The Metamorphoses of William the Blind:
A Reviewer's Log
In 2003 Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson invited me to contribute an essay to a Vollmann anthology they were assembling, eventually published as Expelled from Eden , which was to include essays by critics as well as Vollmann's own work. I got their permission to string together all the Vollmann reviews I'd written over the years, but at the last minute my essay was cut from the volume's final line-up. This is what I submitted, updated with my review of Europe Central and, ironically, Expelled from Eden. – SM
Illness prevented me from reviewing Vollmann's first novel upon publication in 1987, but seeing how poorly that book was received, I've tried to review most subsequent works of his. The reviews are reprinted below as they originally appeared, with repetitions and cheerleading excesses intact, and only a few minor changes (mostly in punctuation). The opening piece was a joint review of Vollmann's first book of short fiction and David Foster Wallace's Girl with Curious Hair , but I've retained only Vollmann's portion. I wasn't asked to review Argall anywhere, so I've included the brief review I posted on Amazon.com .
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1989
Surveying the fiction published in 1987, a Belgian critic wrote me the following year to ask, "Where are the young William Gaddises and Thomas Pynchons?" I wrote back recommending William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace, both of whom published masterful, innovative first novels in 1987: Vollmann a kind of cross between Naked Lunch and Gravity's Rainbow entitled You Bright and Risen Angels, and Wallace a novel called The Broom of the System, compared by some reviewers to the early Pynchon but closer to the spirit of Barth or Elkin. Now, coincidentally, both authors are publishing their first collections of short fiction within a month of each other, bravura performances that establish them both as heirs apparent to Barth, Burroughs, et al., and as the two most promising and talented authors under thirty writing today.
Like Kafka, Vollmann writes bizarre tales generated from pain and alienation, feelings he reveals in numerous authorial asides and footnotes. Most of the stories in his huge (543 pages) collection are actually nonfiction, fragmented pieces on marginalized groups such as skinheads, prostitutes, perverts, the homeless, and miscellaneous lost souls and eccentrics. These are rather aimless people, and Vollmann often adopts a kind of aimless narrative structure, simply recording brief epiphanies in their wretched lives "like the recording angel" he claims to be in the preface. There is an epigraph from Poe's "Berenice" that provides both the structure and rationale for The Rainbow Stories— Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of the earth is uniform. Overreaching the wide horizon as the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch; as distinct too, yet as intimately blended"—and Vollmann shares to a large degree Poe's morbidity, bizarre humor, outlandish erudition, and superior prose style. Vollmann can write monumental sentences with elaborate, extended metaphors, and has an ear for dialogue as sharp as Gaddis's. His is an art of excess, which occasionally spills over into a kind of recklessness, however: he seems a little too willing to allow any stray thoughts, any tangential trivia to take their place in his pages, and to find his aimless (and often repulsive) characters more interesting than most of his readers are likely to. Still, Vollmann's verbal prowess, empathy, and astonishing range put him in a class apart from his contemporaries.
Whores for Gloria
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1992
Vollmann's remarkable new novel is set in San Francisco's whore-infested Tenderloin district, the same setting he used for "Ladies and Red Lights" in his Rainbow Stories a few years back. The latter strung together dozens of realistic episodes in almost documentary fashion; Whores for Gloria is a far more ambitious and satisfying effort, a powerful psychodrama of one man's quest for happiness and love. Wino Jimmy, an aging Vietnam War vet, tries to keep his memory of Gloria alive by paying whores (the only word Vollmann uses for them) to tell him stories, which he in turn attributes to Gloria's past. Just as Dr. Frankenstein assembled an ersatz man from various body parts, Jimmy assembles his dream woman from the miserable lives of whores and precariously maintains a modicum of happiness by looking forward to reuniting with her. It's not clear whether Gloria was a childhood friend of Jimmy's, or a whore he actually knew, or indeed a complete fantasy. Vollmann keeps the reader close to Jimmy's point of view, so there's no telling whether Gloria is real or not. Sordid realism develops into hallucinatory fantasy and back again often in Whores for Gloria, appropriate in a world where whores and transsexuals bloom instantly into fantasy figures at a customer's request. In this regard Whores for Gloria is reminiscent of Genet's Miracle of the Rose : lyricism cut with brutal realism. It's a stunning performance.
Fathers and Crows and An Afghanistan Picture Show
Washington Post Book World, 2 August 1992
From where I'm sitting, William T. Vollmann looks to be the most prodigiously talented and historically important American novelist under 35, the only one to come along in the last 10 years or so capable of filling the seven-league boots of such mega-novelists as John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon. Since 1987 he has published seven books—four novels, two collections of short fiction, and a nonfiction account—which tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, huge ambition, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation, and sardonic wit. If the man and his work are unknown to you, here's a brief résumé:
He is 33 years old, graduated summa cum laude (in comparative literature) from Cornell, and worked as a computer programmer until devoting himself full-time to writing a few years ago. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, was published in 1987; a massive (635 pages), surrealistic work that reads like a cross between Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, it is (like them) a brilliant allegory of the conflicts between revolutionary and repressive tendencies in politics and culture. It was followed in 1989 by The Rainbow Stories, another huge book, this one a collection of stories and novellas mostly concerning marginal, disenfranchised people—the homeless, skinheads, prostitutes. A year later, The Ice-Shirt was published, an imaginative reconstruction and retelling of the Norse legends about the discovery of America, and the first volume of his "Seven Dreams" series (more on which below). Last year he published another collection of short fiction, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, in England (due out here in 1993), and earlier this year Pantheon brought out Whores for Gloria , a short novel set in San Francisco's Tenderloin district that fuses the lyricism of You Bright and Risen Angels with the brutality of The Rainbow Stories, an achievement that recalls Jean Genet's Miracle of the Rose. All this within five years! Even the most talented of Vollmann's contemporaries—David Foster Wallace, Susan Daitch, Richard Powers, Mary Caponegro—can't match this in quantity or quality.
