Pico Iyer: A Critic Calling for the Pissboy

Pico Iyer’s anti-intellectual review in today’s New York Times Book Review begins with the sentence: “I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann.” This raises the question of why Iyer was even assigned the review in the first place. Certainly, Iyer is a widely revered travel writer, a man who has called himself “a global village on two legs.” His peripatetic escapades might be viewed, by those who rarely step outside Manhattan’s boundaries, as an able match to Vollmann’s. But in pairing Iyer up with Vollmann, the NYTBR‘s has once again demonstrated its crass commitment to useless criticism, stacking the deck against writers who do anything even a little idiosyncratic or anyone who sees the “global village” as one with broader possibilities.

The New York Times is supposed to be the Paper of Record. But in assigning a critic who is already dead set against the author he is writing about, a critic who, in this review, deploys his loutish prejudices in a manner comparable with a fulminating Tea Party protester, the Times reduces itself to a crazed right-wing pamphlet put together in a gun nut’s garage.

But here’s the thing. Pico Iyer isn’t a crackpot. He’s a distinguished critic who has cogently wrestled with William Buckley’s oeuvre and written about Tibetan movies for The New York Review of Books. But in accepting the assignment and alerting the assigning editor of his tastes and conflicts of interest, he has sufficiently announced that he’s no longer interested in being taken seriously. He has reduced himself to some dime-a-dozen snark practitioner: that old guy sitting in a lawn chair with a six-pack and a shotgun, spitting out a homebrewed fount of crass and uncomprehending commentary. Iyer has become just as culpable in debasing the New York Times Books Review as the usual gang of sophists. He claims in his review that Vollmann’s “paragraphs…seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters [and] can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure.” But anybody who has read Iyer’s Sun After Dark (as the NYTBR‘s editors surely must have) knows how much Iyer objects to “long sunless paragraphs.” So why assign him a book with prose that he will never enjoy? If he hoped to challenge his inflexible assumptions about Vollmann, surely there was a more dignified way to go about it.

Before I demonstrate why Iyer’s review is so wrong, and why he cannot even cite Vollmann’s passages correctly, I should probably offer a disclaimer here that I’m a great admirer of William T. Vollmann’s work. I’ve interviewed him twice. I believe Imperial was a needlessly condemned masterpiece. But I’m not a blind zealot who believes that every sentence that Vollmann is gold. (I have problems with The Butterfly Stories, and I offered a respectful pan to Poor People in the Los Angeles Times). Still, Vollmann is not a writer to dismiss lightly. In The Ice-Shirt, Vollmann nearly froze to death in Alaska to know what it was like to shiver. In Imperial, he chronicled a California territory that is not likely to see such dutiful attention again in our lifetime. He has been in war zones. He has seen friends and family die, and written movingly about it. He has charmed his way into circumstances that puffups like Pico couldn’t begin to fathom from a gutless perch. And he’s remained a committed talent who has skillfully weaved these experiences into several unforgettable books. He’s won a National Book Award for Europe Central. Love him or hate him, there is simply no other American writer who has, over the course of more than twenty books, written with such unusual style and verve on so many variegated topics.

So when Iyer calls Vollmann’s obsessiveness “almost demented,” what makes this any different from calling Vollmann himself “almost demented?” “Obsessiveness” is indeed one of Vollmann’s qualities as a writer. And Iyer’s statement is nothing less than an ad hominem attack. (Sam Tanenhaus, of course, would tell you otherwise.)

But Iyer is also a stupendous misreader, a man who misquotes from the opening sentences of chapters, often conflating one sentence with another. He claims that Vollmann declares himself an “ape in a cage” because “he cannot understand a word.” But let’s study the context context of what Vollmann actually wrote, in the sentences that opens the second chapter (not the book’s opening sentence, as Iyer deliberately misleads):

This book cannot pretend to give anyone a working knowledge of Noh. Only a Japanese speaker who has studied Zeami and the Heian source literatures, learned how to listen to Noh music and wehat to look for in Noh costumes, masks and dances could hope to gain that, and then only after attending the plays for many years. Zeami insisted that “in making a Noh,” the playwright “must use elegant and easily understood phrases from song and poetry.”…But century buries century, and the performances refine themselves into an ever noble inaccessibility, slowing down (some now require at least double the time on stage that they did when Zeami was alive), evolving spoken parts into songs, clinging to conventions and morals now gone past bygone; as for me, I look on like an ape in a cage.

In other words, Vollmann is clearly delineating Noh’s great complexities, aspects that are difficult even for a native Japanese speaker to entirely ken (and that Iyer clearly has no curiosity to understand; he proudly proudly boasts about “the very dramas that have often sent me toward the exit before the intermission”). But if Vollmann is “an ape in a cage,” he is pointing out, with sincere humility, that neither he nor any audience member can ever hope to reach the civilized heights of a noble art form.

Iyer suggests that Vollmann’s “comparison” of Kate Bosworth with Kannon zany, but fails to comprehend that Vollmann has a larger goal. Here he is discussing Bosworth:

Her skin is a flawless blend of pinks; I suppose it has been powdered and airbrushed. Her mascara’d gaze beseeches me with the appearance of melancholy or erotic intimacy. Her mouth pretends to say: “Kiss me.” This professional signifier appears on many women in pornographic magazines and in the long slow sequences of romantic films. For some reason, I rarely see it on the faces of strangers in the street. (127)

It’s clear from this passage that Vollmann is attempting to place Hollywood magazine representations within the context of Noh. And, true to form, Iyer continues to take Vollmann out of context, implying that Vollmann’s confession about loving woman is (a) related to the above exchange and (b) related to the manner in which he asks Hilary Nichols, “Who is a woman?” (Actually, the “loving woman” sentence occurs on page 110, in a chapter on Noh faces, having little to do with either of the subjects from which Iyer draws his false associations. That Iyer ascribes Vollmann’s private sentiment to what he says to some woman in the bar indicates that not only is he unskilled to write this review, but that he has no real clue about the conversations that actually occur in bars.)

He attempts to accuse Vollmann of hypocrisy by pointing to his “extravagant” spending in Kissing the Mask, after writing Poor People. But lacking the ability to understand that a book on Noh theater is entirely different from one on poverty, Iyer fails to note that Vollmann confessed in Poor People that (a) he was “sometimes afraid of poor people,” (b) he is “a petty-bourgeois property owner,” and that (c) he has been mostly transparent about noting when he has paid an interview subject or how much one of his chapters have cost.

So if the Oxford English Dictionary had a listing for “incurious elitist with a hatchet and an agenda,” Pico Iyer would take up the entire entry. It says something about Iyer, I think, that his review can’t even make a civilized case against the book he so clearly loathes, that the manner in which he strings together so many unrelated items has no singular critical thrust. Reading his review is like watching an autistic fire a submachine gun in an upscale shopping mall. When Iyer claims, bizarrely, “that reading for more than 30 minutes at a time can induce headaches, seasickness, and worse,” and fails to qualify this observation with specific experiential examples, you get the sense of a desperate man without streetcred struggling to take a piss in an alley when his experience is limited to Larry David-style sitdown techniques confined to palatial restrooms.

