Will Repetition Destroy Vollmann’s Legacy?

While reading The Rainbow Stories, a book that I’ve been greatly enjoying (if kicking around with skinheads, drug addicts and terrorists can be “enjoyed”), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to some of the book’s parallels with other Vollmann ideas that appear later in his work. In Rainbow, several brief mentions, for example, are given to the failed artist as clerk, specifically the time that the clerk leaves (eight thirty). This reminded me almost immediately of Vollmann’s wonderful description of commuters entering the subway like dung beetles to their jobs in The Royal Family. But what strikes me is the specific nature of the image: (1) the office worker is masking some dormant artistic desire, (2) the office worker is thus a fraud, and (3) the nature of how the office worker commutes figures prominently in the office worker’s deceptive and/or duplicitious nature.

Another Vollmann fixation is the epigraph. Indeed, one cannot get through a Vollmann book without a reference to either a classical or off-the-beaten-track scientific work. He is perhaps more devoted to these than most writers. I would argue that these epigraphs represent Vollmann’s method of cementing his pursuits (whether journalistic or historical) into the recurring patterns throughout history.

The other commonality between The Rainbow Stories and The Royal Family is that, much like its later companion, Rainbow‘s narrative is composed largely of anecdotes, with frequent asides by Vollmann as narrator that clue us into his working methods. When talking to some strippers, for example, Vollmann leaves footnotes that express just how much a particular paragraph cost in dollars. It’s a curious yet fascinating technique. One would think that Vollmann walking around largely unprotected in the Tenderloin, chatting with lowlifes of various types, was a sacrifice in and of itself. But dollars are equally important in Vollmann’s world. It is money that allows him to continue doing what he does. It is money that often forms the motivations of his characters. And I suspect that it is money that has motivated Vollmann to include the bail bond chapter in The Royal Family.

In this fascinating Bookforum overview of William T. Vollmann, James Gibbons writes:

Whatever the personal cost, Vollmann’s graphomania foregrounds what it means to be prolific in an age when most people will devote only so much of their leisure time to reading. Perhaps there are some sort of tacit guidelines regarding output that “serious” writers are expected to follow, because Vollmann’s productivity has been, at best, a mixed blessing for his career. The truly prolific author, as distinct from the merely respectably productive one, is either a genre writer or a relic.

This is considerable food for thought. But when we consider that Vollmann, as prolific as he is, also resorts to repetitive images to come closer to a specific theme, to tie everything altogether, I wonder if this too might set him back. Scott has previously remarked on Vollmann’s use of repetition. And like him, I think that Vollmann’s rhythms add to his work immensely, perhaps aiding a reader plunging into an underworld that might be otherwise be ignored. But I think the repetition is invaluable to understanding Vollmann. I suspect that the man, much like Richard Powers, is a wildly ambitious and extremely erudite novelist who hopes to connect everything together. But where Powers leaves a lot of questions unanswered, wanting the reader to dig through his fantastic spates of consciousness, in his narrations, Vollmann is far more inviting on an emotional
level — that is, if you’re willing to take the plunge.

I’ll have more to say about Vollmann’s voice in my next Vollmann Club entry.

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