Now come Fathers and Crows, his longest novel to date, and An Afghanistan Picture Show , his first book of straight nonfiction. These genre distinctions are misleading, however: Much of Vollmann's fiction uses nonfictional materials and techniques, and the author is ever-present in his work, popping up in the most unlikely places (11th-century Iceland, for example) to make an observation. Transformation and transvestism are recurring themes in his work, and thus Vollmann often dresses his fiction in nonfiction attire and vice versa, a technique that not only contributes to current debates on genre/gender distinctions but also looks back to the birth of the novel, a similar period of cross-dressing between fiction and nonfiction.
An Afghanistan Picture Show, for example, exploits the traditional literary theme of the innocent, altruistic Young Man (thus capitalized in Vollmann's book) going out into the world, only to have his naive worldview shattered. Barely out of college, Vollmann went to Afghanistan in 1982 to witness the fighting and to "Save The Afghans" (again, his caps). Instead, he spent most of his time fighting off various illnesses and cooling his heels in Pakistan (entry into Soviet-held Afghanistan was illegal), asking earnest but naive questions in an attempt to discover just how one goes about saving a people quickly and efficiently.
The older author is quite hard on his younger self and his failed "Pilgrim's Progress," yet the book succeeds not only in achieving its original goal—to bring attention to the plight of Afghan refugees (the first draft was finished in 1983 but couldn't find a publisher, though the attention is still valid)—but also in dramatizing the limitations of altruism and activism, the difficulty of understanding the context of any culture other than your own, and how that difficulty imperils writing books like this one. To overcome the last difficulty, Vollmann keeps his materials raw: Instead of a polished narrative, it's a disruptive text using many typefaces, incorporating bits of interviews, letters, statements, flashbacks and flash-forwards, quotations from Wittgenstein, footnoted asides—a mixed-media presentation that is all the more entertaining and effective for its ragged, unconventional look. As a do-it-yourself political primer, it is ingeniously ingenuous. 1
Those same devices are on display in Fathers and Crows , the second volume of his "Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes." This is a hugely ambitious project tracking American history from the time of the Norsemen (The Ice-Shirt ) to our present age, an investigation of American character, culture, and identity by way of seven pivotal episodes in our history. There are no precedents for an enterprise of this scope in our literature, though aspects of Vollmann's project can be seen in Washington Irving's A History of New York , Pound's history Cantos, and Marguerite Young's Angel in the Forest —all of which are poetic, even fanciful attempts at history. But Vollmann is closest in spirit to William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain. The poet there complains: "It is an extraordinary phenomenon that Americans have lost the sense, being made up as we are, that what we are has its origins in what the nation in the past has been; that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do." Vollmann is out to recover those sources, and we need to be reminded of them.
Like Williams's book, Fathers and Crows is a kind of documentary history—in this case, of the French invasion of Canada in the 17 th century, with particular attention to the conflicts between Jesuit missionaries (resembling crows in their black garb) and the Native American population. It's not a pretty story, and that's Vollmann's point: The violence that percolates under the surface of contemporary American life, erupting more and more often these days, has its origins in the violence the Norsemen inflicted on the natives of Newfoundland and in that more insidious violence of the imperialist sort that the Jesuits brought with them. Again like Williams, Vollmann relies on original documents (the Jesuit Relations, compilations of Indian tales, etc.) and retells them in their same spirit, switching points of view (and even the spelling of names) as his sources dictate.
The novel opens in modern Quebec with Vollmann (in his narrative persona as William the Blind) researching the Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert of the 17th century on whom he has an adolescent crush. Attempting a mystical fusion with his materials—as Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius advised in his Spiritual Exercises , often quoted in Fathers and Crows —the narrator recounts his tale like a medium in a trance. His visionary approach occasionally takes liberties with recorded history, duly noted in footnotes and voluminous endnotes; here Vollmann often cites a few experts who read portions of his manuscript, and his cheeky rationale for ignoring their sober advice is often amusing and always interesting for the light it sheds on his artistic agenda. Like the narrator of Tristram Shandy, Vollmann confides in the reader occasionally, asking for patience at times, revealing personal biases, drawing parallels to contemporary Canadian problems, and so on. It's a self-conscious, postmodern approach to the historical novel, and while a few reactionary purists (historical and literary) may take exception, Fathers and Crows is a richly imaginative and boldly innovative achievement, doing for the historical novel what Barth's Sot-Weed Factor did 30 years ago, namely, reviving the genre for a new generation of readers.
