Book Review: You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann

This is an intense, insane, magnetic book. It was William T. Vollmann’s first published book and suffers a few defects in pacing and other flaws typical in early work, but it makes up for this in sheer creativity. The subtitle is “A Cartoon,” and it definitely lives up to that name. At times this reads less like an allegory for militias in 1980s Afghanistan and more like a Looney Toons short (plus Vollmann includes many doodles throughout the text).

The book’s genesis is just as crazy. After graduating from Cornell, Vollmann worked odd jobs to save up for a trip to Afghanistan to work with the mujahideen fighting the Soviets. The journey went about as well as one might expect for a naïve recent college graduate, and, after coming down with dysentery, the team he was with had to drag him away from the front. This resulted in a memoir that he wrote soon after but did not publish until the early 90s, THE AFGHANISTAN PICTURE SHOW.

Back in the USA, despite knowing little about computers, he got a job as a computer programmer, and it was after hours at this job that he wrote most of this novel, purportedly hiding from janitorial staff and living off of vending machine goodies.

YOU BRIGHT AND RISEN ANGELS uses his experiences both overseas and behind a computer desk to create an incredibly original story. It features two narrators, an unnamed heartbroken programmer and Big George, who may or may not be the power of electricity personified. The two battle it out for control over the story, which functions as a sort of computer program, which is where the majority of the plot takes place. Mr. White is a ruthless industrialist. Picture the worst qualities in Edison and all those other inventors and the end result is a nicer version of him. He harnesses electricity and the mysterious blue orbs that control it and turns it into a capitalist empire. Bug is a human who teams up with a resistance formed up mostly by anthropomorphized insects (like computer bugs, get it?) fighting against Mr. White and his forces. If this is confusing, it will take a couple hundred pages into this before all the pieces fall together, but even during those chapters, this is hard to put down.

There are plenty of side characters and twists and turns (this earned comparisons to Pynchon and Burroughs upon release, and for good reason). These asides do not always work, and as always for Vollmann an editor would not have hurt, but it is hard to fault it for its ambition, and it is definitely ambitious. Vollmann goes every which way not just in the general plot but also on a sentence-by-sentence level; these sentences are not just run ons, they are marathoners, but as is the case with any adept novelist Vollmann uses this style to his advantage, and though at times he is more tell than show, he is never a bad writer.

I have seen this recommended as a good introductory text for Vollmann, due to its similarities with other authors. But unless one is a Pynchon or Burroughs fanatic, THE ICE-SHIRT or EUROPE CENTRAL might be better. Still, for those who have had a taste of Vollmann’s crazy world and want more, this is a great next stop.


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