A Review of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion

Vollmann

(This originally appeared at a blog called Hysterical Realism on the platform Convozine, which recently went offline. I wanted to re-post it in part because of Okla Elliott’s recent passing. I didn’t know him personally but we connected through our interest in Vollmann in this article and stayed in touch via social media and email.)

 

There are only a handful of academic texts about second wave hysterical realists. Dalkey Archive published Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Sideshow Media Group released Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Now we have William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (WTVCC) by the University of Delaware Press.  These books are invaluable for readers looking to better understand these writers, their texts, and their place in the world of literature.

Vollmann is both prolific and sweeping in range. He has written about Native Americans, Japanese Noh Theater, hobos, prostitutes, and the history of violence. A reader might be an expert in one of these subjects but not all. Readers need a companion to sift through his range of materials and its relationship to style. And as Larry McCaffery states, “I believe it was Vollmann’s sentences—with their unexpected analogies and their evocation of sensual specifics, their odd mixture of lyricism and abstraction, their wit and self-mockery—that left their deepest impressions on me” (xiii). Vollmann is a tremendous stylist who often breaks with conventions. While the creative writers will want to know how he makes all of these texts work, the academic will ask why. In particular, Buell Wisner studies Vollmann’s use of Elizabethan form in Argall. How does he use style and language to compliment his substance? Or one can read Daniel Lukes’ piece that explores the presentation and reception of his male protagonists with regard to masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution—a defining topic in the Vollmann catalog. One needs a companion to help make sense of these topics. These articles go beyond superficial aspects and dive into why Vollmann is one of the most exciting writers alive.  McCaffery writes, “I soon discovered that Vollmann’s books had changed and disturbed me, challenged my assumptions, made me feel empathies for people I had ignored. And somehow they also INSPIRED ME, made me feel less cynical.”

I discovered Vollmann while living in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from Vollmann’s Sacramento base of operation. My writing instructors weren’t familiar with him. They knew him by name but hadn’t read much of his stuff. I first came across him at Green Apple Books.  Before I had read anything by him, before I had even purchased them, I would open them and study how they were organized. The table of contents to Rising Up and Rising Down, The Atlas, and Europe Central were unlike anything I had seen, revealing a sense of order, exposing a mind at work in way that could teach me something about how big books were built. The scale of those books was immense. His fiction leaned towards philosophy, history, and poetry. I remember getting Rising Up and Rising Down (the abridged version), Europe Central, You Bright & Risen Angels. I would start, typically reading the first twenty pages, but could never finish as a result of school assignments. But the writing in those initial pages dislodged something in me. His voice and sense of building sentences were unlike anything I was studying in school. I knew at some point I would return to his works and read them slowly and carefully, because something there was worth savoring.

For example, I remember standing in Green Apple, on the second floor, right where the stairs end, and there was the table covered with books, I picked up Europe Central and read this:

A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby…zzzzzzz…the critical situation…a crushing blow.

 

I didn’t know the terms encyclopedic narrative, maximalism, or defamiliarization at the time, but there was something about reading those lines that indicated to me that this book would teach me how to show the rockiness of the rock. Some would claim this type of writing a loose and baggy monster full of purple prose. Those terms carry a negative connotation. But I enjoyed it. Obviously some publisher thought it was worth producing. Someone somewhere was buying it, besides me—again at that point I didn’t know anyone reading him. I was reading in isolation, desperately wanting to connect with other people who valued this type of prose.

During those years of collecting, it seemed like a personal thing that no one else was a part of, a cultish following, which definitely defines many of Vollmann’s readers. I specifically remember asking a woman bookseller if she had anything by Vollmann. She said she did not carry any books “by that pervert.” A line couldn’t have been drawn any clearer. At that point I was well aware of Vollmann’s habit of smoking crack and hanging out with prostitutes in the Tenderloin. But as I read him, it was like Jesus washing the feet of prostitutes. He and so many of the figures in the book were lost causes, so much of the voice was sympathetic. I had never read someone who had such empathy for a group of people that are so often the detritus of capitalist America. The interaction with that bookseller made me aware of Vollmann’s cult status and might also explain why he is such an outsider in the mainstream literary world.