No, it’s Iyer here who’s the one who fails to grapple with the big questions. Perhaps what truly motivates Iyer’s review is that, despite all of Iyer’s travels, he’s never quite found the courage or an interest in people outside his comfort zone. Here’s Iyer writing about Dharmamsala in The Open Road:

The people who were gathered in the room, maybe thirty or so, were strikingly ragged, their poor clothes rendered even poorer and more threadbare by their long trip across the snowcaps. They assembled in three lines in a small space, and all I could see were filthy coats, blackened faces, sores on hands and feet, straggly, unwashed hair.

Now here’s Vollmann writing a man named Lupe Vasquez in Imperial:

For an eight-hour job, it’s forty-five bucks. When I first started, in the early seventies, I used to make about seventeen bucks a day. Two-fifty an hour times eight hours is what? [Footnote: It would have been twenty dollars.] With taxes you take home about seventeen, eighteen bucks. I’d say the work’s the same now; it’s the same. [Footnote: I wish you could have heard the weariness in his voice as he said this.] Maybe the foremen don’t hurry you up and treat you as bad as they used to. We were scared, you know. We had to hurry up. For the foremen, money is more important to them than their own people. They gotta kiss ass, and the way they do that is by making us work harder.

Unlike Iyer, Vollmann actually provides tangible testimony on what it is to be poor, and what it is to live poor. Iyer, by contrast, is a vapid and unconcerned tourist who will never comprehend much beyond an impoverished man’s look. Still, I’m confident that none of my quibbles with Iyer’s incompetence will deter this bourgeois monster from writing. And that’s just fine. Because when future readers want to know about the world that we live in, when they wish to feel thrill, passion, and horror about the late 20th and early 21st centuries, my guess is that they’ll go to Vollmann before even flipping through Iyer. Unless, of course, they’re the types who, as Mel Brooks once satirized, call for the pissboy instead of understanding that even the pissboy has a soul.

[UPDATE: Over at The Constant Conversation, John Lingan also addresses Iyer’s review, pointing out that the piece fails to address the basic questions of arts criticism: “How about engaging the man’s ideas head-on, and not simply expressing your mild distaste with the presentation?”]

Of Vollmann’s Imperial

Many reviewers have kvetched a good deal about the page count and weight of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, and this is probably because they have been forced to read the book in a swift period of time. (But if a reviewer possesses such an innate incuriosity, why on earth would she take on the assignment? There are many possible answers to this, and most of them involve snobbery.) For my own part, I am now past the halfway point of Wild Bill’s journey and I don’t feel the need to finish it immediately. By way of its eclectic material, this is not a book to be wolfed down. It is best enjoyed in spurts or between other books, largely because the tone and emphasis can shift from page to page. This is not to suggest that the book is unreadable (far from it: the prose is often quite breezy, entertaining, and fascinating) or that it doesn’t possess its share of problems. (My complete thoughts on the book will be posted here once I cross the finish line.) But in light of a statement I made last year, having now sampled the goods, I believe it is probably an important book worth the price. Although I have never been cheated out of a dollar in my life.


William T. Vollmann’s $55 Book

William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, which has been in the works for years, now has a publication date. It’s slated to be released by Viking on April 16, 2009. For those who have scratched their heads in disbelief over Vollmann’s svelte volumes in recent years, don’t worry. The book runs 1,296 pages. And this time, it’s a history of the Imperial County region, chronicling the labor camps, migrant workers, and contemporary day laborers. The book promises to take us into “the dark soul of American imperialism,” with the catalog further informing us:

Known for his penetrating meditations on poverty and violence, Vollmann has spent ten years doggedly investigating every facet of this binational locus, raiding archives, exploring polluted rivers, guarded factories, and Chinese tunnels, talking with everyone from farmers to border patrolmen in his search for the fading American dream and its Mexican equivalent.

Well, this all sounds dutifully proletarian. But the great irony here is that most of the workers who Vollmann talked with are probably not going to be able to afford this book. Imperial, listed in the Winter 2009 Viking catalog, is planning to retail for $55.

This is a surprising price, given that Penguin (under the Penguin Press imprint) also released the hardcover Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which ran a hefty 1,085 pages, for $35. (Consider also Roberto Bolano’s upcoming 2666, running close to 1,000 pages in a three-volume set by FSG. It’s available this November for $30.) And while Imperial also contains “28 photos; 20 pieces b&w line art; 5 maps,” I fail to see how any of this supplemental material justifies a dramatic increase in printing costs (in this case, a good $20 per unit).

The book can also be pre-ordered at Amazon at 40% off, with the book selling for $34.65. But I can’t help but wonder how this twenty dollar difference may affect independent bookstores featuring the title on the stacks. Will Vollmann readers abandon their trusted indie bookstores for Amazon because the price point here is too high? Is this a grand ruse designed to get Vollmann signing the least number of books possible at a signing?

Maybe the $55 book is just a simple capitalist experiment. But if it is, it reminds me more of the troubling science perfected by concert promoters in the late ’90’s. I have no idea if Vollmann’s head has grown heavy and his sight has grown dim (let us hope not), but The Eagles, rather famously, were the first band to charge $100 a ticket. And when the Eagles were able to get away with this, other big acts followed suit. So if Vollmann and Viking want to blindside consumers with such an outrageous price, I may be tempted, despite my frequent championing of hardcovers, to jump aboard Levi Asher’s dysfunctional pricing bandwagon.

In the meantime, I intend to perform a few inquiries to find out why Imperial is going for $55. If I learn anything, I will certainly report it here.

The Decline of Book Reviewing: A Case Study

It is said that the Eunectes murinus — referred to by laymen as the anaconda or the water boa — spends most of its time shooting its slimy body beneath the water, waiting for a hapless gazelle to stop and take a drink, only to grab the lithe animal with its jaws, coil its scaly muscular husk around its quivering body, squeezing and constricting until the animal is helpless (the animal is never crushed), where it then feasts upon the meat. It does this, because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.

And while most mainstream newspaper book sections are devoted to thought over carnivorous instinct, there remain some critics, terrified of inhabiting any topography foreign to their hermetic environments and who remain needlessly hostile to any author crossing multiple ecosystems.

vollmann.jpgThe author in question is William T. Vollmann. And the book is Riding Toward Everywhere, a surprisingly thin volume (by Vollmann standards, at least) that concerns itself with trainhopping and vagrants. (Full disclosure: While the book isn’t Vollmann’s greatest, I did enjoy the book. And while I may be a devotee to Vollmann’s work, I have never let my admiration for the man hinder fair and critical judgment. Above all, I recognize that Vollmann, like any original and idiosyncratic author, must be read on his own terms. This would seem self-evident to even the most elementary reader, because of Vollmann’s style and his distinct subject matter. But other individuals, as I shall soon demonstrate, don’t share this commitment to due consideration.)

A number of recent reviews reveal an astonishing paucity of insight and, in some cases, remarkable deficiencies in reading comprehension. And this all has me greatly concerned about the state of contemporary criticism. While there were dismissals from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Bob Hoover and the Los Angeles Times‘s Marc Weingarten that had the good sense to avoid dwelling so heavily on Vollmann’s peccadilloes, the majority of these negative reviews not only failed to comprehend Vollmann’s book, but appeared predetermined to despise it from the onset. They wished to judge Vollmann the man instead of Vollmann the author. Which is a bit like judging Dostoevsky not on his literary genius, but on his abject personal foibles. Or dismissing Woody Allen’s great films because he married his adopted daughter. This is the stance of blackguards who peddle in gossip, not criticism.

