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Suicide notes on William T. Vollmann's 'You Bright and Risen Angels.'

(But not I, not I....)

When and where I grew up, before the main picture at a Saturday matinee, they always played an insect cartoon. This presumably was meant to appease the insects in the audience, chaperoned and otherwise, for whom no feature films were ever made. I still remember how the roaches in the front-row seats would buzz and crackle and snap their elytra with delight as the red velour curtains parted. And for the next ten minutes we dwelt in their world - a sticky place of ultraviolet insights, telepathic sympathies, and random violence, where one could flit through time as easily as crawl on the ceiling. Sometimes we watched through cheap cardboard compound-eyeglasses, gaining glimpses of that realm as revealing as those Heinz Jost gained on his birthday stroll through the Warsaw ghettos. Who can forget the hopeless courage of the Lone Mantis, that noble, voracious intellect, as she counterstalked assassin bugs, staved off hordes of savage thrips, and outwitted cunning giant toe-biters before finally settling down to devour her mate? (This was in Los Angeles. The year? They had recently lit the tiki lamp above a dead president's tombe - one of those killed by an Indian curse.)

I was reading an interview with William T. Vollmann last week (some critic-bug playing leg-rubbing Boswell to his chitin-plated Johnson), when it occurred to me that the insects finally have their feature film - and, true to the early days of entomological entertainment, it is a cartoon. The fact that it is still cocooned in paper, waiting to spring full-blown and with trembling wings onto the screens of the insect cinemas (those multidomed affairs cobbled together out of spit bubbles and wasp cardboard), does not trouble the patient bugs. Silverfish cavort in my copy, devouring Vollmann's words in order to come closer to them. Several copies in the San Francisco Public Library show the fossil imprints of adventurous gnats, woolly aphids, and pilgrim beetles, martyrs who immortalized themselves among the commas and apostropbes by dashing between the pages just as the (heavy) covers were falling shut. I have myself contributed to the ascension of various gypsy, cabbage, and artichoke moths by crushing them graciously under my own copy.

This marvelous insect icon is, of course, William T. Vollmann's first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels. It is a book in name and outward form only. To insects in particular, its significance runs far deeper. (I understand there are certain highlights in the original Atheneum hardcover visible only to insects, including advance raves from the most reliable crickets. Some seventeen-year cicadas actually left their burrows early in order to hijack delivery trucks carrying shipments of the first edition, leaving bloodless paper-mummy drivers with shattered eardrums to be discovered by startled Waldenbooks investigators.) Vollmann's creation foreshadows a new genre, an entirely new morphology, a species of rare North American entertainment that will be lucky if it doesn't end up etherized and pinned out in fancy frames like those Philippine lepidoptera for sale on Manhattan sidewalks. While it seems unlikely that a creature so various and lively will ever be threatened with extinction, please keep in mind that even the insects are endangered these days. Only the dullest and most survival-minded scuttlers are sure to survive - red ants, black roaches, and stink bugs - and the faster all concerned can learn to live on poison and like it, the better.

Vollmann's word-larvae have clearly consumed more than their share of DDT, for their pupal forms are twisted into sad yet beautiful shapes. It is a terrible and irresistible thing to see them wriggling about mating and stinging one another in the shadow of giant grass blades. Yet this suffering is so true to the harsh realities of the insect kingdom that one scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry at the rightness of it all.

If you live in a region of tame fireflies, you are well advised to enlist their aid in nocturnal reading; for this is a book best read with the lights off. The nearness of electricity will upset the sympathetic characters while nourishing the villainous Blue Globes, who need no encouragement to seep from our wall sockets and Dodgerhouse Tesla coils and methodically burn out the cryptic signals on our floppy disks and hard drives, not to mention our frontal lobes. I myself labored for nine cruel months in the service of the Blue Globes at the local utility company, from which only my "temporary" status allowed me eventually to escape. And. I have leafed through boxes of confidential research material where the ability of humans to withstand the pain of electrocution is charted alongside that of laboratory pigs subjected to liquid natural gas explosions, and vast files of Nazi medical data are casually cross-referenced without ever being spelled out, since the typical White Power & Light analyst is already familiar with these basic texts.