This critical companion is significant for a number of reasons. First, it makes the world a little less lonesome. Readers of Vollmann now have a book that can be found in the library that will offer them the silent conversation of academic discourse. Too often the academic world is purely professional, but for many it can be a place to connect with other like-minded individuals. This book is the starting point for learning and relationships, to say nothing of careers. Second, this book will help readers form a more nuanced understanding of Vollmann’s work, to look beyond superficial understandings of his public persona and to instead gaze deeply into the man and his work.

 

DANIEL LUKES:

Daniel Lukes, a co-editor, tackled one of the most salient issues in the Vollmann corpus—masculinity, sexuality, and prostitution. While often superficially addressed in book reviews, nobody to my knowledge has established groundwork for discussing these issues and how readers make sense of such topics. Lukes put together an MLA panel entitled “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” From there the project slowly snowballed into the book. “One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann,” Lukes said in an interview with Biblioklept[i]. I reached out to Lukes via email to ask a few questions about this book and his essay.

 

What is your perception of Vollmann’s place in contemporary literature?

 

I like what you say about the loneliness of the Vollmann reader: and how likely it is that even if your friends and colleagues count literature specialists among them, your direct circle might not include other Vollmann readers. He is something of an acquired taste or literary oddity, on some level, who has not quite attained either the critical or popular mainstream acceptance of many of his peers. I do sometimes wonder if Vollmann might ever pull a Cormac McCarthy and produce some late-career pop hits that make him more of a household name. In any case, literary history is full of authors who took a while to be recognized. Certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole project, first the MLA conference panel and then the book, have been contacting, meeting, and working with other Vollmannists, finding such a sense of camaraderie among them, and sharing conversations and enthusiasm. I recently read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and “The Part About the Critics” made me think of the growing Vollmann community and the particular challenges involved in doing literary criticism on a contemporary living author; not to mention being surprised by whatever he comes up with next.

 

When did you first start reading William T. Vollmann?

 

I first started reading Vollmann as a young man in my twenties living in London, and his explorations of loneliness made a major impression on me. You read and read and sometimes you find an author who somehow speaks to you in a particularly direct way, as if making your own thoughts and feelings more intelligible to you. For me literary criticism should involve some kind of giving back – to the writers that are important to you – by sharing your passion for them. So when I went back to grad school for my PhD in Comparative Literature, I always intended to work on Vollmann, in spite of the difficulties involved in studying authors who are non-canonical, or controversial in some way. I am very happy to see that in the decade since I started my PhD, Vollmann’s profile has only grown more solid.

 

Can you provide a contextual backdrop for the MLA conference panel on Vollmann that started this book? How did you and Christopher decide to go ahead with the project of assembling this book? What was your motivation to include the shorter non-academic essays in the critical companion?

 

At the MLA panel I remember a sense of amazement that this really was the first MLA Vollmann panel: Vollmann’s worth is self-evident to his readers, but there’s a sense among them that this worth isn’t recognized enough by the literary establishment. This contributes to the outlaw, perhaps even cultish aspect of Vollmann fandom. Vollmann is a writer who plays with the rules, and so even for our edited volume we felt we had some liberty to play around with convention. I can’t remember exactly how the idea for shorter, non-academic pieces came about, but as Chris and I decided on having interchapters, we considered as models for this approach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Vollmann’s own Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. I am very happy with how they came together: I think the pieces by Vollmann’s collaborators offer the kind of insights into his work that no academic critical piece could do, and thus are the most valuable parts of the book.

 

The relationship between Vollmann’s protagonists, women, prostitution, and sex is a significant issue in his collection of work. And it is often misunderstood. Can you talk about why this is such a significant topic for an academic to tackle and how it might open up a more complete and nuanced readings of Vollmann’s texts? 

 

As for the topics of sex and prostitution, they are a key part of his writing: they are probably what he is most known for and the biggest obstacle to his academic and mainstream acceptance. By being an unrepentant customer of sex workers – a john – Vollmann eschews the kind of scholarly objectivity that is usually posited when studying prostitution: his position is perhaps closer to the kind of immersive ethnographic work that includes in its analytical scope the sexuality and the desire of the ethnographer. At New York University I audited a class with anthropologist Don Kulick: two of his books, the edited volume Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork and his ethnographical monograph Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes were helpful to me in framing Vollmann’s work as being related to scholarly conversations seeking to deconstruct the would-be impartial objective observer of the global or sexual other. It has also been interesting to see how Vollmann’s prostitute writing aligns with sex worker rights activism over the years.