And yet speculation into Vollmann’s character was unfurled in messy dollops under the guise of “criticism” or “book reviewing.”

From Rene Denfeld’s review in The Oregonian:

There is a saying among some bloggers: “I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.”

That’s how I felt reading “Riding Toward Everywhere.”

William T. Vollmann is a mystifyingly respected writer, a man who has made his reputation by exploiting sex workers, the poor and other helpless targets as he plumbs their depths with his supposedly insightful pen, not to mention other appendages.

Well, this blogger has never typed that hackneyed sentence, in large part because resorting to cliches are about as enticing as four hours with a dentist (or, for that matter, dwelling on an essay written by a lazy writer). But then Ms. Denfeld has no problem letting false and near libelous conjecture get in the way of understanding what’s in the text. She fails to cite any specific examples on how Vollmann has “exploited” his subjects. And she has deliberately misread Riding Toward Everywhere to suit her false and incorrigible conclusions. To be clear on this, it was not — as Ms. Denfeld suggests — Vollmann who referred to “citizens” contemptuously, but the vagrants who Vollmann interviewed. Since Ms. Denfeld doesn’t appear to know how to read and infer from a book, here is the specific manner in which Vollmann establishes a “citizen.” Vollmann starts talking to vagrants in search of the notorious gang, the Freight Train Riders of America. Early on in the book, Vollmann approaches a man with a bandana and bluntly asks him, “Are you FTRA?”

You goddamned dufus! shouted the man. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I’m not even FTRA and you’re already starting to piss me off. Don’t you get it? We hate you.

Why’s that?

Because you’re just a goddamned citizen.

Sorry about that, I said. (33)

Denfeld further claims that Vollmann “fancies himself the Jack Kerouac of our times,” but it’s quite evident that Vollmann, in addition to pointing out the differences between hitting the roads and riding the rails, views himself as a somewhat clumsy traveler and does not permit his literary antecedents to define him:

Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain’s riverboat youth define me. I go my own bumbling way, either alone or in company, beset by lapses in my bravery, energy, and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. (73)

Denfeld also writes, “His concession to the law is to borrow friends’ cars when he picks up hookers so if he gets caught, it won’t be his license that is lost.”

Again, Denfeld deliberately twists Vollmann’s words around. Here is what Vollmann actually wrote:

My city passes an ordinance to confiscate the cars of men who pick up prostitutes. This compels me to walk….It may well be that I am a sullen and truculent citizen; possibly I should play the game a trifle. But I do, I do: When I pick up prostitutes I use somebody else’s car. (4-5)

denfeld.jpgIt is clear here that Vollmann is being as straightforward as he can about his life, trying to set down personal fallacies he may have in common with his subjects. It would be one thing if Ms. Denfeld stated the precise problems she had with the book, but she remains so fixated in her happy little universe — which involves living with her partner with three adopted children and OMG! “teaching writing in low-income schools and volunteering in adoption education and outreach”; could it be that Vollmann is not the only “rich” person who “brags” about philanthropy? — that she can’t seem to consider that other people relate to the world a bit differently. And it’s clear that she can’t be bothered to engage with the issues that the book presents. Masticating upon this book, good or bad, seems beneath Ms. Denfeld’s abilities. Beyond Ms. Denfeld’s consistent failure at basic reading comprehension, I likewise remain gobsmacked that these flagrant errors, easily confirmed by checking Ms. Denfeld’s statements against the text (which runs a svelte 186 pages), were allowed to run in a major newspaper.

Ms. Denfeld isn’t the only venerable nitwit assigned to review a book outside her ken. Here’s the opening paragraph from “respected” author Carolyn See’s takedown at the Washington Post:

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, “Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he’s been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I’ve never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn’t seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don’t have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don’t care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don’t know.

Rather then dredge up my own empirical evidence of women I know who do read and enjoy Vollmann in response to this egregious sexism, which is particularly ignoble coming from a Ph.D., I’ll simply presume that See’s sheltered life at UCLA, much less basic library skills, precludes her from consulting such books as Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Kathan Brown’s The North Pole (Crown, 2004), or Helen Thayer’s Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (NewSage, 2002). Further, Laura Miller’s womanhood didn’t hinder her from devoting 2,000 words to Poor People, pointing out (although critical) that Vollmann was “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Dava Sobel called him “ferociously original.” Numerous other examples can be readily unearthed in newspapers and academic journals. Vollmann is no more an author just for men than Jennifer Weiner is an author just for women. And only a fool or a John Birch Society member would declare otherwise.

See’s prefatory paragraph, of course, has nothing to do with the book in question. And if See had been a responsible reviewer, she would have recused herself from reviewing an author who “doesn’t come up on [her] radar.” An ethical and responsible reviewer knows her own intellectual or perceptive limits.

And then there is J.R. Moehringer’s offering in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Like Denfield, Moehringer has reading comprehension problems, although thankfully not as severe. Moehringer completely misses Vollmann’s point that Cold Mountain is, much like Shangri-La, an unobtainable destination, although he does seem to understand that it’s “a nonexistent mountain.” But for Moehringer, “the words lose all meaning.” It doesn’t occur to Moehringer that Vollmann’s repetition of “Cold Mountain” might be a way of expressing the ineffable or the unfindable. Or as Vollmann puts it:

I stood here wondering if I had reached Cold Mountain. Where is Cold Mountain, anyway? Isn’t it for the best if I can never be sure I’ve found it?

But Moehringer’s biggest sin is to ask Vollmann the hypothetical question, “Pal, what the hell’s wrong with you?” He finds Vollmann crazy for “get[ting] his kicks breaking into rail yards and hopping freight trains,” and wonders why nobody has caught him. But he fails to consider that Vollmann’s romantic description of the open air or the modest code of honor that prevents a fellow hopper from stealing another hopper’s sleeping bag might hold some appeal to a man of Vollmann’s eccentricities. Clearly, there are reasons why Vollmann hops trains. And Vollmann dutifully explains why. But since Moehringer lacks the intellectual flexibility to understand this, he breaks John Updike’s first rule of reviewing (“try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”) at the onset.

He declares Vollmann “miserable” and “filled with irredeemable gloom about the state of the world,” wondering how anyone could feel this way more so than others, but fails to recognize that one of the major thrusts of Vollmann’s work has been to chronicle the misunderstood. Kindness and empathy, and writing about people that other novelists and journalists are all too happy to ignore, are at the core of Vollmann’s output. Further, there is more to Vollmann’s mantra than Cold Mountain. As Vollmann explains:

I am sure that the fact that my wife had expressed her wish for a divorce two days before had nothing to do with the fact that I kept saying to myself: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.

Moehringer also writes, “Early on, Vollmann mentions ‘a Cambodian whore’ he nearly married. Why? No reason.” But what Moehringer conveniently elides is how Vollmann mentions this in connection with taking a bus trip out to Oakland. When the bus stopped at Cheyenne, Vollmannn felt that he had reached “true West.” He did not get out of the bus, but he felt that “Cheyenne changed me at that moment.” And if Moehringer is so indolent a reviewer that he cannot grasp the basic concept — indeed, the specific “reason” Vollmann is bringing up this anecdote — of how one decision often changes a life at a crossroads, let us consider the specific passage:

Once upon a time I almost married a Cambodian whore, or at least I convinced myself that I was on the verge of wedding her; once I considered moving in with an Eskimo girl; in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now. And what if I had gotten off the bus in Cheyenne in the year of my youthful hope 1981? California is only half-western, being California. Cheyenne is one hundred percent Western….And had I stepped off the bus in Cheyenne, I might have become a cowboy; I could have even been a man.