Even though Vollmann's sympathies are clearly with the Native Americans, Fathers and Crows is neither a romantic evocation of the Noble Savage nor a politically correct idealization. The Native Americans could be as racist, sexist, and brutal as any European imperialist: They routinely tortured and ate members of other tribes (women and children included) and let their lust for iron hasten their own destruction. On the other hand, a few of the French are admirable characters, especially Samuel de Champlain (on whom Williams also wrote); some of the Jesuit priests are like the Young Man of An Afghanistan Picture Show , too idiotically innocent to be held accountable. A small attitude adjustment on the part of the Jesuits—like that displayed by Roberto de Nobili in India (also recounted here)—would have eased the Europeanization of Canada, but faults on both sides caused the wounds that crippled 17 th -century Canada and that have reopened recently with the Quebecois and Native American movements for autonomy.
With The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows, there is every indication that Vollmann's "Seven Dreams" septology will be the most important literary project of the '90s (if he lives to complete it—he has a history of risking his life to do field research). If you consider yourself at all conversant with contemporary American fiction, you must acquaint yourself with Vollmann's work and stay with him: It promises to be quite a picture show.
Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993
Vollmann's newest book is, like The Rainbow Stories , a linked collection of novellas and stories, and like his earlier book is peopled mostly by the demimonde of San Francisco, with a few set in Third World locales. "These stories are all epitaphs," Vollmann writes in an author's note, and there is a valedictory, memorial air hanging over most of these pieces as Vollmann tells autobiographical tales of people he's known. His photographer friend Ken Miller appears in many of them—Dean Moriarty to Vollmann's Sal Paradise—as does the mournful Elaine Suicide, the focus (heroine is hardly the word) of the two longest and best stories in the collection, "The Ghost of Magnetism" and "The Handcuff Manual." In between the thirteen stories are thirteen brief epitaphs," ranging from a paragraph to a few pages, each a concentrated vignette of death or loss. The stylistic range is wide: "The Ghost of Magnetism" recalls Visions of Cody -era Kerouac, while "The Grave of Lost Stories" is a deliberate homage to Poe; the other stories use what is sometimes called "dirty realism," but are enlivened with unexpected bursts of lyricism and Vollmann's mordant humor. It is his saddest book, and one of his finest.
Vollmann is publishing so many books these days (three last year, now this one, Butterfly Stories and The Rifles within the next nine months) that his brilliance runs the risk of becoming taken for granted. There's no telling how much longer he will be able to keep up this prodigious rate of production, however, so readers are well advised to take nothing for granted and to savor each new book by this remarkable writer.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1994
The search for love has rarely been portrayed as joylessly as it is in Butterfly Stories. The unnamed narrator—variously called "the butterfly boy," the journalist," "the husband"—moves through different sorts of jungles, some literal, some metaphorical, so lonely and so anxious to be happy that he can't help but fall in love with almost any woman he meets, beginning with a girl who defended him from the school bully, continuing with a lesbian met on a train to Istanbul, and finally a Cambodian whore named Vanna, an illiterate taxi dancer with whom he can't even converse. To maintain the bleak, hopeless nature of the narrator's quest for love, Vollmann reins in his often extravagant style for bare-bones recitation much of the time.
The novel moves from America to Europe to Asia, to northern Canada, to England as the narrator flits about like a butterfly: not a symbol of lighthearted caprice but of ceaseless wandering and searching. Towards the end the narrator tests HIV-positive, but that is nothing to the despair he feels at the loss of Vanna. The narrator's lack of shame and pride is almost ascetic in its self-abnegation, giving him a pure quality despite his incessant whoring. Butterfly Stories follows from Vollmann's Whores for Gloria and Thirteen Stories to explore the desperation that lovelessness can lead to.
Chicago Tribune, 6 March 1994
Novels in series are usually pursued only by genre writers: John Jakes's Kent Family Chronicles or Marion Zimmer Bradley's endless Darkover fantasy series don't have their counterparts in serious literary fiction, where even the idea of a sequel is suspect. 2 (Joseph Heller's forthcoming sequel to Catch-22 is already arousing more suspicion than elation: How can it possibly be as good?) William T. Vollmann is an exception, as might be expected from a writer who is exceptional in every way. His voluminous output—this is his ninth book in eight years—can be divided into two groups: raw, rather bizarre fictions about prostitutes ( Butterfly Stories, Whores for Gloria, The Rainbow Stories ) and a wildly ambitious historical series about our continent called "Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes." The series began with The Ice-Shirt (1990), which concerns the first Norse visitors to America, and was followed by Fathers and Crows (1992), about the French and Jesuit conquest of Canada. These are not straightforward historical novels; instead, they are highly imaginative meditations on early American history, mixing verifiable facts (the novels have as many footnotes and source notes as scholarly history books do) with legends, myths, fanciful digressions, sarcastic asides, and Vollmann's personal interpretation of the events. Those two historical fantasias are among the finest fictional achievements of our time. And while Vollmann's books about prostitutes are responsible for much of the notoriety and popularity he currently enjoys, I suspect it is the "Seven Dreams" series that will guarantee his place in literary history.
