Thursday, August 21, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Argall": Book Review

If "Fathers and Crows" compliments Brian Moore's novel and screenplay for "Black Robe" in its dramatization of native meetings with Europeans, the next installment of Seven Dreams anticipates Terence Malick's "The New World". Based in that settlement of Jamestown, the title of William T. Vollmann's third
"dream" of North American landscapes (unlike that theoretically most common of all names John Smith, the now-Disneyfied Pocahontas, and the generic if evocative name for Malick's film) may attest to the difficulty for a contemporary writer of finding a fresh phrase for this mythologized, romanticized 1607 encounter.

After all, who is Samuel Argall? It's well past a hundred pages of another vast Vollmann-generated Dream before we hear of him. Readers of "Fathers and Crows" met him briefly when he drove French Jesuits out of Acadia. Like Smith, he's a pirate; unlike "Sweet John" (two shipwrecks, ambitious, enslaved by Turks, a reader of Machiavelli, conniving Lincolnshire lad rising from the muck, reliant on luck and pluck) we don't regard him via Vollmann's generous, erudite interpretation.

Instead, we meet the Deputy Governor of Virginia as already slippery. "My servile eyes cannot spot him; he's embodied Absence; he's a fist in a cloud." (108) John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" and Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" expressed our sensibilities filtered through the antiquated orthography and the idiom of colonial America; Vollmann's channeling of this vernacular compares with his incorporation of Norse sagas and Inuit lore in the first Dream "The Ice-Shirt" and the Jesuit Relations and Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for "Fathers and Crows" but the diction rolls forth smoothly enough. If one can handle Shakespearean English, one can navigate almost 750 pages here.

As before, sly humor leavens density. Young Smith, desperate to leave his muddy environs to serve as a soldier or a sailor, bristles in Lincolnshire. Whiling away time, after losing out on his inheritance, he enters church. "Reverend Sadler sermonizes well, like unto some glib scoundrel in plague-time who turns a dead body out of doors before it's discovered, to keep his house from being sealed up, but Smith doesn't listen. His fancies go a-blobbing for eels." (64-5) The sea calls him. After adventures upon it and on land, fighting for princes and ransomed from the Turk, in 1606 as a captain in his twenty-sixth year Smith sets out for the new colony of Virginia to secure at last his share of fortune.

"Salvages rose up invisibly all around like sprites or unkenned monsters whilst the Adventurers rush'd bewildered." (145) Vollmann captures the tension as the English advance, armed and eager to revenge the loss of the Roanoke settlement to the "Naturalls". Powhatan enters the squalid saga, and John Smith, out of favor and suspected by his fellow captains for subversion given his obstinate attitude as he struggles for promotion, is taken by the enemy chief who took on the name of his tribe.

The mythic meeting of Pocahontas (still prepubescent) and Smith occurs about a third of the way into the main narrative. "Legend being strangled rather than nourished by any abundance of natural fact", the omniscient teller notes how "rapidly" the best sources, Smith and William Strachey, pass over her fabled intervention that saves the captain from the end of his doomed comrades. (225) Drained of the tension between God and gods that found the Wendat/ Huron people "converted safely to destruction" as Vollmann's endnote phrases their fate (706), the scrabbling in "Argall" over no gold, no Northwest Passage, and Smith's ambitions to command authority as he leaves from English fens for Virginian swamps bogs this down in squalor and strife. But that fits. For, martial scuffles here lack supernatural dimensions sought by Jesuits and shamen in "Fathers and Crows". Instead, we endure petty bickering.

Unlike their French Catholic rivals, who for all their zeal attempted to ease the brutality of fellow traders who swept into Canada, the English invaders via Vollmann possess a rapacious attitude that trims the payback for their mission to "rum & quim" given the absence of any precious metals or a Chinese shortcut they have been commissioned to exploit. Paucity makes their long march through these sticky, thinner forests not as vivid, if as dutiful. Powhatan's confident people fear far less their torture and roasting by hordes of sharp-shorn enemies, nor do they construct their sense of honor and exchange on such an intricate culture as do the eternal foes the Huron and the Iroquois. Instead, gruff settlers and natives square off, each armed. Each side expects deceit; each hides its blunt advantage. "We'll remain as your friends, as long as you give us reason to be so." (288) Thus Smith negotiates with Powhatan's neighbors, bringing guns to back up the colonists' request for corn, before terrifying the natives with fireworks. A curt capitalist compact financed by "Undertakers" reduces all to profit.