If Moehringer — a Pulitzer Prize winner, for fuck’s sake — is incapable of seeing the reason why Vollmann mentioned the incident, then I shudder to consider his dull worldview and nearly nonexistent sense of adventure. Why climb Everest? No reason. “Because it’s there.”

All three reviewers demonstrate a remarkable devotion to remaining incurious and to condemning an author personally rather than trying to consider an author’s perspective. Small wonder, given this reactionary clime, that book reviewing sections face extinction.

The Funny Side of Vollmann

There seems to be a misperception among certain literary types — one I have been attempting to rectify for quite some time — that William T. Vollmann, in writing about the underworld and heavy topics, lacks a sense of humor. To quell these charges, here’s the disclaimer page from Vollmann’s forthcoming trainhopping book, Riding Toward Everywhere, which threatens to veer my attention from all the other books I have to read right now:


I have never been caught riding on a freight train. So let’s say I have never committed misdemeanor trespass. The stories in this book are all hearsay, and the photographs are really drawings done in steel-gray crayon. None of the individuals depicted are any more real than I. Moreover, train hopping may harm or kill you. Finally, please consider yourself warned that the activities described in this book are criminally American.


This book was written at a time of extreme national politics. These circumstances shaped my thoughts about riding trains in specific ways described below. Accordingly, I have left all references to the current administration in the present tense. As the Russians would say, he who has ears will hear.

“Visions and Violence” — Vollmann and Drew at the Whitney

There are indeed people in New York who are interested in William T. Vollmann. On Thursday night, accompanied by Marydell, Levi, and Jason, I attended the Whitney Museum “Summer of Love” lecture featuring photographer Richard Drew — the man behind the Falling Man photos — and, of course, Vollmann. There, I also met a smart Pynchon enthusiast by the name of Christopher Byrd, a guy named Doug (a Barth fan who I met in the lobby), and another gentleman named Ralph, who apparently discovered The Vollmann Club while trying to find information on the man to teach a class. There was also another pleasant gentleman who reads this site, but whose name I sadly don’t recall. I was pleasantly surprised that my announcement drew a few WTV fans out of the closet who apparently recognized me and were kind enough to say hello.

richarddrew.jpgDespite the event’s title “Vision and Violence,” I was particularly surprised that nobody had mentioned the Abu Ghraib photos during the course of the conversation. But both Vollmann and photographer Richard Drew had interesting things to say about the role of photography, of which more anon.

The moderator, whose name I neglected to jot down in my notes because of an unexpected shift in lighting that startled me, was a regrettably stiff gentleman who worked for The New Yorker. I feel that I can sufficiently call him stiff because, when Vollmann read a stirring passage (“The White Knights”) from The Rainbow Stories, the moderator stared at Vollmann the entire time, craning his neck like an affluent ostrich ensnared in the unexpected Swedish cold. I know that he was doing his best and was no doubt apprised by someone that discussing violence was a serious business. Nevertheless, it was a bit awkward to see the moderator, Vollmann, and Drew crammed around a small table on stage right, so that the same twenty-five photographic images — John Filo’s Kent State photo, Nick Út’s Vietnam napalm girl, Eddie Adams’s execution photo, et al. — could be projected on a large screen in front of the audience. But the talk itself was interesting, with Drew even becoming defensive near the end.

The moderator began by asking what the two men were doing during the Summer of Love. Vollmann replied that he was not even a teenager, but said that he remembered his mother driving him home from school, when Kennedy was assassinated. His mother was crying and couldn’t stand this news. The young Vollmann looked to the other cars and saw that other people were crying.

“How do you find your subject matter?” asked the moderator. (This was a sampling of the generalized questions he had at his disposal.) Drew indicated that his daily assignments are determined on a minute-by-minute basis. Recently, he had taken photos of “the girl from Harry Potter on the Today Show,” as well as a 280 point jump at the New York Stock Exchange. Vollmann said that his subject matter came from a desire to understand, learn, and help others. He remarked upon how the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had upset him, particularly when it started disappearing from the newspapers. His desire to help became “more attenuated.” Vollmann said that in all journalistic capacities, he wanted to give something to the people he met. In 1992 Sarajevo, Vollmann said that he “wanted understanding of who was more wrong.”

Upon Vollmann’s response, Drew became a bit rankled with this journalistic notion of helping people. “I’m not the Red Cross!” he insisted, shortly after declaring that he “records history every day.” Drew declared that there’s nothing political in what he does. And while one might argue that there may not be much of a political stake in photographing “the girl from Harry Potter” (I’m certain that future historians will be looking back at a Today Show publicity junket when chronicling the important moments of our time), are not Drew’s Falling Man photos political in some sense? Drew later mentioned that some newspapers thought it inappropriate to publish these photos. He also observed that this Channel 4 documentary (full one hour, eleven minute YouTube link) examining the subject of whether the photos were appropriate had not yet aired in the States. During the Q&A session that came later, Drew was adamant that he was not pushed around or pressured to shoot particular photos as an AP photographer. But surely a man with 37 years in the business understands that the decisions of editors and publishers to prioritize lionized firemen over a man plunging to his death from the Twin Towers is certainly political in nature. Without discounting Drew’s artistry as a photographer, surely a man who knows what photos are going to sell is more likely to tilt his lens in a certain direction if it will make ends meet. (Drew later confessed that, despite accepting nearly every assignment that came to him, he elected not to go to Iraq between the two wars because he had a kid on the way. It’s worth noting that Vollmann has continued to travel to faraway locales despite having a family to support, although, unlike Drew, he did not mention his family.)

Vollmann pointed out that he tried not to judge people — “at least not too early.” He offered a novelist’s comparison between flat and round characters, and pointed out distinction between understanding and telling, using an example of Muslims who had never heard of the Holocaust and couldn’t believe that it was true.

In response to the moderator’s question of whether the two men had observed the world becoming a more dangerous place, Drew again divested himself of politics, observing, “You don’t have to choose a side. You just have to be in the right place at the right time.” Vollmann didn’t think the world had become any more dangerous. But when the talk shifted to assignments, he pointed out that his only criteria in turning something down was (1) the publication not paying him enough and (2) whether his work is going to be helpful and worth the risk. Vollmann stated that if he were to go to Iraq today, he would have to think about it. “What good would it do? Would I have anything new to contribute?”

Concerning photography, Vollmann pointed out that he relied on Comtex cameras when going to a war zone because the lenses are very sharp and durable. For situations that are less dangerous, he relied on an 810. The photographs that Vollmann takes often allow his readers to get another sense of a person, such as some of the subjects that Vollmann included in Poor People.

Drew noted that photos tell the story and that he doesn’t have the luxury of 10,00 words. He had only one picture. The moderator noted that the Falling Man photos were “formally beautiful,” and in referring to his Falling Man photos, Drew pointed out that he had not experienced nearly as much controversy when he published his Kennedy photos.

