The Hysterical Realism Reading List (2019)

providence gathering at robert coovers (bradford morrow)

First Wave:

John Barth—Fiction: the Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Lost in the Funhouse (1968), LETTERS (1979); Non-fiction: the Friday Book (1984), Further Fridays (1995), Final Fridays (2012)

Robert Coover – The Origin of the Brunists ( 1966), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), and The Public Burning (1976)

William Gaddis—The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), a Frolic of His Own (1994)

William Gass—Fiction: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), the Tunnel (1995); Non-fiction: Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), the World Within the Word (1978), Finding a Form: Essays (1997), Test of Time  (2002), a Temple of Texts (2006), Life Sentences (2012)


(William H. Gass)

Joseph McElroy – Fiction: Women and Men (1986),  Night Soul and Other Stories (2011)

Vladimir Nabokov—Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1936-66), Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)

Thomas Pynchon—V. (1963) , Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1997), Against The Day (2006)


(A portrait of William Vollmann by Max Whittaker) 

Second Wave:

Roberto Bolaño—the Savage Detectives (1998), 2666 (2004)

Don DeLillo—White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Underworld (1997)

Junot Diaz—Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas (2004), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011), and The Bone Clocks (2014)

Richard Powers—Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988), the Gold Bug Variations (1991), Galatea 2.2 (1995), Plowing the Dark (2000), the Echo Maker (2006)

Salman Rushdie—Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), the Satanic Verses (1988)

George Saunders—Pastoralia (2000), the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005), In Persuasion Nation (2006)

Zadie Smith—White Teeth (2000), On Beauty (2005)

William T. Vollmann—Fiction: the Rainbow Stories (1989), 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs (1991), Europe Central (2005), Fathers and Crows (1992), the Royal Family (2000); Non-fiction: Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), Poor People (2007), Imperial (2009)

David Foster Wallace—Fiction: Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Infinite Jest (1996), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999); Non-fiction: a Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Consider the Lobster (2005)


Third Wave:

Michael Helm – After James (2016)

Adam Levin – The Instructions (2010)

Martin Seay – The Mirror Thief (2016)

Aleksandr Tuvim – The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (2015)

IMG_4052 (1)

                         Classic Baggy Monsters/ Encyclopedic Narratives:

Miguel Cervantes—Don Quixote (1605 & 1615)

Charles Dickens (Complete Works)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky—Crime and Punishment (1866), the Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Homer—the Odyssey (8th BCE)

Leo Tolstoy—War and Peace (1869)

Herman Melville—Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Francois Rabelais—the Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (1532-1564)

Marquis de Sade—Justine, of the Misfortune of Virtue (1791), Juliette (1797)

Laurence Stern—the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)

William Makepeace Thackeray—Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero (1848)


Jean Baudrillard—Simulacra and Simulation (1981)

Jeremy Campbell—Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life (1982)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), a Thousand Plateaus (1980)

Jacques Derrida—Of Grammatology (1967)

Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett—the Mind’s I:Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981)

Ludwig Wittgenstein—Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Philosophical Investigations (1953)


(N. Katherine Hayles)

                                           Writing and Literary Aesthetics:

M.H. Abrams—the Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953)

Erich Auerbach—Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953)

Mikhail Bakhtin—Rabelais and His World: Carnival and Grotesque (1965), the Dialogic Imagination: Chronotope, Heteroglossia (1975), Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics: Polyphony and Unfinalizability (1984)

Wayne C. Booth—the Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), the Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction (1988)

Francis Christensen—a New Rhetoric (1967)

Stefano Ercolino – The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2014)

N. Katherine Hayles – Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (1991), Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990), How We Become Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999), and My Mother Was a Computer (2005)

Richard A. Lanham—Style: an Anti-Textbook (1974), Analyzing Prose (1983)

Tom LeClair – The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction (1989)

Nick Levey – Maximalism in Contemporary American Literature (2017)

Steven Moore – The Novel: An Alternative History (Beginnings to 1600/ 1600 – 1800)

Franco Moretti – Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez (1996)

Robert Nadeau – Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel (1981)

Viktor Shklovsky—Theory of Prose (1925),  Energy of Delusion: a Book of Plot (1981)

Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg—the Nature of Narrative (1966)

Henry P. Stapp – Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics (1993)

Peter Stockwell – Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (2002)

Susan Strehle – Fiction in the Quantum Universe (1992)

Wylie Sypher – Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature (1960)

Joseph Tabbi – Cognitive Fictions (2002) and Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System (2007)

Tzvetan Todorov—the Poetics of Prose (1977)

Katie Wales – A Dictionary of Stylistics (1990)


(Leslie Marmon Silko)   

                                                     Influential Voices:

Jorge Borges (Complete Works)

Mikhail Bulgakov—the Master or the Margarita (published in 1966)

John Dos Passos—the 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), the Big Money (1936)

Thomas King—Green Grass, Running Water (1993)

Milan Kundera—the Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), the Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), the Art of the Novel (1986)

Matthew Lewis—the Monk (1796)

David Markson—Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)

Toni Morrison—the Bluest Eyes (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987)

Alice Munro—Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), the Moons of Jupiter (1982), the Progress of Love (1986), the Love of a Good Woman (1998), Runaway (2004)

Haruki Murakami—the Elephant Vanishes (1993), the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), 1Q84 (2011)

Flann O’Brien—At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

Leslie Marmon Silko—Almanac of the Dead (1991)

