Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Maybe some context first. When they first published, William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace seemed like epochal authors. Both men were young and prodigious, functioning with an intelligence and curiosity and humanity that doesn't come along often. Both Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, and Vollman's, You Bright and Risen Angels, were released in 1987, seeming to herald new swatch of literary stars. Wallace's next novel, Infinite Jest, came in 1996 and cemented the bandana-clad author as the complicated voice of a complicated generation. Following his death in 2008, Wallace has been further elevated – I'd say deservedly so – to a status of cultural, generational figurehead. For Vollmann, however – though has never stopped publishing, producing a body of work that could be used to construct a decent fort in your living room – his audience and legacy have seemed tenuous from the word go.

It's not a competition between the two authors, or even a comparison – though Wallace did speak about Vollmann's output encouraging a bit of an inferiority complex in him – but it's interesting to see where two guys who started beside each other wound up. Wallace's continued readership has a lot to do with his relationship with pop culture, I think. As highfalutin and confounding and dense as Wallace got, he was – to a certain extent – grappling with many of the aging slacker issues that the broader culture was engaged with. As indebted as he might have been to, say, Wittgenstein, Wallace was likewise indebted to pot and TV. Vollmann makes – has always made – for a harder sell. He probably hasn't owned a TV in a while and, drug-wise, was mostly notable for experimenting, journalistically, with smoking crack during his time spent in San Francisco's tenderloin district. Where Wallace was very much an author of his time, Vollmann has always been something of an anachronism.

Young Vollmann
Prostitution dominated Vollmann's interests early in his career, and much of his reputation in the 90s had to with the hybrid fiction/biography of his personal patronage. In some lights, the ethics of his projects might have seemed a bit dubious; there was a gonzo-ness to Vollmann's efforts, though a serious, earnest, gritty version. This hasn't really changed since the 80s. His earliest salvo was as a passionate-but-wrongheaded 22-year-old kid running away to join the Taliban in 1982, looking to help the mujahedeen fight the Soviets. Subsequent visits to war zones as a journalist led to the epochal publication of Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven volume, 3 350 word essay on the history and justifications of violence. In the past decade or so, Vollmann's interests have been as varied as poverty, rail riding, and Noh theatre. 

Each subject has been studied with a hard-to-come-by depth, whether that means jumping trains or being made up as a Noh performer – the latter process opening up to Vollmann a drag persona, documented in last year's The Book of Delores. This far flung perspicacity could also go a ways to explain why Vollmann never managed to capture and hold the attention of a broader readership while also holding a devote, fanatical reader base. Reading Vollmann with consistency, you find that, over his varied subject matter, he has been telling a larger, deeper story all along. All this time Vollmann has always been telling a story of a single reality that's both transient and immovable.

Vollmann's most consistent project, and the work will most likely turn out to be his legacy, he sketched at the outset of his career. Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes chronicles the incessantly disastrous and compulsively cruel interactions between white Europeans and the indigenous peoples of our North American continent. Exhaustively researched and impressively thorough, Vollmann's project was ambitions in declaration and, so far, has been triumphant in execution. Throughout the 90s, he completed four of his threatened seven installments. Thoughout the 2000s, what was beginning to seem like abandoned ambition, a promise made with the aplomb of youth, Vollmann has picked the Seven Dream back up fifteen years later with the Infinite Jest-sized The Dying Grass