Finagling his way into the presidency of an increasingly parlous Jamestown, as winters, disease, and famine ravage the settlement, Smith models his brief reign after Machiavelli. Longing to be his own prince, Smith will "Enclose & Adventure anything; he'll flitter from Towne to Towne to get provender for his Colonists, as if he were their Servaunt; he'll wring the Salvages out of their cornfields forever, & drive 'em into the ooze". (303) But, outmaneuvered by rivals, Smith, badly burned, leaves floundering Virginia, never to return. As Governor De La Warre muses: "Amongst alligators, he who denies to bite must lose his watery Kingdome." (395) Under him, Argall, and Thomas Dale, the experiment of self-rule sloughs into despotism, as a scorched earth policy and the fear of starvation or annihilation festers. "Brought into formal unison, the Colonists of James Towne grew changed into sweating beasts whose bare flesh quivers in anticipation of the lash." (396) The novel barely passes its halfway point. The same self-destruction confronts the reader that Vollmann's "Europe Central" conveyed from the Soviet- Nazi showdown: we watch as humans gape at corpses.

Vollmann segues into a delicate rendering of Powhatan's paternal solicitude for the jilted Pocahontas. The author creates a gentler tone, more contemporary in style but evocative of their native mindset, to illustrate this difference from the brusque English. Still, the future darkens as forces realign, for no longer can the nation survive apart from intruders. At her wedding to Kocoum, "her father shattered a roanoke-string upon their heads, so that the white and purple beads came sizzling down". (385) The natives' restive predicament, resenting rapacious foreigners, worsens after Argall's arrival in 1609.

Unwilling to put up with Powhatan's patience, the colonists inflict tribal genocide. A standout chapter details the slaughter of the entirety of Paspahegh-Towne; an endnote credits a fiery speech given by the captain prior to the burning of the village with inspiration from an encomium given to the SS by Heinrich Himmler. Vollmann evokes eerie incongruity as men skewer men, women, and children. Seventy soldiers "ran happily to and fro, like unto a Fire-Brigade compris'd of children". (418)

As Argall exerts his power over Pocahontas, held hostage to force Powhatan's capitulation, Vollmann deepens his investigation of control by systems, one of his career's key concerns. The captain gloats: "With the bread of his authority he'd wipe up all her sauce!" The captive princess mutters, afraid and resentful: "And always the fear of what would happen in the end was with her." (464-5) Knowing the decimation of her neighbors, she shares with her kin the realization that "Sweet John" along with all of the invaders from the East have used her people only for their own gain. She ponders her fate.

Thomas Dale confides in a reverend charged with her conversion, and that of her people. "Tolerate any heathenishness, until all their greatness be crush'd. Then set 'em aright. As soon as we've knocked Powhatan off his feet, we'll raise a Church in e'ery shire." (476) As often in this Third Dream, the colonists, after their coercion of the Irish, use that lesson to impel another indigenous capitulation. As pawns in this imperial game, the princess and her hesitant suitor, tobacco grower John Rolfe, find themselves united. Dressed in European garb, speaking her second language, christened Rebecca, bearing their son Thomas, named after the governor of a Virginia expanding beyond palisades to plantations, Pocahontas rejects her brother-in-law's appeal to run back to her jilted husband Kocoun.

In "Fathers and Crows", Born Underwater repelled Jesuit ministrations while she manipulated Jean de Brébeuf. Her counterpart, Pocahontas, cannot hold out, for she lacks as did her Huron contemporary the protection of a vigilant native husband. Both of their peoples faced decimation after invasion. Giving in as a hostage, she shrinks from the "scorched place" which practically delineates the punishment meted out to her native neighbors, and which symbolically separates her from her new spouse. To regain terrain, she resolves to use the opportunity of a voyage east to appeal to the mercies of a king the equal of Powhatan in her estimation. But 1617 London overwhelms her. Its people eat meat, although they do not hunt. Consumption weakens her. She fails at her presentation to King James and Queen Anne to speak to them on behalf of her people. Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe "went home to the Belle Sauvage Inn. They were o'ertowered by the clucking clocks of Policy". (579)

Implementing policy, Argoll twirls his mustache and acts the role of Jacobean villain masterfully. Like Iago, he shrouds his motives, hiding behind ironic ripostes. Called "Daemon" by Dale, the manipulator of Powhatan, Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe "thought 'twas most politick to hold the Yndians firmly as to all their promises, yet flout his own". (608) Treaties matter not, and the tribes give in as did their first representative and exemplar, the little princess when Argall kidnapped her.

