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.


  1. Wednesday 07 June 2006. 5:24 PM

    Sir —

    James Wood on “takedown”:

    “I detest that verb. For one thing, no review ever does ‘take down’ a writer: the writer has a way of popping up very punctually, three or four years later, with another offering. For another, a serious critique, of the kind I have written of UNDERWORLD or PARADISE or WHITE TEETH, takes nothing down; it takes something seriously […] The issue has never been ‘snark’; it has always been intelligence, and writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise.”

    — from n+1, Number Three, Fall 2005.

    J. D. Daniels

  2. Fair enough….I meant “takedown” as shorthand for “corrective to too much uncritical praise.” Has Vollmann gotten a really lengthy bad review since Lee Siegel dumped on “The Royal Family” in The Nation?

  3. Thursday 08 June 2006.

    Sir —

    I don’t think anyone could mistake this slipshod sentence (from the above essay “authored and eventually abandoned last year” by Champion; that is, not bashed out in the heat of the online moment, but painstakingly assembled) —

    “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.”

    — as the product of an alert intelligence. Champion owes his readers better work than this. It shows few signs of the deep acculturation that causes us to take a fellow reader seriously: subject-verb and subject-pronoun agreements, the power to distinguish “skewed” from “skewered,” and so on. And it goes a long way toward explaining why Champion isn’t pained by Vollmann’s stammering. Careful readers are careful writers; trustworthy music critics do not rise from the ranks of the deaf.

    J. D. Daniels

  4. Like i said, “eventually abandoned” meant that I hadn’t done another pass on it. But I’d sooner quote Raymond Chandler:

    “Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”

  5. Thursday 08 June 2006.

    Sir —

    File under “bashed out in the heat of the online moment”—that “as” in my third paragraph should be “for.” What do you say we trade for that “I did, in fact, meant” of yours, and we’ll call it even?

    In Chandler’s able hands, the split infinitive is a lovely thing; under Thelonious Monk’s fingers, the “wrong” notes became the new right notes. Authority inheres in the style.

    “Skewered” may have been a pun (I wondered) but I’m not likely to be convinced that your “emphasis … not only beckons … but suggest … [and] impulses … are, in and of itself” were written “with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive.” Chandler would have been appalled. I am merely surprised. The method is not perfect; in fact, it isn’t good enough.

    Vollmann, too, seems to think it is enough to mean well, as if he’d never heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He famously refuses to be edited (cf. “We Never Make Mistakes”) in book form, and has said, attempting to excuse his life as an edited freelance writer, that “we are all prostitutes.” This is silly, but it’s the sort of thing a Vollmann enthusiast apparently finds impressive. Why? Is that reader so eager to regard himself as a prostitute or as some other denizen of the demi-monde, imagining this will be a kind of hipness-upgrade? The idea is as suicidally misguided today as it was when Baudelaire and Gautier were hawking it to their confrères.

    And why is the thing itself silly? Vollmann equates the middle ground reached by the slightest concession of his authority to the compromising of a prostitute’s bodily integrity: when he gets edited, he feels like he’s getting fucked. This figurative language would be more acceptable from a writer who isn’t trying to come off as our greatest living expert on hookers. Vollmann, of all people, ought to know better; but information is not knowledge. Can’t we help and correct one another? Don’t we have something to give one another—something besides the clap?

    “Since the underlying reason for writing is to bridge the gulf between one person and another, as the sense of loneliness increases, more and more books are written by more and more people. … Forests are cut down, rivers of ink absorbed, but the lust to write is still unsatisfied. What is going to happen? If it were only an index of writing, it wouldn’t matter; but it is an index of our health. It’s not only books, but our lives, that are going to pot.”—W. H. Auden.

    Well, is that the underlying reason for writing—to bridge the gulf? The difference is between civil and vatic writing, or between sexual intercourse and masturbation.

    Do you think it pleases me to dislike Vollmann? It makes me feel left out. Here I am, at Vollmann Online Headquarters.
    Maybe the two of us can have a conversation, instead of delivering parallel monologues.

    J. D. Daniels

  6. Yo, J.D., on my way out, but know that (a) I’m fond of your formal vernacular and (b) I’m happy to have a conversation, particularly with a fellow eccentric. We’re probably not all that dissimilar.

  7. Ed – Since you quoted from my essay on Vollmann here, I’d like to add something further on the question of V’s status. This is as you indicate a hugely gifted, original writer, but driven by a furious, unending compulsion to atone (as he’s well aware); and only sometimes can he integrate the private compulsion with an equally strong theme. This happens in his early collections, Rainbow Stories, and 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs, also in the historical novels The Ice-Shirt, Fathers & Crows, and The Rifles, for instance. Inevitably, though, there’s serious unevenness & repetitiveness in his body of work – and I suspect the integrative machine may be running down. . . .

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