Monday, May 11, 2009

Rising Up and Rising Down: 19 pounds of human flesh

I'm super-interested in reading this book. Or should I say books? It's seven whole stupefying and cloth-bound volumes, the work of 19 years of one man's life. A writer's writer, if I've ever heard of one.

The full 7 vol. set was produced only once, by the boutique press, McSweeney's, founded by Dave Eggers (author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). I say, since Eggers' story didn't quite fulfill the literal meaning of his title, then this book should definitely be the next candidate in line. It's an incredibly well-researched treatise on violence that attempts to formulate a moral calculus for when it is justifiable to use violence.

At the same time, it is a very personal exploration of Vollmann's own experiences with violence and death. For instance, after graduating with a B.A. in comparative literature, he spent his time saving up money to go to Afghanistan in 1982. He spent his time there, at first struggling to accustom himself to the climate, diet and culture in order to actually get into the country, and then his time was spent living with the mujahideen, all the while asking the question "If you had a message for the Americans, what would it be?"

(Sounds like an existential work - a man living through and beyond literature. It is perhaps not so strange that I find it fascinating, even though I've read only about 20 pages of Vollmann thus far; the man is a living myth. That's good and bad, I suppose.)

But in this 3,000+ page opus, Vollmann includes his own stories, some form of personal and historical journalism, and photos: photos of people posing with their weapons, caressing their guns, set against other shots of people missing limbs or being blown up by mortar fire. It all seems to be a sobering and at the same time exhilarating account of the human history of violence.

And though it encompasses a number of case studies of historical periods of genocide, political uprising and other accounts from various war zones, it seems quite obvious that this is not a complete history by any means. So obvious, it must be, that each act of violence has its own personality, its own motives and responses, that this all could just turn into an endless series of what I will fail to call "essays," namely because they will always remain trying to encapsulate each act in its essence and it will fail to cohere either in itself or in the greater context of history.

It all makes me wonder, "What's the point of violence?" But I'm in the privileged position of asking such a question, which means I am in no position to answer it. Damn; unfortunate, I know.

Aside from the traditional review I read in the NY Times ['Rising Up and Rising Down'] (which I do find interesting, but it spends much time evaluating whether this book is good enough to read or not, to which I argue, some guy spent 19 years writing something that is 3,352 fucking pages on one of the most significant problems in human life - don't you think that some of it is going to be worth your time?), I do find one non-traditional "review" of this book to be quite interesting and worth your time. It's from the McSweeney's website and called An Oral History of Rising Up and Rising Down, which discusses the many challenges of bringing a huge book like this to publication. It probably only helps to elevate the book to its mythic status, and maybe explains why I'm so obsessive about it, but otherwise I still think the people will enjoy it.

But the question is, will I ever read this big, fat, sad, sappy, sucker? I'm not in the habit of making predictions about the future, mine or anyone else's. I do hope someone reads it, somewhere. Maybe I'll eventually get a copy of it and use that as the foundation for building my own archive of rare and interesting books - at 304 ounces of paper, ink and binding, plus a whole ton of human weight, it should provide a pretty good foundation at that.

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