However, Vollmann avoids stock heroes and villains. His female protagonist keeps understandably shrewish, and her English husband conveys a mixture of conniving and confusion as his tobacco plantations, guided by his wife's advice, flourish even as their marriage flounders, and their son Thomas finds himself adrift, as in need of patronage and intercession as humble John Smith had and will again. For, the Second Dream ends suddenly, at the funeral of Pocahontas in England.

Smith had met, in this book's telling, her before her death. Coughing into a handkerchief, she turns away from the man she had been told had died. Her husband John affirms to "Sweet John" that she had spoken often of the man whose life she had saved, and this episode, reconstructed by Vollmann from the fragmentary records and enriched by his careful placement of facts within his fiction, deepens the human impact needed to soften the blunt tone of Argall and his menacing minions. All three suffer under that piratical captain's machinations, and Smith's autumnal reflections, on his lost princess and his lost colony as his own demise looms (for he too must beg for preference in vain after his return to England, as he haltingly writes his reports of Virginia), color the Dream's last portions.

Typically, this novel snaps with a steady, satirical lash. "Safely dead, she could never turn against her newfound Countrymen. Didn't that make her the only Yndian of whom such could be said?" (617) "Converted safely to their destruction" as Vollmann says of the Huron, so now for Powhatan's people. They dwindle, laws against miscegenation are passed by 1658, and by Jefferson's time, only remnants of Powhatan's tribe, and many more, can be found in the Commonwealth. Yet Powhatan exterminated a rival tribe. The narrator rationalizes how natives took over their old dominion, similarly brutal. "Don't Salvages themselves tree a bear, then shoot him with an arrow? Don't they run down turkeys without pity? 'Tis but our nature to hunt what we can, to burn every bear out of his den." (643)

Meanwhile, Argall in an aside introduces slavery to Virginia. He lingers long on the stage, and slips away as he arrived, with readers or teller uncertain of his own inner compulsions. Left to relate the fates of all those nations who had met and fought and bred together, Vollmann as in his previous installments of the Dream brings us to the near-present, and places himself within his setting. "Old Virginia's heavy, weary afternoons once surrounded by green and stink now lie bled paper-white by English leechcraft. They live only in the void ground of old books." (658) Through this 2001 novel, Vollmann revives the common ooze of Lincolnshire and London, Jamestown and Chesapeake, and in this thick, sultry landscape he finds a tale as compelling as the Dreams before and after set within ice.

(He reviewed his own novel for the Los Angeles Times. I reviewed this for Amazon US 1-19-14.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Royal Family": Book Review

After I read the gloomy obsessions of love or lust in the companion piece for this novel, in the briefer "Whores for Gloria" set in the Tenderloin and "The Butterfly Stories: A Novel" in Thailand, a sustained immersion into, as of the early '90s, the not-quite-tamed streets where Vollmann lived and wandered takes its time as it draws you in. Whereas the two earlier novels followed a misfit narrator into the lairs and bars where women plied their trade and sought to secure his affection, for this 2000 noirish tale, we get a gumshoe protagonist and sly antagonist who are brothers, to square off. 

Yes, Cain and Abel, good and evil, are early on referenced via the Gnostics. Vollmann sets up well in its early stages the predicament of another forlorn woman whom the main character longs to comfort and keep, but cannot. Whereas Jimmy (he gets a cameo here, and so does the author as a "moon-faced" journalist) for Gloria and the "journalist" for Vanna in "Butterfly" found their fevered quests dragging them deep, Tyler (Hank to his louche lawyer brother, John) loses his brother's wife, Korean-American Irene, to death. Her plight, like that of other bereft men and women Vollmann tends to listen to and dramatize (such as John's mistress Celia), lingers. We miss her. Accepting his depictions of these beaten down folks, we side with Hank, Celia, and Irene. These, to me, proved more engaging than the tales of grimy johns.

Into this seedy situation, Tyler's sent by one Brady (a cartoonish conveyance of greed and prejudice, reminding me of the White Power + Light villains in "You Bright and Risen Angels") to seek out the Queen of the Whores; his brother is also hired by the same tycoon, so the two stare each other down. John is a wonderfully boorish greed-is-good type, akin to the photographer in "Butterfly"; against him, Vollmann uses the familiar for him perspective of the bullied boy turned hesitant man as Tyler.

Not only San Francisco's fog and vistas but Sacramento's railyards and dust gain attention, too. There's a pleasure in viewing California through Vollmann's eyes, and after the urban clang and urine smell evoked in the Tenderloin, the Tyler brothers' overlooked hometown (now Vollmann's) gains probably one of its first depictions by a major novelist. He avoids cliché about the Golden State, as one who while born there grew up as a child of a professor in Indiana and New England, so his p-o-v is deepened by his travels and his experiences before he came back to explore Californian byways.

