The World Of William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann
Viking ($39.95)

A William T. Vollmann Reader
Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson, eds.
Thunder's Mouth Press ($17.95)

a consideration by Justin Taylor

I. Where The Sublime is Invoked

“Of course I was also practical. As Heidegger writes: The upward glance passes aloft toward the sky, and yet it remains below on the earth.”
—Vollmann, "Maiden Voyage" (Europe Central)

In the middle of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son—a slender whirlwind which does not know if it is a novel or a book of stories—there is a single sentence (repeated once later, so it appears twice in the text) which has stuck to the hard, fast insides of my skull and will likely always be with me. Johnson's drug-addled narrator surveys a landscape and asks: What can be said of those fields? It is a question for which there is every and no answer, which is why the sentence, once encountered in context, situates itself in the mind's great room like a piece of statuary added to a permanent collection. I think of it whenever I am overwhelmed or adrift in the beauty and confusion of the world.

If I had to pick a sentence of equal caliber from the unwieldy and multitudinous canon of William T. Vollmann, it would be a mere fragment, ten simple words that conclude a sentence almost two pages long: And I want to send history to the bright fires. That idea, anchored in the holy simplicity of brightness, is a sublime moment, a feat of literary transubstantiation which, once achieved, makes The Writer worthy of the time it takes to hold down the shift-key and capitalize that job description. Here, if nowhere else, Vollmann has his Moment.

Which is not to say that this is a singular brightness, shining in one fragment but otherwise missing from the millions of words comprising Vollmann's exquisite corpus, which even now expands and dazzles as surely as the universe at night: a heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

II. Where We Confront Certain Truths

“The capacity to intend is like a flame, and the capacity to discern like the light that comes from it.”
—Swedenborg, Heaven & Hell

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Let me dispense with all pretense and tell you as simply as I can the nature and peculiar difficulty of the task that sits before me. (My friend Megan, who is very pretty, sits on the edge of my futon, but this is an entirely different story.) Let us imagine the paradox as a figure model, naked and prone. Then we'll see what it takes to sketch the pale swells of the buttocks of our problem, the impossible folds of skin where the breast and the armpit conspire against me, forcing me to say, finally, that these are two important works by a man whose importance can hardly be overestimated, and yet I didn't particularly like either of them.

III. Where I Pose the Impertinent Question: Is Europe Central Another Argall?

“For the convenience of my countrymen who lose their way in Russian novels.”
—Vollmann, on including a list of patronymics in Europe Central

If it hasn't become clear to you yet, then you probably aren't paying attention; but, all the same, let me say that when it comes to William T. Vollmann I am an advocate, a fan, and perhaps a bit of a hero-worshipper. Think of Nicholson Baker writing U and I about John Updike, and what it means to truly be affected by a still-living author (whose complete works you may well not have read).

Of course, there are only so many reading hours in a lifetime, and so the right honorable reader (to borrow a phrase of Vollmann's) must be excused for making some difficult decisions. If, for example, I decide that The Rainbow Stories is so good I shall read it two or three times, then during such re-readings I read nothing else—not by Vollmann, not by anybody. And if every week I read The Nation from cover to cover, then whatever time I give to Arthur Danto's take on the new MoMA is lost to Danilo Kis (whose A Tomb for Boris Davidovich Vollmann cites as a work of signal importance to him), to the poet Anna Akhmatova (who plays a key role in Europe Central), etc.

One Vollmann title I've steered away from is the third installment in his Seven Dreams series, Argall, which explores the story of a pirate captain, the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas, and the further “settling” of the American continent—and all composed in Elizabethan English. Assuming readership of such an arduous work is exhausting even to consider.