The Rifles is the third installment but will be volume 6 in the eventual seven-book scheme. It is the most experimental and daring book yet in the series, pushing its central metaphor of metamorphosis (Vollmann's initial inspiration for the series was Ovid) to almost phantasmagoric lengths. Here, a contemporary American who calls himself Captain Subzero becomes the reincarnation of Sir John Franklin, the celebrated English explorer who perished in 1847 in search of the Northwest Passage. Visiting Canada, Captain Subzero (clearly a version of Vollmann himself) falls hopelessly in love with a rather hopeless native Canadian Inuk woman named Reepah, and his doomed pursuit of her is aligned with Franklin's own doomed pursuit. Similarly, Captain Subzero's wife back home in the States becomes the reincarnation of Franklin's patient wife Jane. In many episodes the four characters mingle outside the bounds of chronology, which permits such bizarre anachronisms as Lady Jane praising a King Crimson CD that Subzero plays for Reepah.
Reincarnation smacks of mysticism or fantasy, but Vollmann uses it for other purposes: On the one hand, Subzero is engaging in a more exaggerated form of the kind of identification readers make with characters in the novels; on the other, he is concerned (as is Vollmann) with the continuity of history, the fact that people and events in the past continue to resonate in the present. It is a common European complaint that Americans have no sense of history, and Vollmann seeks to redress that fault by using radical techniques (such as reincarnation and deliberate anachronism) to bring the past alive in a way that previous historical novelists would not have dared.
The shifts from the Victorian Era to our own time can be disorienting, but Vollmann's exquisite control of language helps keep the reader on course. (To further assist the reader, the book includes a number of hand-drawn maps.) The prose in the sections that recount Franklin's explorations is fulsome, Victorian; that in the sections set in our own time is choppy, curt. Vollmann's verbal prowess offers further satisfactions: The descriptions of the landscapes of Canada's Northwest Territories are especially good, and Vollmann's accounts of freezing to death are harrowing. He also has an uncanny ability to project himself into the most disparate characters, from a sailor on Franklin's ship to an Inuk seal trapper.
Each volume of "Seven Dreams" discusses the impact of Western technology and ideology on aboriginal Americans. The repeating rifle comes under scrutiny here, especially in the way it changed the hunting patterns of the Inuit and thus led to their current decline. (Vollmann attacks the Canadian government's inhuman relocation programs in a portion of the novel called "Straight Shots" and in his footnotes.) That Reepah uses a shotgun to commit suicide brings the long history of firearms in America to a tragic, personal conclusion for the brokenhearted Subzero. Hopeless yearning unites Subzero with Franklin; "You want what you can't have," Subzero confesses at one point. Perhaps each of us pursues a Northwest Passage of some sort.
For readers new to the series, it would be better to start with The Ice-Shirt or Fathers and Crows . But for those who have been tracking Vollmann's career or who have a special interest in Canadian history, The Rifles is not to be missed. As Lady Franklin says of the King Crimson CD, it is "awfully marvelous, bloody brilliant."
Chicago Tribune, 11 August 1996
In 1989, Tom Wolfe raised a stink when he wrote (in Harper's ) that novelists should stop examining their navels and go out and get some real experience, do research like an ace journalist, so their work would have some socio-historical depth. I doubt William T. Vollmann's phantasmagoric novels are what Wolfe had in mind, but he certainly does get around. In 1982, barely out of college, Vollmann traveled to war-torn Afghanistan to see what he could do to help, a romantically naive experience described in his nonfiction book An Afghanistan Picture Show. Later in the '80s he began exploring Greenland and Canada for the early volumes of his Seven Dreams" series of historical novels. In recent years he has been sent by magazines such as Esquire and Spin to the world's hot spots—Somalia, Bosnia, Thailand, Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots—often at considerable risk. (He narrowly missed being hit by snipers in Croatia; his two companions were killed.) All of these travels inform his latest work of fiction, The Atlas.
The book is difficult to categorize: It resembles a short-story collection in that there are 55 stories, most of them made up of four or five brief vignettes—the prose equivalents of postcards or vacation slides—linked by a particular image or memory. It is like a gazetteer in that you can focus on particular places to read about, if you wish, for the stories are all self-contained. It is also a mathematically structured fiction like Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual or John Barth's LETTERS. As Vollmann explains in the preface, the book is organized like a palindrome—a sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards. ("Able was I ere I saw Elba," Napoleon reputedly said.) That is, the first story is linked to the last, the second to the penultimate, and so on. At the center of the novel The Atlas is a story called "The Atlas," which weaves together episodes from the rest of the book. But the book The Atlas also resembles a novel in that it explores the psychic landscape of a single narrator (never named, but pretty clearly Vollmann), a man who is reminded of the world within by the troubled world at large.
The narrator travels the world over to escape from an overwhelming sense of loss and to find some sort of enduring love. By turns holy fool and ugly American, he meets a wide variety of people and has numerous adventures, most of them dismal. Occasionally he experiences moments of beauty and rapture (especially in the chapter-story "Exalted by the Wind"), but mostly what he encounters are reminders of losses: his dead sister, the various women he has loved, former friends. Brooding on the Thames a century ago, Joseph Conrad's Marlow, another world traveler, announced, "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." Vollmann likewise is concerned with the dark places of the earth, and the heart of darkness within. They say travel expands one's horizons, but it also brings into sharper focus our limitations, our inability to connect with others in a meaningful way. As in Conrad's novella, an air of desolation and despair hangs over Vollmann's Atlas.
