William T. Vollmann is the author of ten novels, including Europe Central, which won the National Book Award. He has also written four collections of stories, including The Atlas, which won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a memoir, and six works of nonfiction, including Rising Up and Rising Down and Imperial, both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, Granta, and many other publications.
It's no easy taskby the author's clear intentionto say exactly what's going on and why in this ferociously talented first novel, a comic-surrealistic assault upon reason that should appeal to those who enjoy Thomas Pynchon. The story is an epic brew of technology, magic, politics, history and entomology, by turns fiercely satiric and good-naturedly humorous. The narrative flits from the jungles of South America to the dusty plains of Afghanistan, the ice fields of Alaska, the streets of San Francisco and many other places, featuring as its principal theme a pitiless war between insects and the inventors of electricity (the distinction between man and insect being somewhat blurred). This battle takes place amid the semi-rational doings of revolutionaries, reactionaries, electrical engineers, prostitutes and social misfits. Some judgments may be ventured: that Vollmann's imagination is astounding; that his dark vision of a perpetually feuding world gives his novel artistic integrity; and that whatever his story may add up to, every page arrests and entertains. Drawings by the author. (May 27)
In this surrealistic allegory, America is populated exclusively by revolutionaries and reactionaries. The reactionaries are led by the mysterious Society of Daniel, a group of electrical engineers who worship the sacred Book of Generators. The revolutionaries, humanoid insects who pledge allegiance to the Great Beetle, are united by a common experience of torture at the hands of crewcut bullies. Vollmann calls the book a cartoon, and although he clearly sympathizes with the radicals, they are, after all, only bugs. In addition to an undigested mass of information about power plants, entomology, and hand guns, there is a lot of good writing herebut not nearly enough to fill 600 pages. With better editing this might have been outstanding. As it stands, it is a fascinating flop, but one that readers interested in experimental fiction will want to take a look at. Edward B. St. John, Loyola Marymount Univ. Lib., Los Angeles