Some may feel this way about Europe Central, a mammoth tome in which Vollmann captures the very essence of the Eastern Front and the broad and specific horrors of war. (At least it feels like he has. Vollmann, after all, has sought out battlefields. All I've ever sought from my Portland, Oregon, apartment is the writings of Vollmann—and, perhaps, in a moment of indiscretion, Megan). Vollmann conjures the socio-spiritual properties of the societies in question. The Russian stories shriek silently like skulls from beneath a sheet of dirty Moscow ice, from the blue-white core of their Russianness. The uncanny optimism of Nazi Germany (cut like cocaine into crack by the steady creep of its fate) blares from the page like the grand march from Tannhauser. This is a work that roils and teaches—a seemingly endless sprawl of historicism and empathy, secret police and love affairs. (Human, all too human, Nietzsche would have said, and he would have been right).

Yet, as with Jesus' Son, I don't think Europe Central knows whether it is a novel or a collection of stories. Both books feature recurring characters, a consistent narrative voice, and incidents in later stories that build on incidents in prior stories, making a linear reading (that is, treating the stories as chapters) more rewarding than a hunt-and-peck approach (like the one Vollmann encourages his readers to adopt in the foreword to The Atlas). But where Johnson's book is told by a common dope fiend, a fucked-up guy rightly named Fuckhead by his friends, Vollmann's narrator is not so much a person as a force, something like Philip K. Dick's V.A.L.I.S. crossed with Vollmann's own Big George, the undying and all-seeing thing that lurked in the digital backstreets of You Bright and Risen Angels. If I had to name this emanation, which (unlike in Johnson's book) is ostensibly many different narrators, I would call it The Bureaucrat.

As in the Seven Dreams works, which like this one are all painstakingly researched historical fictions (and all offered up as novels, I feel inclined to point out), Europe Central is governed by metaphysical and symbolic reagents which Vollmann uses to amplify the implications and significance of his war stories. He invokes Jewish mysticism first and to greatest effect in “The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale,” as well as elsewhere throughout the text as it suits his purpose. Music is also a fundament of both the book and the cultures it treats. Many of the stories concern the life of the Soviet composer Shostakovich, and Wagner's legacy alternately haunts or informs pretty much anything the Germans do in this book. But above and beyond the above-named items (and others I have not mentioned), there is The Telephone—the magic wand of our unlikely magician-bard The Bureaucrat. Sometimes an anonymous German functionary or a member of the Russian secret police, occasionally a metatextual and bodiless creature (as in some of the most underrated scenes from You Bright and Risen Angels, when Big George tormented The Author), the “I” in Europe Central just says what it came to say and then goes again. Sometimes it tells you who it is supposed to be, other times it simply speaks. And like Big George who controlled the computers and the network, the “I” is the voice on the other end of every telephone, and when “The Telephone Rings” something serious is about to happen (either to Shostakovich, as in the story so-titled, or to someone else).

Many will feel these “I”s are ugly intrusions into the otherwise intricate and seamless diegesis of Vollmann's dreamworld (a word I choose advisedly, thinking secretly to myself that perhaps this text is the unacknowledged Eighth Dream in his series). Personally, I found them refreshing and always welcome, as I was relieved—however briefly—of the burdens of meticulous historicism, of Russian patronymics and countenances, of the endless miseries and narcissisms suffered by Shostakovich. When Vollmann (again recalling You Bright and Risen Angels—this time the Clara Bee sequence) suddenly stepped in as himself in the middle of “Breakout” to lament being left by a woman who stopped loving him, I said: Ah, here is a voice I recognize, and telling of a hurt so familiar it is almost comfortable. (Perhaps my readers will think now of Megan, who has left the apartment to return a skirt to a store on Hawthorne Street—but no, she has never broken my heart and as far as I know we have never even been in love with each other.)