Jean Toomer—Cane (1923)

Lance Olsen – (Complete Works) 



William Faulkner – (Complete Works)

James Joyce—Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922)

Franz Kafka (Complete Works)

Marcel Proust—In Search of Lost Time (1913-27)

Gertrude Stein (Complete Works)

Virginia Woolf (Complete Works)

                                          Beat Generation and Friends:

William Burroughs—Naked Lunch (1959), the Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964)

Allen Ginsberg—Howl (1956)

Jack Kerouac—On The Road (1957), Visions of Cody (1960), Doctor Sax (1959)

Ken Kesey—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)

                             OULIPO (Workshop of Potential Literature):

Italo Calvino—Cosmicomics (1965), Invisible Cities (1972), If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979)

George Perec—W or The Memory of Childhood (1975), Life: a User’s Manual (1978)

Raymond Queneau—Exercise of Style (1947)


David Lynch—Films: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1992), Inland Empire (2006)

Zak Smith—Paintings: “Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow

In 2013, I published “The Hysterical Realism Reading List” in an attempt to share what I began to see as body of works that seemed related based on features that included innovative narrative techniques, flamboyant use of style, encyclopedic nature, and massive scale. These books fascinated me because they challenged me as a reader. I often turned to supplemental texts to shapen my understanding of the primary sources as well fiction in general. My academic background is in creative writing and I didn’t have the opportunity to dive into a deep study of the domain of innovative literature. In many ways the secondary sources added to this list have been an academic program of sort, one that allowed me to gain a greater understanding of innovative fiction and stylistics. The inclusion of secondary sources is where you will note the greatest growth of the reading list.

I have used bold to indicate additions to this list. Many of the books were lightning bolts that brilliantly illuminated my mind. My motivation here is to share what excites me and has proven valuable in my reading. I easily could have included every academic book about included authors, but I have decided against doing that. Between academic data bases, search engines, and Amazon—it’s pretty easy to find Steven Moore’s book on William Gaddis. The texts included tend to be those hidden gems that aren’t directly apparent because some algorithm hasn’t made the connection yet.

I have also included a “third wave” of writers that include Adam Levin and Michael Helm. These writers started publishing after 2010 and seem to be influenced by second wave authors—and I’m sure first wave authors as well. This group is also very much tied to hypereducated cis white males from (upper) middle class backgrounds.

Identity politics is the elephant in the room with this list. So much of this genre is by heterosexual white men. I’m going to openly acknowledge it. What originally inspired me to study hysterical realism is how the writers used language to bend the representation of reality, to bend the sentence to a point of almost breaking. These were writers I knew and found in bookstores. I went to what I knew at that time, to those who were celebrated as being innovative—so many of them are white men. While I started there, my goal is to move beyond–not because white is bad or wrong but because there is much, much more.


(Kiini Ibura Salaam) 

I have put a concerted effort into reading widely and reviewing books by innovative authors with diverse backgrounds. Since the original reading list’s publication in 2013, I have written about Erika Wurth, Angela Woodward, Ramón Saizarbitoria, Eloy Urroz, Marie NDiaye, and Lindsey Drager. All are wildly different writers that have taught me about the potential of storytelling. Presses like Dalkey Archive, FC2, Dzanc Press, and Two Lines Press consistently release books that challenge and captivate me. There are also plenty of writers that I have joyously read but haven’t written about, such as Amber Sparks, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Susan Steinberg, Julio Cortázar, Fiona Maazel, and Melanie Rae Thon. While I don’t consider them hysterical realists—they are all innovative writers that I have enjoyed. And there are writers who I have barely had a chance to read, giants of writing like Lidia Yuknavitch, Julián Ríos, Octavia Butler, and Abdourahman A. Waberi. I subscribe to Conjunctions literary magazine in search of new voices and follow writers like John Madera–check out The Big Other— who overwhelm me with reading lists. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Besides my updated reading list, please consider reading texts from the following sources:

Quarterly Conversation,
Daniel Green,
Latin American Literary Canon,
Larry McCaffery’s The 20th Century’s Greatist Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction,
Zinzi Clemmons’ Where is Our Black Avant Garde,
Experimental Women Authors (Wikipedia List).

Below is Lance Olsen’s reading list from The Architecture of Possibility from Guide Dog Books

William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies

I spent a good part of my summer reading these books. As always, Vollmann transformed my understanding and thought process. His nonfiction always examines the observational and subjective minds behind the decision making process. In this instance, the focus is on humanity’s crippling inability to address climate change. Cynical but essential reading.


“Throughout the books, Vollmann addresses a hypothetical future reader—one from a future when climate change has made life beyond difficult. These books apologize to that reader. Vollmann speculates about the reader’s hardship and tries to explain the creature comforts of cooking with natural gas, cooling a house with an air conditioner, and flying around the world to write a book about global warming. Vollmann openly acknowledges, “I myself, an American born in the mid-20th century, enjoyed the best life that carbon could give.” Vollmann claims that reducing the demand of energy had been our only hope—one that we failed to live out. This points to the fact that we humans are more attuned to the short term than the long, more concerned with the local weather than the earth’s climate, the community we associate with than the strangers of the human race. Vollmann points out that after all the technological improvement, the source of all these problem is human nature—a cynical but honest assessment of our values and notion of progress.”

You can find the rest at Brooklyn Rail


A Review of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion


(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, 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.



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.