There's powerful moments, often in scenes that may not push the plot along much, but which reveal characteristic observations of the author filtered through his put-upon protagonists and those they seek out for support. In a bridal registry at Macy's on Union Square, Irene and John's brother Hank go to pick out bone china. The oddness of that itself stands for their relationships, and Vollmann enhances this tilt by a matter-of-fact observation about how the acquisition of goods such as porcelain gravy dishes but who cannot enjoy them, no less than any product, dispirits those who value value. John seems to stand in that category; Hank resists this classification; Irene and sensitive souls give in.

Vignettes also help enrich characters such as Beatrice, a Mixteca whom we follow in Mexico before coming to San Francisco establish her survival skills as she is reduced to earn a living by prostitution. The Queen whom she and others circle about gains a predictably (given also Vollmann's knack for insect and biological analogies) hive-like domination, and after she is introduced a fifth of the long way in, the novel invites some allegorical interpretations. It also enters disturbing considerations, true to the nature of Vollmann's moral calculus in "Rising Up and Rising Down", of Dan Smooth's sexuality when judged illegal or immoral, and book X offers a similar sidestep into the injustice of bail, as the author observes in Sacramento. This section could have graced RURD particularly well.

After the bail interlude, we return to the Queen and her minions; Tyler gets sucked into her web, and this section, while less inventive as what preceded it, brings a "false Irene" among those under sway. Two-thirds into the novel, John too finds himself lured to the Tenderloin, as Brady's Boys, a vigilante faction purporting to want to clean up the streets, seeks to take down the Queen and her royal coterie.

Vollmann peeps in, via an aside about his agent's complaints about the manuscript, and in section 476 he provides a clever elaboration of a theme which, by canonical and apocryphal Scriptural colophons he inserts throughout. The Mark of Cain on Tyler and others under the Queen's sway proves their membership in the Canaanites, whose practices the Hebrews and their moral heirs the Christians and in this case, Jonas Brady's capitalists, seek to eliminate as immoral, if only to boost their profits from a strange even by Vollmann standards Feminine Circus in Las Vegas, staffed by freakish sex workers. Some of this set-up never gets fully explained, but its veiled mystery suffices to set up odd scenes.

Near the end, as Henry "Hank" Tyler sentences himself to destitution, selling off first gun, then car, but toting a bible, he roams not the Tenderloin but Coffee Camp near Sacramento's vast railyards. Vollmann's experience riding the rails heightens his scenes set among the migrants and misfits. Tyler's travels take him to Miami, Seattle, and Slab City, where Vollmann explored this desert sprawl later in "Imperial". This last tenth of the book accelerates as Tyler's increasingly unhinged quest finds him battling Jesus, if at a remove, and searching for the Queen, Irene, and his lost sense of belonging. Vollmann will return to this milieu a decade later through his travelogue, Riding Toward Everywhere.

In one of his typically revealing endnotes, Vollmann comments that his editor at Viking, Paul Slovak, advised him to trim the book by a third. He refused, but he took a third cut in royalties. This dogged commitment to ensuring his works, big as they can be, remain faithful to his vision may annoy some with less patience for some of the chatter between the whores and some of the habitual roaming Tyler engages in, but in parts on the vagaries of bail, the chapter on Geary Boulevard and Street's sudden run-in one-way at the Tenderloin, or the Buddhist and Christian-Canaanite allusions, a patient reader will forgive some of the excess. Not to mention fine metaphors--my favorite compares a blackening banana to a "scrambled tiger." Amid yellow hills and fog, this novel pairs off brothers contending for the attentions not only of Irene, but for many women who endure a world that diminishes in its pity. (Amazon US 7-14-14)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Atlas": Book Review

For newcomers, this provides a 1996 odds and ends analogy to a musician's compilation of b-sides, demos, cuts that did not fit an LP, or alternate takes on familiar songs. For instance, "The Butterfly Stories" appeared as a novel, but a section here repeats that same narrator's search for Vanna in Thailand. The scenes do not perhaps add a lot to what the novel depicted, so like a compilation not of greatest hits but of assorted miscellany the artist wants to share, this may please fans more than those meeting Vollmann for the first time. Yet, if a reader wants to learn about his signature concerns, whether trying to wrangle for liability with a rental car agent in Sarajevo after the author had been wounded and his two friends killed, rescuing a mosquito-ravaged woman from the side of a Canadian road, or elucidating a familiar theme of loneliness--an empty diner reflected in a spoon in one vignette as the protagonist sitting in a corner musters up the courage to ask out the waitress--this assortment surveys a sampling of insights. 