The geographic range is extensive: Australia, Burma, Egypt, India, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, the Vatican City—he seems to have been everywhere. (There are even stories set in Limbo and "The Sphere of Stars.") The stylistic variety is just as wide. Some chapters, like "The Red Song," are lyrical and surrealistic. "The Hill of Gold" imitates the King James Bible, even to verse numbering. Some stories are rendered in straightforward reportage, others in a stream-of-consciousness style that can be difficult to follow. The book is thus an atlas of narrative styles and rhetorical devices, from allegory to zeugma. If nothing else, The Atlas offers further proof that Vollmann is perhaps the most stylistically daring writer working today.
The crosscutting between several locales within the same story can be disorienting, like being on a whirlwind tour and seeing too many places in too short a period. But at its best, the technique is revelatory. For example, one of the best stories, "Under the Grass," opens with the narrator brooding on the day in 1968 when his negligence led to his sister's drowning in a pool. (Sad to say, this tragedy actually occurred when Vollmann was a boy, as he once revealed in an interview.) Buried under the New England grass, his sister becomes a combination of spirit guide and ghost to haunt the boy: "Now you're my white witch," he says, like a narrator in one of Poe's tales (evoked here by the lush, Gothic prose). From there we jump to an airport in Mauritius 25 years later, where the narrator is so fatigued and disoriented that he asks the authorities how to find his sister, a request that leads to comic misunderstandings and ends with a taxi driver assuming the narrator wants a prostitute. Then we jump to Thailand in the same year, at a bar for prostitutes, where the narrator is feeling good for having recently rescued a child-prostitute from "a nightmarish brothel in the south." (This was the subject of a photo-essay Vollmann contributed to Spin in 1993.) He has sex with a prostitute, then dreams of seeing his sister's coffin, and wakes up "either screaming or thinking I was screaming," realizing that his rescuing exploit was a failed attempt to appease the spirit of the sister he failed to rescue 25 years ago. The story concludes in the catacombs of Rome, back in Poe territory (this story is a micro-palindrome mirroring the macro-palindrome of the book), where the narrator envisions a gruesome resurrection for his sister, only to see her metamorphose into the presiding spirit of "the girls from Firenze who drink the sun . . . the girls who sing a-la-la- la! and ‘Ciao, Maria'"—a puzzling but cathartic ending to a moving story.
For those who have followed Vollmann's career, The Atlas will recall his Rainbow Stories and Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. He also revisits some of the people and places of earlier novels of his. Those who don't know his work might begin with The Atlas : It functions as a summation of his characteristic themes and settings, a display of his stylistic range, and an unsettling, unforgettable tour of the world according to Vollmann.
The Royal Family
Rain Taxi, Fall 2000
William T. Vollmann writes about whores. Not prostitutes or hookers, not call girls or sex workers, certainly not courtesans or concubines, but whores: drug-addicted, disease-ridden, lying, cheating, filthy, stupid wretches. And he loves them. He has already devoted two novels— Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories —and several short stories to these creatures, works that display a Christ-like compassion and forbearance for them. The Royal Family is his longest and saddest paean to whores, and I hope his last.
Like Steinbeck's East of Eden, The Royal Family is set in California and is based on the Cain and Abel story. Henry Tyler (Cain) is a struggling private detective in his forties; John (Abel) is an ambitious contract lawyer, a stereotypical yuppie who prides himself on knowing where to buy the finest ties in San Francisco, while Henry is something of a bohemian (he has long hair and prefers City Lights bookstore over a haberdashery). Both brothers are in love with the same person, a rather unhappy Korean-born woman named Irene. She's married to John, who is usually too busy to spend time with her, so Henry keeps her company—until the day she commits suicide.
One of Henry's clients is a crass businessman named Jonas Brady who wants to open a Las Vegas sex casino called Feminine Circus. He's heard of a San Francisco woman known as the Queen of the Whores, whom he feels would be a fine attraction at his casino, so he hires Henry to track her down. As Henry trawls through the underworld searching for this mysterious person, he's introduced to the members of the Queen's royal family," a pool of cunt-sharks" with names like Sapphire, Chocolate, Sunflower, Strawberry, and Domino. After Irene kills herself, he redoubles his efforts to locate the Queen, hoping to find some kind of salvation by passing through a refining fire of grief and degradation.
Henry's quest for the Queen rings with religious overtones supplied by Vollmann's occasional references to Gnostic scripture and Canaanite mythology. God set the Mark of Cain upon the brow of Abel's murderer that he might be avoided by all decent people, and Henry comes to view prostitutes—and eventually himself—as members of Cain's tribe. When he finally meets the Queen, she provides him with rituals of degradation intended to purge him of his grief for Irene, and when those don't work, she becomes his lover. Eventually she disappears, and Henry gives up his profession and becomes a hobo, riding the rails in search of his lost Queen.
