Rising Up and Rising Down
March 12, 2004 3:31 PM   Subscribe

When is violence justified? I am now the proud owner of one of 3,500 copies of William T. Vollmann's 3,299-page study of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, published by McSweeney's. The book (if you can call something that's seven volumes a "book") has gotten mixed reviews that lean toward positive: Scott McLemee, writing in the New York Times Book Review (reg. req.), called it a "flood of logorrhea," while Steven Moore (a literary critic notable for his work on another long-winded writer, William Gaddis) wrote in the Washington Post that it is an "achievement beyond the realm of mere mortals," comparing it to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. This oral history tells the story behind how the book came to be published at McSweeney's, and is an interesting look at what needs to happen for a difficult-to-market work to make its way from its author to the general reading public, in a publishing industry that's unfriendly to this kind of thing, to say the least.
posted by Prospero (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. He's probably one of our most dedicated writers and a personal favorite. I wonder if a library around here will get a copy.
posted by pyramid termite at 3:51 PM on March 12, 2004

I've read five of its seven volumes so far. It's extraordinary. (Great airplane reading, as long as you don't mind reading about military atrocities on airplanes). It does make me tear my hair out intermittently. A couple of notes:

*Vollmann's perspective is frankly pretty weird: he's a hard-line pacifist who thinks that Gandhi was a jerk, and a gun nut who believes in the death penalty for using a gun in any crime. Not easy to pin down, I think.

*It's very rare that a book is both so ethically prescriptive and so deliberately open to argument. The "moral calculus" is a major achievement--but Vollmann is the first to point out that a) it's probably impossible to live up to his moral calculus in practice, and b) the moral calculus is at least partly subjective--he cites dozens of historical actors' own moral codes that don't agree with his own. He also goes out of his way to invite disagreement: he notes that a couple of sections, especially the one on animal rights, are "unsatisfactory," and he's right about that.

*Particular things I've loved so far: the chapter on the aesthetics of weapons; the "moral continuua" at the end of each chapter (quotes from a dozen or more historical figures, arranged in a linear way according to their ideologies); the short chapters in Vol. IV in which he unceremoniously dispatches "moral yellowness" and "inevitability" as justifications for violence; his minute examination of the mercy of Julius Caesar. Most annoying thing so far: this is the worst-proofread professionally published book I've ever seen--typos all over the place, and a few bits that are totally mangled.
posted by 88robots at 4:26 PM on March 12, 2004

there's a version of this that was abriged by vollman coming out this fall: amazon link
posted by callicles at 4:53 PM on March 12, 2004

I wonder if a library around here will get a copy.

I recommend making a request that your library consider purchasing the book (that is, if you don't want to buy it yourself). Also, you might do this soon--I don't know how fast the book is selling, and it might not be selling well at all, but I think McSweeney's is pretty serious about the "limited-print-run" business, and it wasn't the easiest thing to find online when I ordered it last week. Right now Amazon says it takes 3-5 weeks to ship. (I ended up ordering it direct from McSweeney's, and though the slipcase was slightly damaged in transit and required some minor repair with contact cement, that seemed to be a trifling thing to complain about, all things considered.)

Most annoying thing so far: this is the worst-proofread professionally published book I've ever seen--typos all over the place, and a few bits that are totally mangled.

Ahhh--that's a shame. The layout and design of the book is stunning overall, and borders on the fetishistic (lots of photos with wrap-around text; obsessively categorized headings and sub-headings; extensive endnotes; etc.), but I haven't yet had time to start reading the text itself.
posted by Prospero at 4:57 PM on March 12, 2004

I am a poor college student that bought a set simply because I know that, in 5-10 years, it will be highly sought after by bibliophiles... just a little insurance for the exorbitant loans I'll be taking out.

plus, vollmann is awesome.
posted by LimePi at 5:21 PM on March 12, 2004

not to turn this into a AskMefi thread, but is investing in books such as McSweeney's Limited Edition an actual investment that'll turn eventually into a profitable venture?

I'm not snarky or anything, just curious. oh, and I like Vollman too

posted by matteo at 6:34 PM on March 12, 2004

NYT called it a "narcissistic didacticism" and "a work of grand obsession that, far too often, lies dead on the page." -- it does kind of look like a Unibomber manifesto of sorts, trying to sort out why violence can be justified.
posted by stbalbach at 7:19 PM on March 12, 2004

Two. Count 'em. Two for the price of one.

I love Vollman (I've always looked at him as a young version of the good Dr. Hunter S. minus the decades long wholesale slaughter of brain cells) and I need a new night table -- I figure if I rotate the volumes as I read them I can have both.
posted by cedar at 7:25 PM on March 12, 2004

matteo: yes.
posted by kaibutsu at 7:54 PM on March 12, 2004

This is tempting. Rainbow Stories and other books by Vollman are so damn good. The section in Rainbow Stories about Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace were amazing.
posted by anathema at 8:08 PM on March 12, 2004

(this reminds me that I've been meaning to order a copy of Lydia Davis' 'Samuel Johnson is Indignant'... One of the three best books I've read in the last year. (and i read a lot of books!))
posted by kaibutsu at 8:09 PM on March 12, 2004

I have a copy, costs more than $100, but haven't gotten too far. I recognize some of the material from other publications, his essays and such, though in longer form. It's such a curiosity I just had to have it.

I don't know about the moral calculus itself, but it looks like a lot of good stuff. Now I just need to take a month off to read it.
posted by Slagman at 8:12 PM on March 12, 2004

I've run out of steam halfway through Vol. 6, but, on the whole I have greatly enjoyed the book & would recommend it, it's just that 3,000+ pages is a long time to spend with any author. Dauntingly, some of the chapters felt like drafts for longer works-in-progress. Who knows how long a second edition might be... I thought the pieces on Bosnia/Serbia and Afghanistan in vols. 5/6 were outstandingly good. It'll take a while to digest the whole thing...

88robots: Vollman doesn't strike me as a hard-line pacifist at all. And I got the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that while he strongly disagrees with Gandhi, he admires him nevertheless. I agree that the book's openness to argument is one of it's greatest strengths.

stbalbach: there is narcissism & obsession aplenty in the book, but it is a detailed examination of the various rationales for political violence, rather than an apology for it.
posted by misteraitch at 10:50 PM on March 12, 2004

Loved "Rainbow Stories" way back when. But I could not even get through the NY Times reviews of this. Dear Mr. Vollman: if you want to sell me any more books, you are going to have to find a good editor first.
posted by bukvich at 6:09 AM on March 13, 2004

I'm pleased to hear some good reviews about Rising Up and Rising Down, though I don't think I'll be investing at full price -- I'll hope that the Brooklyn Public Library gets them. Both The Royal Family and Argall were evidence of how much the author's freedom from editorial oversight has proved a detriment to his many gifts. Although I thought The Ice-Shirt was very good and I like his shorter pieces a lot. The abridged version of this sounds about right.
posted by BT at 5:16 PM on March 14, 2004

I read The Royal Family, and did tend to think that it ran long--not because of rambling, but repetition (I think the word "abscess" appears in that book more often than in all the other books I've ever read, added together).

Obsession can be an asset instead of a liability when writing non-fiction, though--I'm hoping that's the case with this new work.
posted by Prospero at 11:11 AM on March 15, 2004

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