The first "dream" was released in 1990. Set in the 10th century, The Ice-Shirt offers both a mythology of Norse transformations as well as a history of their encounters with the indigenous people, dubbed Skraelings, who they "discovered" in what is now Newfoundland. As Vollmann would go on to do with all the subsequent "dreams", he mingles events in the past with his study in the present. The second dream came out two yeas later, thick in a way that would become a running joke through Vollmann's career – each book seems to feature an apology to an editor, and a promise that the next book will be shorter. Fathers and Crows addressed the Jesuit tampering with the Huron and Iroquois. Doing press for The Orenda, Joseph Boyden often cited Fathers and Crows as a "big influence". Vollman then jumped his chronology, releasing the sixth dream, The Rifles, in 1994. This entry is much more contemporary, keeping close to the 90s, to Northern Canada and the removal of the Inuit from Inukjuak, Quebec to Resolute, Nunavut. Here Vollmann made himself especially present, travelling to the magnetic north to recreate the Franklin Expedition. The seven year pause between The Rifles and the third dream, Argall – the de-Disneyed story of Pocahontas – might be best explained by the fact Vollmann chose to narrate the book in Elizabethan English, a technique that makes room for both expansive poetic moments as well awkwardly purple spates full of linguistic duds. 

Vollmann is not a hand-holder. These dreams are dense and rewarding books which live up to their designations as dreams, shifting from past to present, from fact to feeling to opinion, with little narrative notice. Vollmann appears in the dreams as William the Blind, casting himself as a sort of inadequate dreamer, these texts – these histories – become sort of burdens he bears – or wears, rather, as Vollmann "dons" these histories like garments, or "shirts." The preface to The Ice-Shirt makes for a decent preface to the whole, and is worth quoting in full:
Should I dream one dream or seven? – Anyone would prefer a single afternoon fancy to grease his heels, so that easy wings might flower there, and then he could play between blue skies and rooftops, but as I could never fly, having put on the Ice-Shirt, the Crow-Shirt and the Poison-Shirt, there is no hope in frivolous ambition. Any shirt, be it of ever so many colors, is but a straightjacket, which is why I see no beauty, nor hear of any, except among the naked. The clouds are as hard as stones, and we all dream one black dream – I however, will now dream seven, to which correspond the Seven Ages of WINELAND THE GOOD. Each Age was worse than the one before, because we thought we must amend whatever we found, nothing of what was being reflected in the ice-mirrors of our ideas. Yet we were scarcely blameworthy, any more than the bacillli which attack and overcome a living body; for history has a purpose (If not, then there is nothing wrong with inventing one.), then our undermining of trees and tribes have been good for someting. – Be it so.
After a fifteen year hiatus – during which time he received the National Book Award and was awarded a five-year fellowship/grant from the Strauss Living Award that provides $50,000 a year, tax free – Vollmann is dreaming and donning again. The fifth dream, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, at nearly 1 400 pages, doesn't arrive so much as thunk. Plumbing the battle(s) between Plains Indians and the US Army that took place between June and October of 1877, Vollmann, as before, fleshes out a history always at risk of becoming lacuna. The Washington Post just called it "brilliant and alive" and "the reading experience of a lifetime." Kirkus Reviews declared it "stunning" "note-perfect incantation."

But will anyone read it?

Ambition and commitment like Vollmann's doesn't really exist anymore, a reality described by the marketplace as much as by culture. A disinterest in big books as well as a lingering post-9/11 mistrust of history viewed through anything but a plain lens doesn't augur well. The popular acceptance of Vollmann's peer – that is David Foster Wallace – has much to do with a dual acceptance of Wallace's themes as well as the author's increasingly ability to hone his nuanced expression of those themes in such a way that it could be more wideley understood. In 30 years, Vollmann hasn't much budged. The shame of that isn't literary so much as it is personal. Vollmann's dream so far has been as seminal and profound as it has laborious and troubling. But we shouldn't shy away, because the reality of it is that it's our reality. 

The beauty, violence, and largess that Vollmann renders in his work is ultimately our making; his dreams are made of the residue of our actions, the shirts he puts on the troubling fashions we'd rather leave in the past. While size and scope will always be a deterrent, I can't help but think that it's likewise a reluctance to both account for what we've done – I'm talking about "we" in the majestic plural – as well as engage with an account of that past that might have readers steer clear from Vollmann. But I take a certain comfort in knowing that whether or not he's read widely – or at all – Vollmann will not change and not slow down and probably won't publish that short book he's been promising since 1992.

- Andrew


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