This works best when it allows Vollmann to roam, as the title indicates, away from his Asian and San Franciscan haunts to those of a cold Toronto, or among the Inuit. A portion here called "The Rifles" reprises that novel's doomed Reepah, or places other books of his (to date at least, given his prolific output) have not wandered into, such as Mauritius, Switzerland, and among the Australian aborigines. As in his recent "Last Stories and Other Stories," we get Mexican magic realism infusing "The Hill of Gold." As with his Asian journeys, we get an elusive object of desire, followed in the surreal search for a coin with a hole by the mortal narrator entangled with a mysterious "The Angel of Prisons." 

A few sample passages express the prose at its peak. "In hitchhiking as in so many other departments, the surest way not to get something is to need it." Loneliness permeates so much of these stories. "As the mathematician C.H. Hinton wrote: '. . . we are accustomed to find in nature infinite series, and do not feel obliged to pass on a belief in the ultimate limits to which they seem to point." Yet Buddhism speaks to a few here who seek, and a longing for meaning impels quests. "Her life was like some cold wide shallow pond rushing straight at her with fan-shaped waves, the wind picking up now, not yet strong enough to throw more than foam in her face." Among the Inuit, destiny looms. "Living means leaving, going on trying not to hear the screams." That speaks for itself, as does the title "Disappointed by the Wind." In such terrain, bleakness compels Vollmann's characters to break the ice, to try to grasp some sense of surety and comfort, even if the melt "tasted like burned desolation." 

I also liked the drug trip that reveals near Big Bend, CA a search for God which nonetheless finds that presence following the narrator like the sun behind one's back all day, never quite entering him. Instead, the "Traveller's Epitaph" here confesses "I fear death." That presence hovers over many of the figures here; unsafe sex with Thai prostitutes takes one character into a forbidding fate, while all over the sprawling centerpiece "The Atlas" with dozens of locales traversed, we find one of Vollmann's most erotic passages, a relative rarity, in his account of a narrator smitten by a married lover who will die of leukemia. The poignant emotion the author allows us to fully feel, for me, succeeds to display better the impacts Vollmann can deliver, freer from the restrictions of city streets. 
(Amazon US 7-20-14)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Butterfly Stories: A Novel": Book Review

This short (for Vollmann) novel displays a mood both frenetic and dispirited. Taking place as much of his early 1990s fiction in the realm where bodies are traded and sex or love is pursued, it shows us within the musky humidity a familiar depiction for Vollmann of loneliness and obsession in a Thai and Cambodian setting. It's another man drawn to risky behavior and danger. But it expands, midway, to provide a bit of the Tenderloin's pre-gentrified milieu, when the streets were still dangerous, and another section drifting through the Canadian Arctic setting where The Rifles took place.

Drifting is appropriate. The third-person narration filters everything through a narrator introduced as the picked-on butterfly boy in school. Bullying and taunts stunt him. He becomes the boy who wanted to be a journalist, amidst restless youths, and then a journalist, paired up with a counterpart identified only as the photographer, on assignment in Southeast Asia to try to drum up a story as the Khmer Rouge apparently soldier on in terror, and as the Thai sex trade flourishes amidst the echoes of yet another war, when tourists seek out the company of girls and boys in desperate conditions. Vollmann does not moralize, refreshingly. He uses instead a focus on the journalist, a loose stand-in for himself as in much of his fiction, an observer who lacerates himself with criticism while attempting to make a practical and ethical contribution to better the lives of those exploited.

A typical comment: "interesting that the photographer, who wanted to break as many hearts as possible. and the journalist, who wanted to make as many happy as possible, accomplished the same results...! Does that prove that the journalist was lying to himself? (loc. 1283) "You boyfriend me, or you butterfly? If you butterfly, we finit." (loc. 1880) So asks a "sweet rice girl" of the caddish photographer, but this metamorphosis, for an author of Vollmann's broadly biological interests, stands of course for the flitting that the photographer prides himself in and that the journalist tries to evade.