Vollmann's brutal, unflinching accounts of the lives of street whores will not be to all readers' tastes. I was reminded of Samuel R. Delany's transgressive novel The Mad Man and even of Sade's monstrous works (Sade is, in fact, quoted in a prologue). And whoring is only one of the activities depicted here that will discomfort the reader. The secret of Brady's successful Feminine Circus turns out to be his employment of retarded girls for his patrons' abuse. An autopsy is described in colorful detail. A lively character named Dan Smooth, an enthusiastic pedophile, regales Henry (and the reader) with a number of stories. At one point Henry interrupts Smooth to say, "Your filth gets pretty boring after a while"; this quotation appears on page 152 of the 780-page work and I almost gave up at that point in hearty agreement. (Vollmann seems to be deliberately baiting the reader; on page 324, still not yet halfway through, Tyler himself says, "If this were a book I wouldn't even read the rest of it.")
Vollmann tests his readers' patience, but rewards it with occasional flashes of black humor, sardonic social commentary, and bursts of phantasmagoric prose (especially in the extraordinary Book XVII: "Buying Their Dream House"). His wide erudition results in some far-flung analogies, and his cavalier disregard for the conventions of fiction allows for some interesting authorial asides and even an essay on the California bail system. The theological parallels are intriguing, if not totally convincing, and his obvious sympathy for whores and homeless people makes him a better person than I. The Royal Family is an honest look at an aspect of modern life that continues to be ignored or romanticized. Dan Smooth could be speaking for Vollmann when he claims, "I'm the only person in the whole wide world who always speaks the truth. You know how to be sure it's the truth? Because it's ugly , man!" Consequently, calling The Royal Family an ugly book is praise, not censure.
And of course it's good to have Vollmann back after a four-year absence. He published nine books in the decade 1987-1996, most of them huge , and then hunkered down to finish a massive nonfiction book on violence entitled Rising Up and Rising Down , only to have it rejected by his publishers because of its length. 3 (During this period Vollmann almost lost the use of his hands due to excessive typing.) Vollmann's previous two books on whores are among his shortest works, so perhaps with The Royal Family he has made his grand statement on the subject and can return to what I and many of his other admirers feel is his greatest achievement, the "Seven Dreams" series. The three volumes Vollmann has published so far of this proposed seven-volume history of North America afford him the widest scope for his considerable talents, from minutely researched historical set pieces to phantasmagoric tales of shape-shifting and metamorphoses. There's been nothing like this in American literature since Washington Irving's A History of New York, and Vollmann has already redefined the historical novel with this behemothian project. I know how the story ends, but I can't wait for him to resume telling it.
Amazon.com, 2 October 2001
With Argall , Vollmann makes a triumphant return to his ambitious "Seven Dreams" series of novels, detailing the invasion of North America by Europeans and the legacy of violence and oppression they left behind. Argall deals with the British annexation of what they later called Virginia, and focuses on three colorful characters: Pocahontas, Captain John Smith, and the sinister Sir Samuel Argall, who eventually kidnaps Pocahontas and introduces slavery into the New World.
As the voluminous notes attest, Vollmann has done his homework and gives us what is probably the most historically accurate version of the Pocahontas story. And he does so in an astonishing re-creation of Elizabethan prose. This isn't the elegant Augustan prose adapted by Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor and Pynchon in Mason & Dixon ; this is the earlier, racier prose of the young turks of Shakespeare's day like Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, and especially Thomas Nashe. As one of Vollmann's sources says of that era, "the whole style of the day was inflated—in writing and in living"; hence Vollmann uses a suitably inflated style that captures the age in all its vitality and vulgarity. As both a historical novel and a linguistic tour de force, Argall is a magnificent achievement.
Rising Up and Rising Down
Washington Post Book World, 17 December 2003
A little over a hundred years ago, Sir James G. Frazer set out to explain a minor point in Classical scholarship: the rule that regulated the succession to the priesthood at a shrine in Italy devoted to the goddess Diana. But over the next 15 years, as he realized every aspect of the rule had a history to be explicated, and as he found parallels in other cultures, his project ballooned into the 12-volume Golden Bough , a monumental study of the evolution of magic and superstition into religion, an influential work cited by writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Carl Jung, William Gaddis, and Jim Morrison.
Twenty years ago, novelist William T. Vollmann set out to answer a similar deceptively simple question: When is violence justified? Most people have a stock response: Never, says the pacifist. Only in self-defense or wartime, many would say. Whenever anyone looks at me funny, a bully would say. Whenever I'm doing God's work, a religious fanatic would say. The new century threatens to be even more violent than the last, so it is a question that deserves a more considered response, a challenge Vollmann has met with a massive work that provides an encyclopedic survey of violence and a general field theory for its justifiability.
The work is divided in two parts: the first four volumes are what Vollmann calls the "theoretical" part of the study—drawn mostly from historical accounts of violence—while volumes 5 and 6 deal with contemporary zones of violence, based on Vollmann's far-flung travels. A concluding volume contains a digest of his "moral calculus" (more on which below), appendices, supplementary materials, and a 44-page bibliography where Herodotus is followed by a book on bear attacks, and where a translation of the medieval Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer precedes John Ellis's Social History of the Machine Gun. Eclectic" doesn't even begin to describe it.
To organize his unruly subject, Vollmann divides acts of violence into their various possible defenses: self-defense (the only clearly justified use of violence according to Vollmann), defense of homeland, of honor, authority, race, creed, gender, and more recent concerns such as defense of earth against polluters and defense of animals. For his examples, Vollmann draws on nearly all eras of recorded history—in volume 2 he tosses off "A Survey-History of Property from Nomadic Times to the Russian Revolution"—and treats nearly every culture on earth, from the hapless Afghans to the Zulu.