 

OKLA ELLIOTT

Besides emailing one of the editors, I contacted Okla Elliott to ask him a few questions, again via email, about his essay (“The New Universalism and William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down”) and forthcoming book The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press). Elliot is a creative writer and translator with a strong appetite for academic writing. This combination provides for fertile conversation and insight with regards to his essay on Rising Up and Rising Down.

 

What is your background with reading William T. Vollmann? What have you read? When did you first discover him? What influence has his writing had on your own?

 

Interestingly, when I first read Vollmann, I didn’t like his work at all. I started, somewhat unfortunately, with what I consider his two weakest books: Whores for Gloria and Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. After reading these in my early twenties, I more or less wrote him off as a writer I wasn’t much interested in. Then I read Rising Up and Rising Down and was hooked. And I was off to the races—The Royal Family, Butterfly Stories, You Bright and Risen Angels, Europe Central, Argall, Imperial, Kissing the Mask, Fathers and Crows, and Last Stories and Other Stories—more or less in that order, along with occasional shorter pieces in magazines. You could say I became somewhat obsessed, as is my habit when I get into an author.

As for his influence on my work, there is nothing apparent in terms of style, and any content overlap pre-existed my reading of his work. That said, he is a major influence on me in more indirect ways. His ambition (in the best sense of that word) has inspired me to work harder and bigger than I otherwise would have.

 

Can you tell me about your academic background? It seems that you are, at least on paper, far more of a creative writer than a philosopher. But your essay is quite technical. What was your motivation to address how Vollmann bridges the gap between relativism and universalism in Rising Up and Rising Down?

 

As an undergraduate, I double-majored in philosophy and German as well as double-minored in French and religious studies, so the philosophy angle has always been there. And my dissertation is half philosophy and half literary studies, with a major focus on Beauvoir, Heidegger, and Sartre, so the technical philosophy in my essay for the anthology is not out of character. You are right however that I am probably more of a creative writer than a philosopher or scholar, though I argue those categories are a lot more porous than we tend to think, especially for certain writers, Vollmann included.

As for bridging relativism and universalism, that has been one of my pet projects since my second semester as a philosophy major. Neither system alone seems to satisfy our deepest ethical concerns, so I think it’s really important to find the best of both and see what we can come up with—all the while admitting we will never develop an ironclad system of ethics. We’re going to fail, but we must fail better, to borrow a phrase from Beckett.

 

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (Dark House Press) has been described as being a blend of Nabokov and Philip K. Dick. But when I first read the description, I thought of Europe Central because of how both are set in a non-western context or point of view. This was long before I knew you wrote a critical essay on Vollmann. Can you tell me about the stylistic research you did with Raul Clement (co-author) to write an encyclopedic novel set in the Soviet Union? What texts did you actually look at as guides for building such an expansive novel?

 

A lot of my scholarly work deals with trauma studies, largely the Holocaust, but atrocities throughout the 20th century more generally. This research came in handy, as did my time studying in Poland, a culture we made broad use of in the novel. For example, the fictional author’s last name, Tuvim, is taken from a famous Polish poet in fact (spelled “Tuwim” in Polish, but pronounced the way we spell it, which we chose to do to prevent the perhaps comical and Elmer Fudd-like “too-weem” that most English speakers would construe it as). Raul and I did tons of research on the medical science of the 1970s as well as work on early surveillance, since the novel is set in a world less developed than our contemporary world. He and I have both also been great fans of Russian literature for years, so we had a lot of material already at hand before we began the process.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is priced for libraries. So before you jump on Amazon to buy it realize that it will come with serious sticker shock. But what you should do is harass your librarian (in the best possible way, with smiles and sunshine) so that they buy it, especially if the library is attached to a college or university. This book is a significant contribution to contemporary literature, the understanding of hysterical realism, and the understanding of William T. Vollmann.

 

 

[i] http://biblioklept.org/2015/02/19/an-interview-with-christopher-k-coffman-and-daniel-lukes-editors-of-william-t-vollmann-a-critical-companion-part-i/

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