The main plot becomes the mad search for one the journalist knows as Vanna, and she seems to have returned to Cambodia from when he met her in Thailand.  After all, in a painfully rendered treatment of the journalist's breakdown of his marriage back home in America, his (ex-)wife complains of his depression and predilections: "I'm normal. I'm tired of being married to a freak." She castigates his friends as more freaks. She cries as tears "were snailing their accustomed way down the furrows in her cheeks which all the other tears had made, so many others, and so many from him-- why not be conscientious and say that those creek-bed wrinkles were entirely his fault?" (loc. 2169) In such moments, Vollmann lets us look at disintegration and self-loathing. His protagonist will become consumed by a quest to find that other woman, and even as he laments his guilt silently, "he could hardly wait to tell the photographer what she'd said and listen to him laughing." There's truth here within the phantasms and fevers that consume the narrator as they did the similarly driven Vietnam vet and alcoholic Jimmy in the streets and dives of San Francisco. The novel ends as suddenly as did Whores for Gloria; like that companion, it tallies unsparingly the costs of desire. (Amazon 6-20-14)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Rifles": Book Review

Returning to the lands of ice and snow, this third-published (1994) if sixth in the series of Seven Dreams of the North American landscape "straddles the gap between fiction and documentary history" (409) as it crunches by. Compared to "Fathers and Crows" (1992) and "Argall" (2001), "The Rifles" tells its narrative proper in 340 pages, little more than half, on average, of those two epics.

William T. Vollmann's ambition in this and his life's formidable work investigating violence and power remains towering, but for how long, and among how many? In lengthy, insistent, sprawling books before and after this, he confronts the rationalizations people make for conquest, whether of a prostitute's body or of a proud culture. He was about thirty during this polar travelogue, and begins to shift from cockiness to introspection. He wonders early on, as he sidles past his youth: "Maybe life is a process of trading hopes for memories." The bulk of this Dreams project for posterity (and since then, the time it's taken from or among related projects as massive or more so over twenty years) may bridle his impulsive chronicling. He muses about book-shaped, sulphurous stone slabs, stacked by icy pressure, but easily skipped into a lake to be smashed. "All books are like this; they stand shoulder to shoulder in the library stacks; perhaps they are 'popular' at first. perhaps not, but eventually they stand anonymous, unread, forgotten, and this is how it should be, for this is how it is with lives." (15)

He means to spend as much of his life as he can tracking down human frailty and natural force in remote places. Like the first saga of "The Ice-Shirt" (1991), this tramps into the Arctic. It focuses on the Inuit, who were introduced in that initial Dream, but moves between Vollmann's 1988 and 1991 visits to the Canadian north more evenly. Allowing contemporary insights to contrast with those on Sir John Franklin and crew's doomed expedition of 1845-1848 as they sought a Northwest Passage, again we witness, as in all four installments so far, an attempt to break through the frozen or forested continent. The French traders of Québec, and the English colonists of Virginia, failed to find Cathay, as they traded in respectively iron kettles and copper ones, along with guns, to divide and conquer.

The power of repeating firearms (in a doubled meaning), spirals from the faint impacts of the Norse intruders, eight centuries before. As the narrator asks, "because iron axes had almost decided things in Vinland, because arquebuses had taken command in Kebec, what must rifles have done here?" (45) Within this historical adventure, Vollmann seeks his own maturation. He longs for understanding, becoming a consciously farcical but decently meaning intruder himself as "Captain Subzero" hands out cookies to kids on Cornwallis Island. Older people look through him; older boys shrink back. Three girls (after parental permission for outings) play along with William's earnest exchanges. "He wanted so desperately to be loved; he gave more things away." (33) He's yet another trader there.

One particularly returns his affection, a commodity he laments as so elusive to obtain or share. Reepah's "mouth tasted like the bubble gum she'd sold her tooth for" as Bill, or "John" puts it. For, after he assumes the role of Captain Subzero in his antics with the local girls, Vollmann finds in Reepah's friendship his polar twin, Captain John Franklin. Cleverly, as he (presumably) fictionalizes himself as procreating protagonist, he conflates Franklin's wife left behind, Lady Jane, with "John"'s Inuk lover.  Vollmann, with little pretension and anguished awareness, expands this "grave-twin" trope. Gradually over the first hundred pages, Captain Subzero speaks on behalf of Franklin, until the English explorer's venture intersperses with Vollmann's own, a century and a half later in the Arctic.

The author realizes he may romanticize the region. So might its now aging first Inuk inhabitants, for they were relocated to Resolute by the Canadian police to settle there a hundred years after Franklin's arrival. The indigenous presence ensures the protection of its natural resources against Norwegian claims. The displaced natives look back fondly on their Northern Québec homeland, compared with desolate Nunavit. After all, "the reason we love Eden is that we've been expelled from it". (82) Reepah's past or present suitor staggers in with bloody mouth and black eyes to leer at the teller; the pop songs or television blares; her child cries; she goes to prison; she becomes pregnant by "John".