The scope is immense, and his reading wide. Though not an academic, Vollmann scrupulously documents everything in hundreds of source notes (his philanthropic publisher hired a team of fact-checkers to help) and goes out of his way to be as fair and respectful toward his material as possible. He is so open-minded that he can identify and praise Trotsky's few virtues while admitting "To Trotsky I'd be scum." There's no agenda, no pre-ordained thesis, no political bias: he simply wants to understand violence and share his findings. Nor is he prescriptive; though sickened by violence, he's concerned here with how to judge it, not how to eradicate it. We know how to eradicate it: as Vollmann counsels, just observe the Golden Rule, perhaps fleshed out with the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights , but that's easier said than done.
Like Frazer, Vollmann's method is comparative: though a "principal moral actor" stars in each section—"Trotsky in Defense of Authority," "Cortez in Defense of Ground"—other actors from other eras of history make their appearances. "For much the same reason that one opera frequently recalls another," Vollmann notes, "the student of history will find that many an atrocity will be recapitulated somewhere down the centuries." In his chapter on "Defense of Honor," Vollmann finds common ground between the Charge of the Light Brigade (remembered for its 'gallantry'—in other words, for its "tactical idiocy"), Joan of Arc, Napoleon, King Olaf's forced conversions in medieval Norway, Sun-tzu, and Mao Zedong's personal physician. Referring to young inmates of juvenile hall in the 1950s, Vollmann writes: "And now Blinky has disturbed his prestige again, like the Roman Prince Maxentius throwing down the statues of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Abbot had better show some ‘heart.' (‘When a brave man faces death,' says Socrates, ‘he does so for fear of something worse.')" A discussion of Plato's totalitarian ideals includes an aside on "his half-brother Adolf Hitler" and an anecdote about a four-year-old girl whose parents allowed her to starve to death. A single paragraph will join a Revolutionary War Minuteman, an 1870s pioneer woman, and sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius. He'll defend his right to carry a gun with a citation from the Old Norse Poetic Edda.
Throughout, the emphasis is on individual responsibility for acts of violence. Vollmann contemptuously dismisses the claims of "social forces" and "historical goals" that so many revolutionaries and tyrants hide behind, identifies the monstrous arrogance of terrorists who would impose their beliefs on others, and condemns the spinelessness of those who defend their participation in atrocities by claiming to be "following orders." (As the personified Technology in Thomas Pynchon's World War II novel Gravity's Rainbow says at one point, "‘Do you think we'd've had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn't wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block full of civilians?'") Vollmann indicts not only the obvious mass-murderers of history—Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein—but those who encouraged widespread violence (Robespierre, Trotsky) or made questionable decisions that led to it, like Abraham Lincoln. (Vollmann reminds us that Lincoln started the Civil War not to free slaves but to assert the superiority of federal rights over states' rights, a dubious justification for the four years of bloodshed that resulted.)
As Vollmann proceeds through the various defenses of violence, he codifies his findings as part of a "moral calculus," an attempt to establish a checklist by which any act of violence can be judge as justifiable or not. Not surprisingly, he finds most acts of violence unjustified, excepting only self-defense and violence committed during a justified war, which even then must be tightly restricted. (According to Vollmann's calculus, the Bush Administration's recent invasion of Iraq is totally unjustified because it fails the test of imminence, among other reasons.) Vollmann's moral calculus is presented in digest form on pp. 33-119 in the final volume, and I wish this section could be printed as a pamphlet and distributed worldwide. Every politician, soldier, activist, and budding revolutionary deserves to read it, if no more of Rising Up and Rising Down.
(And about that odd title: a "rising up" is a justified act of violence, a "rising down" an unjustified one.)
Unlike Frazer, who never left his library, Vollmann supplements his immense reading with fieldwork done in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Volumes 5 and 6 record his trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Japan, the former Yugoslavia, Madagascar, the Congo, Somalia, Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia, Jamaica, and various parts of the United States. Some of these essays were published in the 1990s in such magazines as Spin, Gear, Esquire, and the New Yorker , always in severely edited form, and for many readers these will be the most enjoyable volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down —though "enjoyable" is hardly the word for this parade of misery.
In almost every case Vollmann shows the effects of violence on those least able to avoid it: the poor. Some of these make for rather thrilling reading—like Vollmann's account of his rescue of a 12-year-old sex slave from a Thai brothel—while others are the bleakest things you'll ever read. A few are Apocalypse Now- type quests for mysterious figures—Vollmann was one of the few to interview Khun Sa, the "Opium King" of Burma, and Hadji Amin, the "Old Man" of the PULO separatist movement in Thailand—but most consist of interviews with the wretched of the earth as they suffer from the effects of weak or illegitimate governments. I lost count of the number of times Vollmann was almost killed during these adventures.
Here in the States Vollmann hangs with Cambodian immigrant gang-bangers, with suicidal Apache teenagers on an Arizona reservation, with mourners after the Columbine Massacre, with superstitious blacks down South (who resort to magic, voodoo, Christianity, Santería, and other primitive beliefs to ward off violence), and with paranoid whites in the Pacific Northwest, whose very real concern with governmental abrogation of their rights gets mixed up with anti-Semitism, racism, conspiracy theories, and Bible-fueled apocalyptic fears.
