in the Yukon, and the satirical yet still somewhat disturbing attack by the revolutionaries on a family cruising down a Canadian freeway reveal grand vignettes. Some scenes will reoccur in later books set in the frozen North, in investigating terror and violence at home and abroad, and depicting totalitarian WWII-derived entities in charge. Here, allegories to the Great Beetle taking over an ant's nest, the hive mentality of bees, the subversion of those rising up who get caught in the rising down: the themes of decades of formidable works can be seen embedded and embryonic within YBRA.
I admit the insect plot dissuaded me for a long time from reading this, until I learned that "Rising Up and Rising Down" is part of a loose trilogy starting here and shifting, in its power struggles and big. vs. little guy battles, in the 1982-set "An Afghanistan Picture Show" (alluded to in an aside in YBRA). It has its slow spots, but coming to this after a few Vollmann works, I adjusted to its verbal immersion.
As is typical, fewer passages themselves leap out for demonstration of this style, as Vollmann for all his apposite or wry epigrams and arch stances prefers to plunge the reader into the narrative flow and not to isolate any particularly prosy ripple. Still, the sections entitled "Trees" and "Another Anecdote" provide strong evidence for his philosophical bent. The first considers the ''unfair qualities of ecology" (148) and the second dramatizes by a grasshopper in a jar scenario mortality's impact.
Bug similarly stares at the grey poisons over a Silicon Valley vista (nearly thirty years ago; imagine it now). He longs to revolt, to force this all back to forests, and so he takes up arms. Yet this mission totters and will not win the masses over, even if "surely this change in him was necessary, for without wretchedness and degradation of self one will never accomplish anything." (204) After "Operation Hammer Blow" crushes his affinity group, Bug reasons "if all he had for a weapon was goodness and rightness, he felt a strong sense of fear and powerlessness. Everything he learned was making him more like an insect." (301) After one member has his arms broken by the National Guard when abandoned to his fate, and another vanishes when trying to rescue him, "Bug concluded, perhaps not without reason, that bravery alone, like love and openness, was of little value. So his development continued. He was now thinking in a truly revolutionary way." (306) This type of tone can demoralize you in a six-hundred-plus page work. Humor survives, as mockery or self-deprecation. Underneath, loneliness seeps. For Bug's fellow comrade in their polar lair, it's also grim. "When he had broken himself out of his chrysalis Frank would go to the edge of the plateau and pat the snow as if it were his best friend, and then he would squeeze some of it in his hands and throw it over the edge." (532)
The real author, as opposed to his equally garrulous dual narrators who blur here, has stated he could have gone on ten thousand pages with this. I wanted more vim from Milly and more vigor from Susie; Frank and Stephen Mole as their male counterparts in the circa 1986 uprising seem to get more depth, such as it is for caricatures; their foes Parker, Taylor, and Wayne strut around a lot on but then fade into the workings of White and Dodger who use them as pawns, and all these figures start to look like windup toys even more than when the novel began, although this seems intentional. This all reminded me strongly of Pynchon's "Against the Day." I found it eerie how it precedes it by 20 years.
This winds down after one of the revolutionaries fails to break out of a clever take on the prison genre, in fact and in story. He is immured among those British incarcerated from the War of 1812 in the San Francisco Mint building. No less strange than any other episode I suppose, but after his spectacular demise, the energy of the novel seems to deflate. Vollmann's standard scene, here set with a prostitute named Brandi near the Haight, does not gain the drive that his later depictions of this milieu will, and after more sparring between Big George's and Bug's forces, as the outcome has been long predestined, the novel sputters out. Still, the haunting and bitter cuneiform transmission of the final section shows a writer refusing to give in, and even if Bug never gets the sequel the other narrator promises, this novel ushers in quite a determined turn at bat for Vollmann, who soldiers on. (I have been reviewing many of his books recently, and more to come.)