Within this disconcertingly bleached domain, full of blue water and sometimes sky, green and yellow rocks, and the red Maple Leaf flag, as well as a ruined airplane, Vollmann admires its terrain. "The islands were mottled in all distinction, like the forehead of a Nobel prize winner, the moon through a rich man's telescope." (95) Sparing in descriptions, he freshens them to convey his presence. He enters this Fourth Dream dramatizing his own quest, as the third (at least, among his main male Dream characters to date) hesitant white man courting a native girl, uncertain of his claims on her.

The predicament of the native, entangled along with those who seek to master the people and their land, mirrors Franklin's ice-bound position. Yet, "Subzero enjoyed 'being' Franklin, being now occupied by only physical constraints", for in this paring down to the elemental, the essential lesson emerges. "Captivity frees one from the anguish of a liberty bereft of the good", he asserts. (116) That is, the reason ex-prisoners and ex-soldiers return to wax nostalgic among like comrades lies in the fact that then, the "future" with "all that" for better or often worse still lay ahead, as yet unknown. Yearning within the imprisoned or conscripted soul, in Vollmann's view, enables inner liberation.

Excited by the prospect of a Northwest Passage, the Victorian-era crew feels "on the edge of something new, moving with an ice-horizon that was banded like some grey Easter egg, frilled and starred with most subtle lacings". Certainly, dazzling horizons stimulate those new to them, then or now. The narrator shares in them "to the extent that" he is Franklin; but "to the extent that" he is Subzero, he cannot escape the "daily ache like old ice, knowing as you did that Reepah was in need, that seals were dying for nothing, that Fox and Raven were rotting in the dump at Pond Inlet, that PCB contamination had been reported at Yellowknife:-- the agony was not moot as for earlier pages of our continent". The Greenland Norse, the Québec French, the Virginia English have long lost their colonies. This fourth of the Dreams jolts more. The teller blames himself for some of this vast loss. "When you hear someone screaming for help and you do not know what to do, it is much worse than when she is already dead. This is the reason to get stuck in ice." (137) Vollmann reiterates Franklin's uneasy freedom, for soon his crew find themselves unable to move, trapped for seasons in the Arctic.

On an earlier expedition, about to leave behind a native girl he has impregnated, one of Franklin's crew, facing depleted supplies, worries. "Just as Mr. Franklin was doing with the others of her race, he used her only as a temporary source of meat. He said this to himself, and yet it was not true. He loved her. That made his helplessness more miserable than ever." (180) Another kindred spirit preceding Captain Subzero. He compassionately relates dragging a drunken Reepah through a (New York?) city, blurring her into Hood's consort Greenstockings, abandoned by Hood, pined after by a rival officer, Back. Soon, around the Arctic Circle to find a passage, Franklin's men starve.

They will again, on their last journey which deepens the despair on that second doomed foray. Vollmann enlivens the weary imagination of weakening Hood, near the polar Barren Lands. "Somewhere the caribou were so numerous that their antlers were a moving forest and their dark shoulder-bumps were tussocks; their legs were grass and suddenly the barrens grass was gone and a moving forest came galloping across the rivers." (197) On their arrival, the English had given out rifles, and shot caribou as the sailors meandered past the shore. Now, they scout each other, to devour.

Franklin, by the last third of this narrative, stands with his men "watching the open water die" (241). As Subzero muses, it's always lead, in the repeating rifles--bringing dependency, decimation of the native ways of life, and destruction of the native habitat--or, in the case of Franklin's men, the lead-soldered tins of meat that slowly poisoned some over three years, and addled the reasoning of the survivors, none of whom lasted for long, The final sections, after the set-piece of Subzero's ten days in an abandoned weather station near the North Magnetic Pole as he tries not to freeze to death, peter out into a blur of white pages and black print, as the memories of men merge and wander off.  I liked this better than "Ice-Shirt" but the willfully, if fittingly, vague concluding pages may not please those wanting closure. (2-18-14 to Amazon US)

Monday, August 11, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Fathers and Crows": Book Review

This continues as the second of "Seven Dreams,"++ a septology projecting across North America the past millennium as envisioned by natives and settlers. Here, Vollmann begins to get the hang of his own attempt to present, through the Micmac woman Born Swimming's dream of a dream of a dream, the clash between those now called in Canada the First Nations, in Acadia and along the St. Lawrence, and the French who sailed up those shores eager for furs, riches, and souls. Vollmann in the first segment, "The Ice-Shirt" (1990), had labored, overall successfully, to integrate Norse sagas and modern reporting from Greenland, Baffin Island, and what was Vinland and is now Newfoundland, but certain tonal shifts and thematic leaps made that ambitious start rather uneven. All the same, it marked a talent to watch, and this series to date slowly continues.