Rising Up and Rising Down is a monumental achievement on several levels: as a hair-rising survey of mankind's propensity for violence, as a one-man attempt to construct a system of ethics, as a successful exercise in objective analysis (almost non-existent in today's partisan, ideological, politicized, spin-doctored, theory-muddled public discourse), and a demonstration of the importance of empathy, whether in writing a book like this or simply dealing with fellow human beings. It can be an exhausting, depressing read, but with the ever-growing role of violence in our lives, it is an essential read. And the amazing fact that during the 20 years he spent writing Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann also published a dozen extraordinary books of fiction—many in the 700-page range and packed with historical research as deep as that on display here—elevates this achievement beyond the realm of mere mortals.
Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader
Washington Post Book World, 17 April 2005
The Vollmann juggernaut rolls on. Instead of taking a well-deserved rest after publishing his 7-volume, 3300-page Rising Up and Rising Down in the fall of 2003, he quickly prepared a 1-volume abridgement—a mere 733 pages, published by Ecco last fall—then collaborated with critic Larry McCaffery and novelist Michael Hemmingson on Expelled from Eden, continued to publish essays and reviews in various journals, and then completed his new 800-page novel Europe Central while recovering from a broken pelvis. He's published 15 books in the last 18 years, half of them 600 pages or longer, and with no falling off in quality or innovation. He's what they used to call a shock worker back in the USSR.
The former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are the settings for his new novel, a grimly magnificent dramatization of the impossible moral choices forced on individuals by those totalitarian regimes. Ranging from 1914 to 1975, the book is organized as a series of paired stories, like Plutarch's Parallel Lives, comparing a German and a Russian facing a similar situation. For example, one set pairs Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who deserted his army for the enemy's, with Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus, a Nazi who collaborated with the Communists after capture. But most are not so neat. The danger of using violent means to attain idealistic ends is the point of the first pair of stories, which contrasts the revolutionary idealist Fanya Kaplan, whose failed attempt to assassinate Lenin in 1918 unleashed the Red Terror wave of executions, with a nameless German whose patriotic idealism inspires him to cheer Kaiser Wilhelm's decision to begin World War I; and "right beside me a pale little man, probably a tramp, with disheveled hair and a dark trapezoidal mustache, began to caper, smiling at the world with a sleepwalker's eyes."
Many of the stories focus on four artists, tracking their attempts to create meaningful art under regimes that are hostile to any art that doesn't celebrate official patriotic ideals in social-realist form. The German Käthe Kollwitz persists with her stark engravings depicting the victims of oppression despite charges of pessimism. The Russian Anna Akhmatova tries to keep her poetry free of political themes, and pays the price of non-publication for decades, until she capitulates in order to rescue her son from a Siberian prison. The Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen, by contrast, has an easier time of it by producing films that win official approval. Vollmann devotes the most pages to the case of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the subject of several long stories, who played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities throughout his career, outwardly submitting to their criticism and corrections" while managing to write deeply personal music and avoid joining the Party until near the end of his life.
Like a method actor immersing himself in a role, Vollmann tells most of his stories from the point of view of their protagonists or a related character—the apparatchik Comrade Alexandrov relates many of the Soviet stories—relying on his immense research to empathize with his characters. (There are 50 pages of source notes at the end of the book, scrupulously documenting his occasional departures from the historical record for artistic purposes.) He shows that most moral decisions are not abstract applications of principles but the complicated result of cultural conditioning and personal psychology, a muddy mix of dreams, neuroses, fairy tales, nationalism, perversion, pride, and fear. His German characters are motivated as much by myths and Wagnerian opera as by political considerations, and communist double-speak keeps most of his Soviet characters from even thinking straight. Vollmann's language beautifully captures these warring conflicts, moving from lyricism to military strategy to hallucination to erotic longing as his characters navigate their way through a landscape of atrocities—and not just the ones perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists. A Russian character notes: "On the night of 13-14.2.45, the British and the Americans burned thirty-five thousand people, mainly civilians, in an incendiary bombing raid in Dresden. This slightly bettered the Nazi achievement at Babi Yar, where only thirty-three thousand Jews had been machined-gunned."
I've reviewed nearly all of Vollmann's books over the years and am running out of superlatives; suffice it to say, if you've been following Vollmann's extraordinary career, Europe Central may be his best novel yet. If you haven't, you might want to begin with Expelled from Eden, a well-organized collection of selections from his works, uncollected essays and letters, poems, all enclosed by very useful commentary from the editors. Vollmann's willingness to go against the preferred social realism of our day, enabled by his publisher's willingness to allow him to unfold his Wagnerian epics at full length, makes him a hero of our time.
2. I should have inserted "nowadays" somewhere in this sentence. Literary history of course contains numerous series—Balzac's La Comédie humaine , Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart , Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter (a favorite of Vollmann's), Kerouac's Legend of Duluoz —but contemporary literary series are rare. James McCourt's delightful and still-growing Mawrdew Czgowchwz Saga is the only one that comes to mind.
3. In May 2002 McSweeney's Books announced it would publish this work in six volumes in the Fall 2002, but postponed it until the following year.