Vollmann said that he didn’t face much in the way of restrictions. “A lot of people don’t read. So I don’t have too many problems.” He then referred to his Bosnia experience, when two friends of his were killed in a jeep. He said that he had the right and the duty to publish something, but that he didn’t want to publish pictures of their dead faces. He didn’t feel this ws right. Nevertheless, Vollmann said, “The job of the reporter is to show conflict, to show suffering.” So while in the back seat, he grabbed his notebook and started writing. Drew grew visibly uneasy over this and Vollmann simply responded, “They were already dead.” He pointed out that had that not been the case, he would have helped them.

Despite Drew’s quibbles over Vollmann’s personal concern for his subjects, Drew nevertheless pointed out that he would carry on taking photos without obtaining the permission of his subjects. Drew said that his motto was Shoot first, ask questions later. “I have to capture reality as it happens.”

Perhaps observing Drew’s growing discomfort, Vollmann then said that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Drew’s approach is wrong, but that his own approach involves “wanting to understand a person or event over time.” He said that it was important to earn the trust of his subjects. If he knew the subject, then he was more inclined to ask their permission. But when it come to depicting naked violence — such as an extreme Serbian nationalist shooting someone — “some of the rules don’t apply.”

nytdrew.jpgThe moderator then asked another regrettably general question: “What made you want to do what you want to do?” Vollmann said that he hopes that he can document moments in time. Drew pointed out that his photography started off as a hobby. When in college, a street sweeper had overturned. He took photos and, upon getting an offer for $5 for the picture or a free roll of film and a photo credit, he chose the latter. He then became a freelance photographer, constantly listening to the police scanner. Today, with digital demand, Drew said that “the beast has become more insatiable.”

Vollmann pointed out, “As the beast becomes more insatiable, it’s for more and more types of meat in smaller bytes.” He said that he was more inclined to write books and less inclined to write magazine pieces, because there was no longer the demand for 20,000 word stories, as there was in the ’90’s. But he also observed, “If your heart is really in something, no one’s going to stop you.”

When Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was brought up, Drew offered a remarkable story. When DeLillo’s book was reviewed in the NYTBR, the review came with an accompanying graphic for the cover. Without accreditation to Drew, it seems that Sam Tanenhaus’s team not only stole Drew’s image for the cover, but egregiously smudged out the figure of the man (see above image to left). Drew was understandably upset about this, simply asking for “credit where credit is due.” And it makes one wonder how many other images have been appropriated by Tanenhaus’s team without credit.

[UPDATE: Jason has a brief writeup, which also references the conversation that Vollmann and a good cluster of us had afterwards.]

[UPDATE 2: Marydell also has a report up.]

Vollmann in New York

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to determine what the Vollmann fan base is like here in New York. (Regrettably, most of the Vollmann enthusiasts I knew were back in California. But don’t worry. I’ve only been here one month and I will almost certainly create a few converts.)

But for those who might be interested, the good folks at the Whitney have informed me that Vollmann will be there next week, in a conversation with photographer Richard Drew. The two will address “where images of brutality meet the limits of representation.” All this is tied in with a two-part series pertaining to the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. It all goes down on Thursday, July 12, 2007, at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $8; students and senior citizens get in for $6.

AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Vollmann Club Update

It’s been far too long, but I’ve updated the Vollmann Club site to reflect Mr. Vollmann’s current output (and I’ve also added a few additional links). Again, if you are a blogger who has (a) been to a Vollmann reading and (b) written about Vollmann, then please let me know. You’re qualified for entry into the Vollmann Club!

Although we’ve assigned specific Vollmann books to certain bloggers, we don’t mind multiple people covering it. We still need entries for a number of Vollmann volumes. At the very least, I’m hoping to fill in a few gaps before year’s end.

Next up: the Jack Butler Club?

BSS #109: William T. Vollmann II


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Distancing himself from emus.

Author: William T. Vollmann

Subjects Discussed: The relationship between The Atlas and Poor People, the dimensions of poverty vs. the moral compass, I.A. Richards’ poetic experiments, photographs, the problems with objective solutions to poverty, “More aid, better directed,” poverty based on psychological makeup vs. poverty based on environmental circumstances, the exploitation of people as a result of Kazakhstan oil, ethical choices and poverty, Vollmann revealing personal flaws in his text, Kurt Eichenwald, and why Vollmann pays his interview subjects.


Vollmann: I think that one of the mistakes that we have made with so many problems — including drugs, poverty, illegal immigration, sexual conduct that we don’t agree with — is that there is a technocratic solution, or even a one size fits all solution. Alcohol is clearly bad and it’s addictive. It’s dangerous. Fine. Let’s prohibit alcohol. Well, that didn’t work so well. And of course it didn’t stop people from doing the exact same thing with drugs and we’re just beginning to sense that maybe that’s not going to work so well either. It’s not working so well with immigration. And we haven’t made a lot of progress with poverty either. And one of the reasons is that people talk about some kind of objective solution. We throw a certain amount of money at the problem. If people are in bad housing projects, let’s tear them down and put them into new housing projects. Maybe some of those things might have useful effects. Maybe not. But they’ll only go a certain degree in addressing the problem. Because poverty is a state of being. It’s the way somebody feels. And if somebody feels that he doesn’t have enough. Maybe he has enough to eat, enough to sleep on, whatever. But he has so much less than the people around him that he feels humiliation and rage, and yet he’s above the minimal monetary standard for poverty, let’s say, then what solution do we have for him? So it’s a problem like so many of these social problems that involve communication skills and particularly require the ability to listen and individualize on the part of the prospective benefactor. And that’s something that we’re not good at.


Vollmann Club Update

One lingering side project: I plan to update the Vollmann Club site to incorporate all current Vollmann-related writings by VC members. Again, the only requirements of joining the Vollmann Club is (a) having a blog and (b) seeing Bill Vollmann at a reading. He’s currently on tour for Poor People. So there’s ample opportunity to fulfill the second criterion. If you want to hop on board, shoot me an email and I’ll hook you up. There are a few volumes that haven’t yet been commented upon.

Vollmann Gets Sampled

Pitchfork: “Sometimes O.Lamm follows his whims too far, as on “Electric Emily”, an allusion to a William Vollmann story with yipping samples and murky percussion that irritate more than they exhilarate.”

I’m very curious what O.Lamm would do with “Under the Grass” or “The Grave of Lost Stories” (both contained within Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs) assuming, of course, that the latter doesn’t count as “fan fiction.” (Thanks for the tip, Tito!)

Vollmann Transposed

Vollmann at Denny’s: “I hate to order food like this. I especially hate to disparage the work of someone who, like that short-order cook behind the counter, has put his life on the line for the ostensible purpose of serving patty melts, such as they are. In the hope of finding something more constructive to say, I decided to preface my Scram Slam with a meticulously cooked mushroom and Jarlsberg omelet.”

Vollmann at the bank: “I hate to stand in line like this. I especially hate to disparage the work of someone who, like that sexy but miserable-looking woman behind the counter, has had to cash endless checks for money that she will never get a cut of, save for the meager paychecks she collects, such as it is. In the hope of finding better use of my time, I decided to cash my check at the ATM machine.”

Vollmann on April 15: “I hate to file my taxes like this. I especially hate to cut into my writing time. I started a 900 page novel a month ago and am now almost finished with it. In the hope of finding more time to write about prostitutes in an obscure nation that you have likely never heard of, I have decided to commission the services of H&R Block this year.”


