I’ve started reading The Rainbow Stories as part of The Vollmann Club. The last book of Vollmann’s I read was The Royal Family, which was about four years ago. Scott has remarked on Vollmann’s tendency to repeat himself in that book, suggesting that Vollmann wants the reader to become as bored with this world as the whores are. The idea here being that Vollmann considers it a duty to indoctrinate his audience into the daily grind, something they (certainly not a suburbanite reclining on a chaise longue with a tumbler of bourbon and a book) may not be wholly familiar with and that indeed might make most readers shy away.
But I think Vollmann is doing something more audacious. He’s unafraid to comment directly to the reader about the character traits he finds important, or the very human observations of supremely troubled people, moments as valid as the hard details that Balzac remains celebrated for, but that contemporary literature often turns its back on. The interesting thing is that this results in his books resembling some confluence of hard reportage and Vollmann’s fervent imagination.
Consider this passage which describes Sapphire in Section 378 of The Royal Family:
I do not propose to ‘explain’ her, because I do not understand her. But I love her more than any of the other characters in the book, except perhaps for Domino, and I refuse to refrain from praising her. Should astronomers and ethicists ever succeed in proving that God resembles her, then lost and weary Cain won’t need to flee anymore.
And there is this similar address in an early moment in a radiology clinic in The Rainbow Stories:
The man after him was very calm, and did not wince when the needle went in. But he looked away. I think it is very funny that if you shoot yourself up four or five times a day you do not mind the needle going in, but you cannot bear to watch someone else do it.
Vollmann then remains a curious narrator, one willing to reveal his own limitations while simultaneously looking hard into the face of the truth (whether metaphorical or strictly observational) he sees and the truth that is often ignored on a daily basis right in front of us.
This is not exactly postmodernism and is it not quite journalism. It certainly offers us an important glimpse inside Vollmann’s consciousness. But I would suggest that, in openly confessing his amusement by something as horrifying as a junkie finding fear in a needle (away from his alley, away from a rotting apartment), or in pointing out that not even he (a no-holds-barred observer) can fully understand his subjects, Vollmann is more of a reassuring narrator than an opportunist or an outright mocker. His goal here is to humanize, but in selecting a tableau of lowlifes, he’s daring us to look beyond the easy labels of good and evil that antidrug campaigns, do-gooder reformers, and hazy two-hour sashays by self-proclaimed pundits often mistaken for qualified expertise.
It’s worth observing that The Rainbow Stories includes a revised color spectrum near its beginnings. And while colors themselves are used as starting points for this collection of sordid tales, the salient point here is that, if there is an idealistic goal somewhere over the rainbow, the human spectrum needs to be broadened beyond an easily recognizable selection of hues.