I used to sit reading in the elevator lobby on the thirteenth floor at every state-allotted coffee break, until the Globes passed down the word that I lent too much human presence to the facilities, softening sharp geometries designed to induce feelings of insignificance. (Blue Globe buildings all have thirteenth floors, clearly labeled in the elevators, with no concessions made to human superstition, for in these citadels Science alone (ostensibly) rules (though Science itself is merely another ploy of the hungry Blue Globes to eradicate their ancient arthropod foe).) So I went to another bank of elevators, one less visited, where the doors opened one after another all day long but no one ever got on or off except the ghosts of deceased employees who had traded their souls to the Blue Globes in return for early retirement, figuring an eternity of drudgery was well worth ten golden years they would be still fit to enjoy; though through treachery and poisoned nine-irons, they all died during their first day on the golf courses where they had planned to spend a decade polishing their putts. And at intervals throughout the day, all the urinals in that building flushed in unison, and thousands of cigarette butts and septic lozenges danced and rattled against the plastic screens like drowning mayflies banging at a screen door. (Originally I called it a storm door, but this did not quite capture the sought-after seasonal feeling; so we live with the minor discomfort of three screens in close succession, which is far fewer than the number in the utility company's word-processing department, so you get off easy, stop complaining.) Until one fine June day everyone brought tiny hex wrenches to work and we set about unsealing the windows to let in wisps of fresh salt air; at which alarms sounded (the Blue Globes living in constant fear of corrosion) and our insuffection was bloodily suppressed, much like the Key Operator Uprising of 1979 (and who among us has actually seen a key operator since that time?). That was the same afternoon on which loudspeakers announced that the San Diablo Nuclear Power Plant had come up to 60 percent of full power, at which there were hearty cheers and hurrahs throughout the complex, causing an eavesdropping beetle to fall into a fluorescent light ballast where he burned to a crisp, though his death by short-circuit did effectively shut down the nuke plant, a very valiant if unexpected sabotage. Stinging deerflies could not have done better, my brother!

This, sweet nymph, was in the days before You Bright and Risen Angels was available between sturdy covers, though I think Vollmann must have been close to finishing it then. You could feel it in the air: something was coming: tropical fireflies clustered in fields to spell out the initials WTV, which Soviet satellites mistakenly interpreted as clever advertisements for a new cable network and identified, not incorrectly, as a threat. Sometimes I think I must have glimpsed him hurrying through the depressing 7:00 A.M. shadows of the financial district monoliths, his eyes catching light of something strangely beautiful and promising in the cold, inhuman architectureas --as if someday humanity might actually trap the Blue Globes in such places and make them our slaves. I also was granted such glimpses, but by 10:30 each morning I had lost the inspiration behind that vision, and, ground down by the necessity of retyping endless memos, gave up trying to articulate what only a delicate mouthful of mandibles could ever put into speech. But then, as Joseph Priestly aptly quipped, "It is not given to every electrician to die the death of the justly envied [Voll]mann." For while I was walking numbly over the steel Beale Street gratings, Vollmann crept beneath them, making strange pacts with the scuttlers, jotting notes in his voluminous pads, sketching the genitalia and spiracles of paid volunteers, accruing evidence to suggest that the mysterious Earplugs had, or one day would have, passed through these very cement conduits, interviewing relatives of the unfortunate praying mantis who once kept bar in Oregon until, through the exertions of a vengeful Wayne, he met his greenly scrunchysquishy end in a scene which mercifully does not appear in this novel. (Haw haw, one can hear Wayne saying from his grave; and how little pleasure there is to be derived from the knowledge that he is in one, for Vollmann has demonstrated that these days resurrections, like the personal computer, is affordable and available to almost everyone. "And indeed the scene he opens, strikes us with a pleasing astonishment, whilst he conducts us by a train of facts and judicious reflections, to a probable cause of those phenomena, which are at once the most awful, and, hitherto, accounted for with the least verisimilitude." So says Dr. John Fothergill in his preface to Franklin's book on electricity, and it is equally true here, where in the preface everything has already been done, and by the epilogue we are left with all hope of The End forever eluding us, because the Blue Globes (in collusion, it must be admitted, with the treacherous author, or one of his fissioning egos) have effectively short-circuited this narrative so that it may never run its course, but must continually spin about in smaller and brighter hot circles within its own schematic, emitting ever higher-pitched and fainter screams. Fortunately Vollmann has managed to rig, the turbines of his prodigious prose to this doomed flow, and the energy he generates is not to be believed.)