William T. Vollmann the Artist

The Winter 2006 edition of Scott Esposito’s Quarterly Conversation features many fine offerings, but, for understandable reasons, I’m quite partial to Terri Saul’s fascinating interview with Vollmann. Terri stepped inside Vollmann’s studio and talks with him explicitly about his artwork. There’s also this funny conversational exchange, in which Terri willingly sets herself up for Vollmann mischief:

WTV: So, if I were going to draw you, how would you want to be drawn?

TS: I think I’d let you decide, since you’re the artist.

WTV: Oh, that sounds good.

TS: How would you want to draw me?

WTV: It depends on whether you’d want to be drawn with or without clothes.

TS: I could think about being a model. Would you pay me anything?

Another Big Book Involving a Tunnel Not Authored by William Gass

The Independent‘s Matt Thorne talks with William T. Vollmann and the V-Mann spills a few details about many of the projects now at the forefront. Here’s Vollmann on Imperial: “I’m trying to tell the history of the US-Mexican border from earliest times to the present. I’m looking at how a line on paper can change things. When you first look at Imperial Valley it seems hot, flat and dull, but the more you look into it the more secrets you can find. There’s a labyrinth of illegal Chinese tunnels, which was considered to be a myth. But I finally got to go into these tunnels and they’re fascinating. There’s parquet ceilings and I found this velvet nude painting, and some old Cantonese letters I had translated. Some tunnels became brothels and gambling dens and valuables were hidden down there.” (via Jeff)

The Rainbow Connection

The SFist’s Sarah L. has a first-hand report of the first Survival Research Labs show in ten years. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because none other than William T. Vollmann chronicled the SRL’s theatrical destruction of machines in a section of The Rainbow Stories. Will there be more shows? Well, who knows? But Your Faithful Correspondent will try and get the inside skinny on this.

Vollmann Talks Death on NPR

William T. Vollmann appears in today’s edition of The Best of Our Knowledge, discussing violence and morality. You can listen to the show here. (Click on “06-27-23-B” RealAudio link.) Vollmann notes that the death of his journalist friend (chronicled in Rising Up and Rising Down) was an act of war and that “he has no hard feelings toward them.”

What’s particularly amusing is how the interviewer is astonished by Vollmann’s calmness. When asked about his own death, Vollmann responds, “If it happens to me, it will be…okay, I hope. That’s how you have to look at it.”

He also puts the Israel-Palestine conflict on the Moral Compass.

In Defense of Details

Scott offers a defense of Vollmann: “Yes, Vollmann gives us a lot of details–Pushkin, three corpses, the offhanded remark on the German language. Perhaps we could have stripped the Pushkin reference, gotten rid of two corpses, exed out the whole bit about the Nackenschuss. We could do all that, but then what would be left of Vollmann’s original intent, of his desire to communicate the clash of cultures during the war in Central Europe? Why, without Vollmann’s details, this war could be taking place anywhere. Besides, isn’t it interesting that whereas the Soviets have slogans, the Germans have words for executing someone through the base of their skull? And how keen of Vollmann to note that these Soviet peasants, whom all the might of the Soviet state was unable to bring together, were so swiftly and brutally stripped of their individuality by the Nazis?”

Vollmann’s Aesthetic Realism

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, Levi Asher offered a provocative and contrarian post (we really should have more of these in the litblogosphere) as part of his Overrated Writers Series, where he bemoans his own lack of time to read Vollmann’s oeuvre and suggests “when William Vollmann writes a straight story, he’s really not that different from any other talented writer.” What follows is a paper I authored and eventually abandoned last year, which should illustrate that Vollmann is not only profoundly different from your standard run-of-the-mill “talented writer,” but is writing fiction in a very innovative yet classicist way.]

Critics have called the novelist William T. Vollmann “passive-aggressive” (LeClair, 72) and “maddening in [his] overblown language and self-indulgent accumulation of facts” (James, 6). They have considered his work to possess “an element of self-absorption and egotism” (Grassian, 27), and have dismissed the seamy and frequently unpleasant underworlds he dares to chronicle as “a pimply-faced, jack-off-in-the-booth sort of truth.” (Hooper, 35)

These assessments, combined with Vollmann’s lackadaisical (though thawing) reception by academic critics, not only fail to consider the innovations within Vollmann’s voluminous output, but the unusual aesthetics that Vollmann has unfurled within the course of fifteen works , many of them over 600 pages, written over a mere sixteen years. Vollmann is not, as some have suggested, a mere information-obsessed postmodernist or a data packrat working in the territory of Gaddis, Coover or Pynchon, but rather an author who is carrying on the abandoned literary tradition of inhabiting aesthetic misery to unearth the world’s larger and more neglected truths. This, in itself, is a rather courageous act in a literary clime that, as John Aldridge has suggested, favors “conventional realism.” Vollmann then can be construed as a transcendental novelist pushing into “areas in which realistic details may become transformed into metaphors that embody more fully and precisely than realism the particular character of the writer’s disaffection.” (Aldridge, 18)

It is generally acknowledged that Vollmann’s first artistic breakthrough came with his second book, The Rainbow Stories, a collection of interconnected tales categorized along the color spectrum, an idea, as insinuated by the book’s opening epigraph and Vollmann’s preface, inspired by Poe’s “Berenice.” Poe’s particular rainbow is an altogether different sort of beauty, one with hues guided by “the wretchedness of the earth.” And it is within this book that we see the early makings of the Vollmann concern for aesthetics.

In the section entitled “Ladies and Red Lights,” Vollmann chronicles the many prostitutes of San Francisco, offering their stories from a first-person, quasi-journalistic perspective, as if to vouch for authenticity. Here is one such observation:

A prostitute came by, walking two little poodles on a leash whose coiffeur matched her own. — “Nice puppies,” a drunk said, trying very hard to pat them, but something in the air came between him and the puppies, so that he could not bend over, and he walked in a spiral instead. Finally, not being exceptionally sensitive to traffic, he walked out into the middle of the street, thought deeply, and took a moody piss. (93)

There are a number of interesting images here. We have the prostitute’s color coordination, a sartorial concern that is, along with the poodles, not altogether different from what an affluent might don on a Sunday afternoon stroll. We have a drunk who, despite being inebriated, strives for tactile affection — one might argue, the only beauty he might find in front of him. We have further the drunk being portrayed as a ruminator, albeit an intoxicated one, attempting to find a point of reference in the dilapidated territory of the Tenderloin, and these thought processes result in an act of bemused micturition.

Given Vollmann’s clear evocation of Poe in his preface, it’s worth noting that there are considerable similarities between Vollmann’s drunk and the drunk unearthed in Poe’s comic tale “The Man of the Crowd.” Both stories deal with a first-person protagonist observing the world and reporting back the shady perspective in infinite detail to the reader. But more importantly, there is the common aesthetic of ugliness coexisting with beauty, if not transcending it. Poe describes his drunk’s appearance, pointing out that “[h]is clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but as he came…I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture.” (479) Further, Poe’s drunk, similarly misconstrued by the narrator, likewise enters a cross-street and defies social folkways. “He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly, without apparent aim,” continues Poe. Eventually, when the drunk finally reaches his watering hole, akin to Vollmann’s measured voice, the contrast grows simultaneously dark and jocular: “The spirits of the old man flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death-hour.” (481) How much different is this from the red lights that Vollmann is so concerned about? In both worlds, it is illumination, which brightens the deviant behavior, rather than allowing it to fester unchecked in the dark.

