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California Literary Review

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means – by William T. Vollmann


Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means – by William T. Vollmann

With the exceptions of several of his earlier works, every time I take on a book by William T. Vollmann the same thought always wanders through my head about 100 to 150 pages into the narrative, “Why in the hell am I reading this.

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means - by William T. Vollmann 1
Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means
by William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 752 pp.
CLR [rating:3]

RISING UP AND RISING DOWN Sinks Under Its Own Density

This is a cautionary tale.

With the exceptions of several of his earlier works, every time I take on a book by William T. Vollmann the same thought always wanders through my head about 100 to 150 pages into the narrative, “Why in the hell am I reading this. It’s boring. It’s self-absorbed. It’s awful.” Well, Rising Up and Rising Down is the thirteenth title by the author that I’ve labored, struggled, battled my way through and nothing’s changed.

What would take a reasonably competent writer perhaps fifty pages to say or explain takes Vollmann 515 pages of over and over and over stating and restating the same premise until I became so desperate that I tossed the book in a corner, bundled up to face below-zero temperatures and fierce winds whipping down from the Yellowstone caldera and lashing my little town of Livingston. Then I struck out for The Owl Bar for a couple of stiff drinks and some mundane, thankfully, conversation.

I have no idea why I’ve read all of this guy’s books. I really don’t. And what makes this a truly disturbing situation is that I recently ordered Europe Central which clocks in at 832 pages. I’m the only person that I know personally (though based on the disassociated ramblings found at various Vollmann websites there are hundreds of avid, thorough readers), still living anyway, who’s read all of The Royal Family (777 pages) and Argall (746 pages). And to further belabor this insane point, consider the fact that the version of Rising Up and Rising Down I’m discussing here is the abridged item. The original spans seven volumes and 3,352 pages.

Merely finishing one of these monstrosities may be the perverse attraction for me and as well as for other disturbed individuals. And having the lunatic gumption to repeat the tortuous process with another hefty offering could be yet another facet of this fevered malady.

I have a hard time remembering what the book is about though it’s sub-titled, and I suspect this is a slight hint of Vollmann’s twisted sense of humor, Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. Some? Good Lord! Either there are a whole bunch in this book or just a couple that are worked over until their hands bleed.

Or as his publisher explains the madness this way:

A labor of seventeen years, Vollmann’s first book of non-fiction since 1992’s An Afghanistan Picture Show is a gravely urgent invitation to look back at the world’s long, bloody path and find some threads of meaning, wisdom, and guidance to plot a moral course. From the street violence of prostitutes and junkies to the centuries-long battles between the Native Americans and European colonists, Vollmann’s mesmerizing imagery and compelling logic is presented with authority born of astounding research and personal experience.

Vollmann’s publisher cruelly makes light of the abjectly pedantic nature of the book. While Rising Up and Rising Down does indeed examine how social contracts between individuals, governments and societies can prevent violence, and also they can lead to total, bloody mayhem. He boils down all of this into something he calls “The Moral Calculus,” a set of questions such as “When is violent military retribution justified?”—followed by lengthy answers. The book’s final 200 pages offer “Studies in Consequences,” featuring Vollmann’s in-the-thick-of-things coverage from southeast Asia, Europe, the Muslim World and North America (represented here mostly by Jamaica). All of this is explained in excruciating detail, and I mean excruciating. Murder, rape, insurgency, terrorism, gangsta behavior and much more is dissected and incorporated into a lengthy monologue to make Vollmann’s points, which for the life of me I can’t remember. Maybe in a year or two when I’ve recovered from reading this baby I’ll have some idea what happened here.

And that’s largely the point of this review/warning. Beware if you are one of those hapless creatures that is compelled to finish a book once started. You’re going to be in for a dozen miles of very rough road.

