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March 06, 2004

An Emphasis On Nonfiction We Can Get Behind

by Ron Hogan

Enthusiasts have begun comparing this book to Edward Gibbon's ''Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,'' and also to ''The Golden Bough,'' Sir James George Frazer's work of comparative mythology. But Vollmann's book does not resemble either of them in any way -- except, of course, for being very large.

In the "Things We Thought We'd Never See, But Are Awfully Glad We Did" category, add this weekend's New York Times Book Review placement of William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down (which I've been wanting for some time now) on the cover, with a nearly two-page review inside. Scott McLemee is clearly familiar with Vollmann's work, picking up on his juxtaposition of "dense thickets of figural language" with a flat voice that reads like "some cross between Alain Robbe-Grillet and Joe Friday." And it's hard, even as a Vollmann fan of long standing, to disagree with all of the criticisms of the author's tendency to expand rather than contract his prose, though I'm not entirely convinced the gap between Vollmann and Elias Canetti is as vast as McLemee claims in his closing lines ("It is the difference between a living masterpiece and a work of grand obsession that, far too often, lies dead on the page").

The Times has also put together an online index of its coverage of Vollmann and his work, including a profile from last year, just before Rising Up and Rising Down came out, plus another profile written by Madison Smartt Bell back in 1994.

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