Readers of my last post of 2010 (see below) will not be surprised to learn that I began 2011 with a reading of William Vollmann's 1987 debut novel. You Bright and Risen Angels is much more than a promising first novel. It is an annunciation of the arrival of a writer who seems to have sprung fully mature from the North American earth. It's one of the most audacious, self-assured first novels I have ever read, and while it falls easily into the comic/satirical line that stretches from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy through Lewis Carroll and Mikhail Bulgakov to George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon, Vollmann's novel largely fights free of its influences and seems a sui generis work of American fiction. On one level, the book is a 1980s Silicon Valley compu-serf's revenge fantasy, a fantastically elaborate literalization of the computer 'bugs' that are every programmer's bane. Around this kernel of an idea, Vollmann imagines a dystopic America defined by four competing (and sometimes cooperating) systems: fascistic corporations, violent anti-corporate revolutionaries, sentient bugs (beetles, ants, etc.); and the force of electricity itself, the mysterious "blue globes" that hold the fundamental power in Vollmann's world. While Animal Farm is an obvious precursor, Vollmann eschews the paint-by-numbers allegory of Orwell's satire for something less easily legible and more complex--and insofar as it is more complex, both more 'realistic' and more akin to the satirical style of Pynchon's biography of Byron the Bulb in Gravity's Rainbow. Vollmann's leading reactionary, the aptly-named industrialist Mr. White, is neither Edison nor Ford nor Carnegie nor Rockefeller nor Westinghouse nor Tesla, but an amalgamation of the worst qualities of all those men, with unhealthy doses of Lester Maddox and Adolph Hitler tossed in for bad measure. And while the author's sympathies clearly lie with the revolutionaries who oppose Mr. White, they are also portrayed as cold-blooded slaughterers of the innocent. Neither right nor left escapes the barbs of Vollmann's satire, and one of the most discomforting questions this novel implies (and answers negatively) is: Can there be a revolution without revolutionary murder? Has there ever been one, even one? (The American Revolution gave us the Gnaddenhutten massacre; Gandhi's 'peaceful revolution' was accompanied by ferocious sectarian violence; one might mention the "Revolution of 1688" in England, but that was really more an international palace coup.) Vollmann challenges armchair leftists to be honest with themselves and cease all talk of 'revolution' unless they're willing to accept responsibility for the violence that real revolution entails.
This is but one level of a novel that overflows with meaning and incident. I've mentioned some of its higher-class precursors, but this book also partakes of pulp science fiction, comic books, TV cartoons (Vollmann subtitles the novel "A Cartoon") and the adrenaline-fueled absurdities of 1980s action movies. There's an impossible prison break that seems lifted from a Stallone film; there are major characters named Parker and Wayne (the 'real' names of Spiderman and Batman, respectively); there are people who look like plants, and bugs that pass for people; one character can stretch like Plasticman, others are so tediously nerdy they would be expelled from a John Hughes film. Vollmann expertly juggles his characters and commands a complicated nonlinear narrative with more finesse than most older writers could muster. (And as though to underline his youth, the first edition of this novel sports an author photo in which the 27-ish author looks about 17.) His energy flags only near the end, when the overlong "Blue Globes Forever" chapter threatens to stall the book out before the last of its 600+ pages. Fortunately, Vollmann's enigmatic and in-your-face "Author's Note" (which I remember hearing him read aloud on Michael Silverblatt's "Bookworm" radio program sometime in the 1990s) saves us from an otherwise disappointing ending.