The epic tale of the war between Electricity and the Insects is one which must surely captivate any insect heart, and no doubt the Blue Globes themselves have an interest in it. And yet ... what does it hold for us poor humans, who yearly migrate toward the back of the theater (paradoxically, given the weakening of our eyesight and hearing), giving way to the insect incursion, until finally the only bit of human programming to survive will be a three-minute travelogue called Beautiful Auksland, which none of the insects pay attention to (except sometimes to ridicule the pasty exoflesh of the native Auks) as they gobble up jujubes before the main insect feature begins? Are we to be relegated ourselves to mere cartoonery? And is this an entirely bad thing?

The answer to this question is best pondered to the accompaniment of Raymond Scott's immortal "Powerhouse," a brilliant bit of driving mechanism that some experts I phoned will not grace with the name of jazz, but which has served for years to capture the threatening, frenzied spirit of automated progress in Warner Brothers cartoons; and though I am told that Scott left his legacy to the aforementioned studio, and thus this piece could not have played in any Fleischer cartoons, I still vividly remember one terrifying episode in an early Popeye cartoon when Swee'pea crawled innocently through an assembly line of pounding machinery, nearly pulverized by thundering pistons into the cartoon equivalent of ground round, to a musical track that deepened the horror of Swee'pea's situation - the loony music of the factory, which nearly crushes us all, particularly as we age and lose our easy grace among the pistons and spark plugs and our security blankets are snagged by gears that draw us ineluctably into the masher several hours before a now entirely senile Popeye even realizes we are missing and gulps down a dented can of spinach, not noticing until too late that the can is bloated, and thus learning that botulin has a savor all but impossible to communicate. And the palmetto bugs scurry under the treadmill, collecting gristle from the hopper with which to construct amusing artifacts, while the dung beetles roll the remains of our civilization into tidy balls.

For the fact is, as the dung beetles well know, cartoons hold the essence of mortality. Swee'pea, ever a babe, will never age or die or find him(her?)self trapped in any animated cogs; and the chances of Alzheimer's namebearers finding Popeye are nonexistent. What forms are more protean, more elastically suited to transformation, than these vigorous animated figures that vibrate across the screens of our bughouses and our minds? Mashed, slashed, Osterized, reduced to elements that hesitate not an instant before recombining and redefining themselves, to arise in some new form, perhaps wheezing like a concertina. To become a cartoon is without a doubt the greatest end to which we can aspire; only this will ensure our consumption by insects and Blue Globes alike. Once our ascension is complete, no matter the battles waged between the greatest and the smallest, we (the most mediocre) cannot be extinguished. So, yeah, I think it would be a fine thing to all become cartoons, throbbing to the soundtrack of The Carl Stalling Project. One can see the power which cartoons have granted Vollmann - the sinuous rubbery way his lethally smiling sentences slip and slide one into the next, the same way evilly disinterested Parker's arms, like Vollmann's book, just kinda streeeeeech to include almost ... ... any ...

... here, for instance, where the lawyers Mawk(*) works for all are angry over a summary judgment ruling that went against The Firm; and so are buzzing in the halls, hurrying past the glass partitions that cage him in, some of them certainly trying to sneak a look at his computer screen, noticing that this review does not resemble any legal document of their experience. Mawk is angry about the distraction. His failings as an essayist pile up on him, but there are so many other worse ones. "This is going to be too complicated," a secretary says. "Talk about jerking you around. He said he's totally stunned, he says it's a totally wrong decision, he says he's pissed as hell and there's nothing he can do about it. It's kind of like, well, now what do we do? Weeks of work have just been ..."

