Subtitled: "Three Mediations on Death", "Introduction: The Days of the Niblungs" and "Definitions for Lonely Atoms", this is the first book in Vollmann's seven volume magnum opus. The book is an attempt to define a "moral calculus" for violence: what it is, when it's necessary, the ethics of it, and more in the same vein. It's the product of decades of war reportage, quite a bit of which seems not to have been for magazines or newspapers but just to have been, an obsession for explanation. This first volume is the work of someone using the tactics of the geek culture fan to look at death--think of the cosplayer type, the guy who learns Klingon, someone who paints their body Giants blue--that's the level of commitment Vollmann brings to the study of violence. This first volume doesn't go deeply into the specific places and the specific conflicts he will bear witness to, instead it introduces some of the theories Vollmann will be dealing with--namely, when we can kill, when we should, shouldn't and how--as well as touching upon the basic "why I'm doing this" aspect. "Touch on" isn't arbitrary word choice: Vollmann doesn't go very deeply into the why, and his glancing acknowledgements that he's holding something back leaves one assuming that the reasons didn't start coming to him until after he'd already put in some years traveling to places many of us have no wish to go to. If that makes it sound like Rising Up and Rising Down is a response to a late night fevered stare at a passport stamped with genocide zones, well, fine. The work here is strong enough to merit attention either way. Of course, there's something else too, the only reason most need, and that's the personal. Friends blown to shreds and a dead lover--both come up throughout these first few hundred pages, and it's likely one can hang the writer's motive on them. It's the job of genius to struggle with questions that have no answers, and Vollmann's definitely someone who qualifies.
I spent some time down in the rich part of Florida once, working with this company on a hotel my boss was building in Costa Rica. It was the only time I ever liked being in Florida, a state for which I harbor as much distaste as I'm capable of carrying, which is no small or trivial amount. Part of it was the way Florida is just easier to deal with when you're classed alongside the laborers--you don't have to participate in anything else, you're invisible things that lurk alongside the edges of the machine's vision. You just work until you're done, and then you're gone. It's way more honest than most of the things I can recall doing.
Flashfire is set in those kinds of places, places where the rich pimp each other while primping themselves, and if it's cliched as all hell to say "they have no idea what's coming", it's also untrue: they know, fear of it is why they retreated to these gated communities where the only degeneracy and greed is their own in the first place. Thankfully, there's never a hint beyond Westlake's bemusement with their hobbies that this is a politically tinged narrative--if there's one thing Parker doesn't care about, it's theoretical bullshit and intellectual preening. We can still get a fringe kick though, even if our killer spends most of his time laying down, as the peacocks get plucked clean.
This one hurts a little more than most, maybe it hurts the worst. It isn't a bad installment. It hurts because it's so fresh and contemporary that the sting of Westlake's death comes across stronger here than the others, because it forcibly reminds one how recently he was here, and how disappointing it is that he's gone. Not in an ungrateful sense, that gross contemporary fetish some proudly wear where an artist is merely a content production facility, and their mortal conclusion is at first considered sad, then personal failure, and finally little more than a changing of the guard. Just in the sense that the man was still such an active, vital creator, that his mind and skill displayed no obvious sluggishness. He was old when he wrote this book, with its dot-com millionaire and ego blasted hacker, but Parker doesn't show an ounce of wear. A job is a job, and while the one here seems, at times, to be a little more convoluted than necessary, it's hard (and unrewarding) to argue with results.
The book where he figures it all out--three leads, rotating points of view every chapter, each of them trucking in a massive story of their own. There's more than one moment in The Big Nowhere where the emotional volume jacks itself loud, where you chase the doomed, tragic characters down tunnels painted with horrifying realizations and disturbing, unnatural truths, only to catch them blown to oblivion right as conclusion escapes their grasp. Mid-novel, one young alcoholic man, terrified of the biological twist that he considers a beast inside him, tells a curious girl that he isn't hunting a killer, but a monster. By the end of the book, when that monster stands revealed as yet another in the horrible string of victim, it's almost too much to throw oneself back and remember that fallacious moment. It's the ravenous quality of the truth, after all--the reaving things inside that try to stay hidden, the stuff of life that these guys hoped to keep at bay, and the torture those choices wrought--that tears flesh from bone.
-Tucker Stone, 2012