In the preface to one of his books, I forget which, Vollmann said something to the effect of that he paid his publisher or sacrificed an advance or royalties so that his books would not be cut. A serious mistake Billy Boy. What you need is an editor with guts, one who is willing, able and possessing sufficient stamina to whack your ponderous efforts by one-half, or, better yet, two-thirds. What ever happened to those halcyon days when you wrote relatively concise, measured books like Whores For Gloria, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved The World (this subtitle should have served as a warning as to what the future held as far as his work) and The Rainbow Stories. Those were times of reasonable calm, a period when your books were liberally laced with unique, and at times astounding, observations and concepts.

Now the reader is forced to slog through dozens upon dozens of pages of the most abjectly boring writing I’ve encountered since my days of studying manuals on the U.S. Forest Service’s computer modeling device called Forplan.

Bill, Stop it! You’re killing us! National Book Award or not. Nobel Prize ambitions or not. Comparisons to Proust not withstanding. I don’t care! Stop it! Please, please go back to writing like the benign, slightly crazy soul you once were when all of this started several thousand years ago.

What does give a body faint hope during its odyssey-like coursing through Rising Up and Rising Down are all too infrequent and brief sections of reporting and/or observing our species engaged in full-tilt chaos. This is something that Vollmann, when he’s on his game, does better than anyone else. As an example I offer the following brief takes from the chapter called The Muslim World – Let Me Know If You’re Scarred (1993):

The soldier bent, searching the car whose passengers stood hands up before a white cave whose weird ledges had once been steel shelves and now comprised a many-tiered steel fungus. Beyond the cave was a slope of white rubble which had once been a wall. The rear wall still stood, incongruous with its windows…

…To verify my optimistic impressions I drove every day past a certain cemetery where I invariably saw the same four gravediggers sitting under an awning by a burned-out transformer’s mast, drinking sweet tea choked with cinnamon – “Somali whiskey,” they called it. They were waiting for someone to die. They said that in the good old times thirty or forty corpses a day had been planted under the tiny markers among the cactus bushes and the poisonous booc trees, for a hundred thousand shillings apiece ($25); but now there were days when nobody died. The average was three or four deaths every twenty-four hours. So the gravediggers sat still in the hot sand, almost out of work, because we’d called in the Marines.

This is what Vollmann does best. Travel to brutal places and cast a mordant eye on the scene, filter and extrapolate images involving all of the senses and lay down solid lick after solid lick. If only he’d devote 90 percent of his books to this and 10 percent to his verbal polemics, I’d be in heaven.

But he doesn’t. Nowhere close to these percentages and the result is a tough trip through literary hell.

Such is my warning.

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  1. Patrick

    May 29, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    While Vollmann should be comended for tackeling such an enormous task of mapping, discussing, and attempting to answer questions of violence, there is one major flaw in this work that cannot be overlooked. He greatly misunderstands nonviolence and its principles. He has spent so much time thinking and writing about violence that it is clear he has done little research or thought into the deeper ideas of nonviolence. Case in point: Gene Sharp wrote a book in the early 70’s (I believe ’73) called “Politics of Nonviolent Action.” This book accomplishes for nonviolence what Vollman attempts with his opus. Sharp takes a critical look at nonviolence and its historic uses and discusses success, failure, and future possibilties. (He followed this work up in 2005 with Waging Nonviolent Struggle) THe book is very well known and very well respected in fields of nonviolence. Had Vollman done any amount of research on the subject he would have come across this book, and after reading realized about half of his critiques of nonviolence in situations that supposedly need violence is flawed. Overall this makes Rising up, Rising Down elementary in regards to analysis of violence. You cannot write on either side without a detailed understanding of both sides (this understanding must go beyondmere practice of both), and it is clear Vollman does not understand nonviolence to any great or practical, degree (despite his dabblings ins the field).

  2. Rupert Rahl

    May 29, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    Im on page 280 of Rising Up and Rising Down! Reading this is comparable to writing the same statement over and over on a chalkboard in detention.

    I will finish this book
    I will finish this book
    I will finish this book

  3. Thomas Barber

    May 29, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I know you. You’re the critic who, as a student, always asked the teacher, “What does this book mean?” and “How long does this paper have to be?”

  4. anonymous

    May 29, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I’m a hundred pages into the book. Your review made me laugh out loud.

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