At one o'clock Mawk slips out of the office with his backpack over one shoulder, weighed down with books, and descends to the lobby of the Canned Fruit Plaza. He has already furtively eaten his salad packed in Tupperware while at his desk, freeing him for an hour to sit without the distraction of bodily needs on a Naugahyde bench near a stale-smelling trash can, lifting his feet for the janitor's mop, and read, sometimes squinting out at the fog or the infrequent sunshine as he has done for nearly two years daily at this hour. In the first few months at his employment he had wandered out into the air at midday, but he knows every square of the sidewalks within an hour's walking distance, and there is nothing new to see except another building going up or another freeway coming down. So he flips the pages of many massive books and gets very gloomy when he considers that none of them was written by him. For seven hours each day he sits and practices his typing and transcription of dictated cassettes and composes memos and briefs for lawyers. When you consider that one generally excels at the thing one devotes the most time and practice to,(*) it is not surprising to learn that he is a very good legal secretary. And meanwhile, there are these books, and this one in particular, the poignant beauty of whose sentences spring into his mind brighter than any cartoon and stab him and stab him repeatedly in a place he never knew he had, but wishes were better developed; stabs him until tears come to his eyes and he glances at his Casio wristwatch and sees that it is two o'clock now, so the tears stop on schedule and he must go back to his eternal practice, and meanwhile the hollow ache deepens because he knows he will never write such books, though on shelves above his head are several dozen black three-ring binders - about a ten-foot length of them - full of documents that once passed through his fingers, if not his mind, all words that no one will ever read, words that fill courthouse files across the nation, not one word of which is worth the death of the merest branch of the sickliest of the lightning-blasted trees on whose pulp they are laser-jetted. And as he walks up from the subways in the afternoons past the tweedling of a bamboo flute and trudges the few blocks home, or leaves his house in the morning heading for the stagnant fluorescent tunnels, this hollowness grows darker and staler than the subway air and forces him to push it out of sight so that he can function a bit longer, type another day's worth of complaints and subpoenas, all the while knowing that if he could only sit down somewhere in silence for a year he could maybe begin to resuscitate some of the words that are dying a smothered death in that empty place inside him where there used to be a cartoon. And for a time he fools himself that there would at least be some merit to writing about one book he loves unbearably, since it was not given to him to have written it; but eventually this too seems a doomed effort, another lame pastiche that recreates nothing of the original experience of reading Vollmann (despite the bees that are stinging my, the author's, heart, the buzzing in my, Mawk's, ears). And it doesn't really matter that he repeatedly wanders the same streets as his cartoon heroes, as if habitually rubbing a talisman with his feet, for he is only one of millions who have done so. All he can do is draw cartoons, as if this act of worship might make him worthy of some impossible ascension. But his essay is such a pale derivative of the original that it might as well be about nothing. About his life. One can, in the end, only laugh at his attempt.

The suicide bug is born with two thinly veiled sacs of poison festering just within its mandibles. When threatened, it bites them and dies. Unfortunately, it is a very timid bug and, like the author, easily startled. Cruuuuunch.

Parker's arms are squeezing me. Winter is headed for Omarville, but not soon enough to rescue me from Our Vegetable Hitler. This is the last of my sick sad cry - the sound of the short subject slipping its reel:

Flicketyflicketyflicketyflickflickflick -

And now for Our Feature Presentation:

(*) Bostonian pronunciation (*) With the exception of a certain homeless banjo player who shall go nameless but who sits near the escalator of the Mission BART station eight hours a day plunking out "Dueling Banjos" and "Stairway to Heaven Breakdown" and never improves with all that practice, yet will not spend a single panhandled dime on lessons.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Laidlaw, Marc
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Where an author might be standing.
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