IV. Where the Problem of Excerpts and the Problem of Genius Are Both Considered

“If…Nabokov knew he was a genius back when he was writing Glory at the age of thirty, he knew it only intermittently: it was a fleeting suspicion, not certain knowledge, something incredibly exciting and jinxing and unthinkable that kept peeking at him over the rise of his best paragraphs, distinct from arrogance, mixed in with probably-nots and bright, leaping maybes.”
—Nicholson Baker, U and I

“The genius meets with a group of students. The students tell the genius that the concept 'genius' is not, currently, a popular one.”
—Donald Barthelme, “The Genius”

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Also released recently, and certainly more accessible on the face, is Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader. Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson compiled and edited this material, which spans the breadth of Vollmann's career. Selections from his major works abound (even two stories from Europe Central are included, and an excerpt from his forthcoming nonfiction work Imperial), as well as juvenilia (“A Bizarre Proposition,” for example, is a real letter Vollmann sent to the Saudi Embassy volunteering to be shot into space and mine asteroids), forewords and afterwords, journalism, appreciations, lists, and other miscellany.

This book might serve as a good introduction to Vollmann's style and concerns, but I don't think the selections from the larger works do justice to the wholes from which they are extracted. To experience Vollmann fully you need to confront him—or better yet, let him confront you. This problem isn't so grave with the short stories, which are self-contained, and I'll grant that McCaffery and Hemmingson are remarkably good at selecting portions of the novels that can stand on their own. But still. A scene like “The Agony of Parker” is first-class writing, but I can only guess whether a reader who does not know it in context will be able to comprehend what Vollmann is getting at.

Another handicap is that McCaffery's "chronology" of Vollmann's life goes on for over fifty pages—most of it not about Vollmann. McCaffery tries to explain this away by writing that he has “also included references to historical and political events that Vollmann has written about in his fiction and journals.” That “also” is an understatement so bold it borders a lie: the "chronology" starts in the primordial era with the sentencing of Atlas to hold up the world, then notes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, and proceeds in this fashion for almost thirty pages until finally, in 1959, William Vollmann is born. Sure, a lot of this information is interesting, but it's all obtainable elsewhere. McCaffery has taken up a significant fraction of the total page-count of this book and has offered little we couldn't have gleaned from reading the novels and stories themselves. Vollmann is not the kind of writer who attempts to mask his influences or interests; the blessed majority of his books have appendices rife with citations, source notes, even suggestions for further reading.

In the final appraisal, Expelled from Eden is more a book for fans and scholars of Vollmann's work than a way to discover him. Some of the most interesting inclusions here are letters from Vollmann to his editors or prospective publishers outlining his literary goals, arguing against manuscript cuts, comparing Whores for Gloria to The Grapes of Wrath, and so on. In these forthright, telling selections, we see exactly what William T. Vollmann thinks of himself and his “life's work.” His suspicions are not fleeting, as Baker imagined Nabokov's must have been. Vollmann knows exactly what he is. His struggles derive not from trying to achieve genius, but from trying to get it all out, to keep it intact, and to do something good with it. Such honesty is unfashionable, and it's certainly a bit disconcerting on the first read, but Vollmann's statements, which could be construed as incredibly pretentious, are devoid of bravura or self-congratulation—“distinct from arrogance,” as Baker put it.

For an audience to read of such high self-regard and not come away disgusted, however, it takes more than a lack of braggadocio. Agreement with the author's conclusion is practically a precondition. That is: if you think, as I do, that Vollmann is a genius (in precisely that Barthelmeic sense which persists despite being unpopular) then these selections offer a rare chance to get inside the head and heart of such genius. Surely Baker, who agonized over questions like these apropos Updike, would have given his non-writing hand for an Updikean volume analogous to Expelled from Eden. On the other hand (the one which was not severed), if you didn't think Vollmann was a genius already then hearing him say he is one is not likely to convince you.

Genius aside, Europe Central and Expelled from Eden help us understand, more than ever before, that William T. Vollmann is an utterly unique beast in the fields of literature. What can be said of those fields? Let Vollmann take you with him, if you can. There is something there that cannot be discovered anywhere else.

Click here to purchase Europe Central at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Expelled from Eden at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005