Further, this notion of light as unwanted and impenetrable, of which more anon, is also prevalent in another of Vollmann’s key inspirations, Comte de Lautréamont. From Maldoror:

O poetic lamp! you who would be my friend if you could understand me – why, when in the night hours my feet tread the basalt of churches, do you begin gleaming in a way which, I must say, seems to me unwonted?” (87)

But where Poe’s tone is predominantly comic, it must be stressed that Vollmann doesn’t resort to a pedestrian glorification of the streets, transmuting his disaffections to a plane somewhere between bawdy aesthetic realism and a heightened hyperrealism where anything goes. The moment with the drunk, for example, comes immediately after men have hollered threats and catcalls to another prostitute. Like Poe, Vollmann’s ugliness coexists with beauty, but it may be something which serves as beauty on its own terms, even if it is a beauty that a reader might find more unpalatable than Poe’s.

In a considerably more disturbing section, “The Blue Yonder,” Vollmann chronicles a pathological man named “The Zombie” who singles out the homeless and kills them with Drano. Here, Vollmann’s juxtaposition of aesthetics gets a more audacious workout. We see two drunks fighting over a woman, “inspired far more by her than by the swimming greatness of the Transamerica Pyramid.” (334) The Zombie’s domicile, despite being a veritable hellhole, is nevertheless described as “a special place for special people.” (351) The Zombie’s fever is represented as “chills racing up and down his fingers like the arpeggios of a concert pianist.” (352) The emphasis here on architecture, locale and fine music not only beckons countless comparisons to Poe’s Gothic tone, but suggest that The Zombie’s atavistic impulses (or perhaps the world which creates them) are, in and of itself, beautiful in an exceptionally skewered way.

Or perhaps there are limits. We are eventually introduced to “The Other,” “a blondish daytime fellow who resisted diffusion” (346) who serves as a conscience and a clean-up man for The Zombie’s homicidal acts. But if The Other serves as a pure ethical liberator, let us consider this fantastic aesthetic:

Dirty light began to spread inside his room. He rose; he rubbed cold water on his eyes and stared through the window at the chilly greyness of the brick wall, but the note was still beside him, so he pulled his rubber gloves on contemptuously. (355-6)

Not only do we have an image which reinforces The Other’s intransigence to diffusion, but we have The Other making efforts to clear the whites of his eyes with water, a window that leads not to a view, but a texture that could very well be a modern update of a Poe-like mausoleum (or perhaps a reference to Montresor’s burden). It also recalls Lautréamont’s image – an illumination that may not be able to penetrate into certain hearts. There is the matter of “dirty light,” which foreshadows the grey motif and may also appertain to Jack London’s “[d]irty light filtering through the window” (19) in his journalistic exposé on the poor, The People of the Abyss. Perhaps because The Zombie and The Other are separate personalities battling within a pathological being, Vollmann is suggesting that there can be no hope for even the dirty sort of beauty sought by the Tenderloin drunk.

Aesthetics, however, are only one minor part of the equation. For in both of these sections, Vollmann punctuates these vignettes with footnotes which, in the former section, remark upon the dollar figure that some of these revelations cost Vollmann (or his alter ego) to listen to and, in the latter, how Vollman recovered “artifacts” from a trash can in Golden Gate Park.

This is not just the work of a novelist masquerading as an eccentric journalist, but part of a seminal stylistic device that is pivotal in understanding Vollmann’s distinctiveness as both a novelist and an aesthete. One of Vollmann’s early boosters was the novelist and critic Madison Smartt Bell. Bell recognizes Vollmann’s fiction as a “quest for ocular proof,” (42) noting that Vollmann was, contrary to his contemporaries, restoring the 19th century novel’s idea of an author entering his own text as narrator. But Bell, pointing out that the Vollmann narrator exists to establish trust between author and reader, concludes that Vollmann “has shown a way for an author to be present in the work and to manipulate it without undercutting its credibility.” (44)

This approach might be too easily categorized as hard metafiction, but when we consider an explicit reference to the act of authorship seen in The Royal Family, it becomes something more. During one point in this quite mammoth work, Vollmann mentions the difficulties he had pitching his novel-in-progress of prostitute life to New Yorker and Grand Street editor Deborah Treisman, who opined that his protagonist John was “a mere caricature.” Vollmann responds:

…what if I’d forgotten to bring anybody to life? The Queen’s but a figment, mouthpiece of my pompous symbology, her whores only grimy cardboard props dripping with the semen of the vulgar; Irene similarly assumes a merely erotic aspect; Henry Tyler remains limited to being Henry Tyler, which is to say, a grey nothingness. But John, now – oh, but John! How can he be a caricature when I can’t get rid of him? (577, emphasis in original)

Consider the unexpected candor here. It is inconceivable to imagine Faulkner, midway during a baroque jaunt through Yoknapatawpha County, pausing to comment upon the chinks in the armor. Or are these “grimy cardboard props” truly problematic? Perhaps this is all an aesthetic act to direct the reader’s attentions to the protagonist. But when one considers Bell’s idea of a narrator you can trust against the entreaties expressed above and the boosterism Vollmann maintains for his protagonist as a burning creation which haunts him and must be chronicled, then the aesthetic question takes on additional meaning. The aesthetic realism suffuses onto the novel’s very architecture itself.

In Vollmann’s work, the world itself is never completely safe. But the Vollmann narrator, whether purely or partially the real Vollmann, is there to make the reader safe, regardless of any confusing or disorienting aesthetics. And because the stakes here are high and the object is to keep this relationship at all costs, Vollmann’s narrator is willing to confess almost anything to ensure this trust, even undercutting his own progress as a novelist, if necessary.

Tom LeClair, writing in 1996, has taken a differing view of Vollmann from Bell, styling him as a “prodigious fiction” author to be ranked alongside Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace. LeClair singles out Vollmann’s first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, as one of the key tomes from a new generation of novelists who were educated in the Age of Information. He notes:

Collaboration with computers and other technology-assisted persons can create a contemporary prodigy, one less dependent on genetically inherited synapses, more free to direct the development of his or her own consciousness, more defined by the information he or she possesses. (15)

But Angels, as imaginative a debut as it is, hardly reflects the novelist that Vollmann has transformed into, nor, unlike later works, does the text particularly concern itself with the contrasting aesthetics or realism we are seeking out. Indeed, Vollmann himself dismissed his debut as “kind of a kid’s book,” noting that “it was too easy to just go on and on and have a good time making things up.” (Bell, 264) And in an interview with Larry McCaffery, Vollmann remarked that he did not care “to use pyrotechnics when they weren’t appropriate.” (15) Vollmann’s work may be “defined by the information” when we consider his explicit references to older authors within his text, his telltale aesthetics, or his concern for a particular realism, but is not Vollmann a contemporary prodigy by dint of the manner in which he organizes and frames his information? Are not his books, more than any potentially enabling technological device, the ultimate conduit for his aesthetic realism, the convergence point for his derring-do (for example, nearly freezing in Alaska for The Ice-Shirt or rescuing a Thai prostitute while researching Rising Up and Rising Down)?

