Infinity and beyond

Rising Up and Rising Down
William T. Vollmann

For some time now, culture’s drumbeat has been telling us the novel is dead, its thunder stolen by memoirs and quasi-fictional works that defy the concept of what constitutes a novel. Although the avalanche of conventional novels continues unabated, there is evidence that some essential writers have worked out a separation arrangement with the form. Now, two of America’s most extravagantly praised novelists—Sacramento’s own William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace—have published books that attest to their infinite seriousness about nonfiction.

As part of W.W. Norton’s new Great Discoveries series, Wallace has produced Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, a short history of the mathematical concept of infinity. And just this week, Vollmann delivers his seven-volume, 3,500-page, 17-years-in-the-making book on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. Both releases represent a shift in priorities for these authors.

Of the two titles, Everything and More seems easier to write off as an author taking a holiday from his day job. In his “Small But Necessary Foreword,” Wallace describes the project as “a piece of pop technical writing” with his goal being “to make math beautiful—or at least to get the reader to see how someone might find it so.” Wallace, who claims to have nursed a “medium-strong amateur interest in math,” succeeds admirably. Fittingly, the wormhole he tugs us through is not math but language. He attacks words as a means of thinking abstractly and then notes that the symbol for infinity is referred to as “the love knot.”

Happily, unlike many other books of its ilk, Everything and More does not linger on quirky biographical details about the mathematicians whose work it examines. Instead, Wallace leads his readers through a series of theoretical way stations. The early parts of the book lay the foundation for abstract thinking and its perils; the later sections then use concepts tamed down and made graspable.

For a while, it seemed Vollmann was neck-and-neck in a size war with Wallace, Richard Powers and anyone else who would take him on. With Rising Up, he has put the issue to rest: No American writer alive today is as crazy and productive and willing to risk his life as is William T. Vollmann.

Drawing from nearly two decades of reporting (which Vollmann began as a Cornell graduate, when he went to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahideen), Rising Up is best described as a moral calculus for violence. Using the conflicts of the past tumultuous decade, during which America shifted from the Cold War to the war on terror, it examines when violence is justifiable and when it is not.

One of the incidental pleasures of Rising Up is its meandering tour of hot spots across the globe—Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Burma, Somalia and Colombia—many of which Vollmann visited as a journalist on assignment. Although he was paid well, no doubt, the cost was high. Crossing from Muslim to Croatian territory in the Balkans in 1994, he saw one of his closest friends fatally shot by a sniper. Vollmann had to wait beside him in their Jeep while the man died.

Still, the greatest anguish in Rising Up comes not from Vollmann but from the people he interviews. They are crushed and scoured by the weight of war. In one section, he talks to a woman whose boyfriend was cut into pieces by Croats: “No one has a chance to open my heart again,” she says.

“This is what violence does,” Vollmann writes in response. “This is what violence is. It is not enough that death reeks and stinks in the world, but now it takes on inimical human forms, prompting the self-defending survivors to strike and to hate, rightly or wrongly.” In spite of its great intentions, Rising Up and Rising Down can never end that cycle. It does help us understand it, though, and that glimmer of empathy is at least a start.