I must point out that even in Angels’ phantasmagoric environs, there exists a prototype for the aesthetic realism of contrasts. The insect world within its pages is described as “rank greenness of moss and mold refracted into a million indescribable colors of chitinous splendor.” (548) But this is extremely rudimentary in comparison to the explicit classical references and meticulous depictions of striated worlds found in his later work, presumably because Vollmann can, only through this, voice Aldridge’s “particular character of the writer’s disaffection.” In fact, given Angels’ concern with an almost totally imagined environment (or perhaps, more fairly, the impression of one), it’s worth pointing out that the aesthetics within aren’t really more penetrating beyond the straightforward imagery needed to advance the tale.

Indeed, realism, albeit one involving the device of a Vollmann-like figure, has been of greater concern to Vollmann’s fiction than what might be styled pure postmodern hijinks.

Robert Reiben takes this notion of realism one step further, appropriating the term “dirty realism” from Granta founder Bill Buford and expanding it to include “the impulse in writers to explore dark truths, to descend, as it were, into the darkest holes of society and what used to be called ‘the soul of man.’” (43) Reiben identifies Thom Jones and Denis Johnson as early initiators of this sensibility, but when he gets to Vollmann’s work, he calls it American literature’s “most profound completion.” (52)

Like many, Reiben considers The Rainbow Stories to be “the real breakthrough” (53) and, in particular, praises The Atlas. And we are brought back again to Bell’s narrator as guide concept when Reiben notes, “The writer-witness has done what he can; perhaps he has done too much, more than a reporter ought to do. But in no way are we meant to judge his actions; ultimately, the vignette is not about him, but about some nameless cruelty in the cosmos that allows such situations to exist.” (57, emphasis in original)

I would suggest again that this “dirty realism” is nothing new in American literature, and that Vollmann is advancing the work of his literary progenitors to add more contemporary, historical and Third World depictions of life to the canon. And it’s worth mentioning that “dirty realism” of a certain stripe was recognized by none other than Herman Melville. Writing in The Literary World, Melville observed a “great power of blackness” within Hawthorne’s work, a quality that wasn’t readily apparent to all readers and that, furthermore, “furnishes the infinite obscure in the background.”

If a terrain marked with “the infinite obscure,” particularly the incongruous drunks, killers and auctorial woes that we have seen here, is the necessary coal to fuel the engine, then it might be argued that this “darkness” is an inevitable by-product of American literature which concerns itself with hard aesthetics. What makes Vollmann’s contributions so innovative, however, is not so much the subject matter, but the manner in which he has contextualized his aesthetics and narration. But in presenting readers with the down-and-dirty details and in presenting aesthetic shades that are often considered ineffable, Vollmann risks being misunderstood.

The young academic Daniel Grassian, in a book limning so-called Generation X writers, Hybrid Fictions, has found discomfort with the idea that Vollmann’s “social and political views are not always clear to the reader and hardly an asset to those around him.” (28) Grassian makes the mistake of framing Vollmann’s work into a consumerist context, suggesting that “his lower-class, American characters feel cheated of the ‘good,’ life [sic] and their frustrated desire frequently motivates them to join hate groups like the Skinheads and/or to become addicted to harder drugs which they use to combat their sense of worthlessness and frustrated desire.” (52)

But Judith Grossman points out another of Vollmann’s classical tendencies by observing his concern for “the staged reenactment,” an American rite of passage to be placed with apple pie. She notes:

It is never enough for Vollmann to sort out and meditate on history in the place it happened: rather, he is driven to repossess the crisis itself and to produce in his own person the look and feel of that conquest, that defeat. (157)

If Vollmann’s work represents a type of “never give up, never surrender” style of fiction, then it is small wonder why few have dared to track his development of aesthetic realism. For some, despite the rich rewards in style, atmosphere and imagery, like the real world itself sometimes, it is too daunting and too unsavory a challenge.

Works Cited:

Aldridge, John. Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1992.
Bell, Madison Smartt. “Where an Author Might Be Standing.” Review of Contemporary Fiction Summer 1993: 39-45.
—. “William T. Vollmann: The Art of Fiction CLXIII.” The Paris Review Fall 2000: 256-290.
Grassian, Daniel. Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, 2003.
Grossman, Judith. “Fiction in Review.” The Yale Review April 1994: 152-160.
Hooper, Joseph. “The Strange Case of William Vollmann.” Esquire February 1992: 35.
James, Caryn. “California Screaming.” New York Times Book Review 13 Aug. 1989:
Lautréamont, Comte de. Maldoror & The Complete Works. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994.
LeClair, Tom. “His Sister’s Ghost in Bosnia.” The Nation May 6, 1996: 72-75.
—. “The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace.” Critique 38 Fall 1993: 12-37.
London, Jack. The People of the Abyss. Reprint edition. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2004.
McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William T. Vollmann.” Review of Contemporary Fiction Summer 1993: 9-24.
Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and his Mosses.” The Literary World. August 17 and 24, 1850.
Poe, Edgar Allan, The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
Rebein, Robert. Hicks Tribes & Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Vollmann, William T. The Rainbow Stories. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
—. The Royal Family. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
—. You Bright and Risen Angels. New York: Atheneum, 1987.

The Bat Segundo Show #45


Guests: Paul Slovak, C. Max Magee, Carolyn Kellogg, Anne Moore & Dan Sinker, Lauren Landress, Terrie Akers, Camille March and Alan Davis.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Showing an unexpected grasp of history.

Subjects Discussed: How Slovak manages Bill Vollmann’s prodigious output, details on Vollmann’s Imperial and the upcoming A.M. Homes memoir, a report on “what Mr. Segundo did last night,” Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails, speculation on the Akashic Noir volumes, self-realization, yoga philosophy, on worshipping a god named “Ralph,” putting the “Other” in Other Press, Michael Tolkin’s The Return of the Player, travel guides, Marshall McLuhan, and having fun over the age of 25.


The Bat Segundo Show #26


Author: William T. Vollmann

Condition of Bat Segundo: A bit over his head and not particularly uncentered.

Subjects Discussed: Copernicus, the relationship between religion and science, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ptolemy, Intelligent Design and contemporary parallels, Iraq, life lived according to the “cash nexus” versus life in other countries, the Bush Administration as muse, politics in fiction, Shostakovich, on writing Rising Up and Rising Down and revealing individual human identities, research and Europe Central‘s historical inventions, how Vollmann creates vernacular, repeating phrases, Madison Smartt Bell, the use of narrators in Vollmann’s fiction, Lautréamont, Vollmann charms his escort, the two narrators of Europe Central, and Vollmann the entrepreneur.

(Special thanks to Ami Greko, Paul Slovak and the fab folks at Norton for helping to make this happen.)


The Vollmann Club Update

Some slight adjustments, including adding Scott’s take on Europe Central and adding the Copernicus book. My own long-delayed take on Europe Central, including why I believe it to be a major turning point in Vollmann’s career and why I named it one of the top ten books of 2005 (as well as my as yet unfinished post on The Rainbow Stories, which has been in my drafts folder for months) will come eventually. I’ll also share my thoughts on the Copernicus book, along with several non-Vollmann ones (including Seven Types of Ambiguity), in the next installment of 75 Books, whenever that will be.

In the meantime, if you’re in San Francisco, he’ll be at the Booksmith on Tuesday at 7:00 PM. I plan to be there. Feel free to say hello.