"Fathers" triples the length of the first narrative; enriched by glossaries and endnotes, the result repeats Vollmann's prodigious labor. Regarding this novel's impact, earlier at PopMatters I noted how Vollmann analyzed his (partially) released FBI file. This parallels passages in "Imperial" which describe (partially) his detention in 2002 and 2005 while crossing from Mexicali to Calexico. Vollmann cites from these same files, which document a federal inquiry that numbers him among thousands suspected of being the Unabomber, about this novel: "UNABOMBER’s moniker FC may correlate with title of VOLLMANN’s largest work, novel Fathers and Crows. That novel reportedly best exemplifi es VOLLMANN’s anti-progress, anti-industrialist themes/beliefs/value systems and VOLLMANN, himself, has described it as his most difficult work." Vollmann  muses about "reportedly", given this nameless agent might not have finished it, like many readers.

This appeared two years after "Ice," and two years before part five (which appeared out of order in the series as it unfolds according to publication and not strict chronology), returning in "The Rifles" to Lord Franklin's doomed mid-Victorian voyage among the Inuit. These three books burrow into history and contemporary memories along America's northeastern frontiers. They match Vollmann's affection for frozen climates, and varied Canadian cultures and scenes, with his energy and erudition. With so little surviving of indigenous reactions to the contact, and with what we know filtered through the invaders much more than the natives, Vollmann must mix imagination with scholarship.

This novel builds upon that region's own vast origin myth, the Jesuit Relations, 73 volumes sent back starting in 1611 and continuing for two centuries, from New France to the Society of Jesus' French superiors. But whereas "Ice" hovered between recreating the Norse tone from hefty and resounding saga-lore and skipping into a modern vernacular from Vollmann's late-'80s journeys, "Fathers" opts for an omniscient voice. Although early on we aren't exactly sure where it emanates from ("Jean"? A venerable chair where a wise elder once sat?), this projection sustains a more consistent register. Yet blends a filtered antiquated sensibility, drifting in and through both Indian and European perceptions. Furthermore, Vollmann applies Ignatian Spiritual Exercises into a Stream of Time image adapted from his previous novel's icy dreamtime. Readers embark on a bracing, engaging, if daunting portage.

Very early in the 17th century, Champlain works his way up to preferment and command for the Roy. "He gathered the trees into orderly clumps as he mapped them, so that the rivers would be less encumbered." (103) Lusting for mineral riches, he explores those rivers to no avail as for gold or silver, but his navigational obsession earns him grudging acceptance by his social or military betters. His band of similarly restive adventurers hammers out habitations and fattens off the beaver-pelt trade in Montréal and Québec, about seven decades after Jacques Cartier had begun to map Canada. So, while we never figure out clearly at the start who's speaking what to whom, by now a pidgin exchange of French or even some Basque mingled with native languages may have become common.

Contemporaneous with Cartier's exploration, St. Ignatius of Loyola gathered the first companions for what would be known as the Jesuits, the same year of 1534. These Black Gowns or Crows make a neat play off of Black Hands, the dark lord of the native peoples in "Ice"; their coming for the French merchants and scoundrels signals unwelcome change, even if the Iron People trade for furs with a coveted metal for kettles, then arrowheads and weaponry. Poutrincourt, who soon will lose control of his fort to the inexorable priests, lashes out at the first clever missionary sent to block the master's diplomatic path. "Tell me, Père, are all of you Jesuits cunning in this way, to get first a toehold, then a foothold, and then to trample everything down? I ask you: who gave you the right to be here?" (190) 

For the traders, and the priests, this Canadian immensity can prove implacable. Its woods emanate darkness and their depths bewilder. Yet they can cheer. "Autumn fell, and the forest became a chasuble of red velvet with gold flowers down the side, its skinny leaf-arms outstretched in grasping prayer." (203) The observer of this scene is not specified, and in such moments, Vollmann conveys the sheer wonder of the place, filtered a bit through the perception of one raised in the old-new faith.

To win converts for Christ, this ambition impels the Jesuits, as Vollmann paraphrases them, to declare war on the world. A fifty-page immersion into Ignatius' dramatic decision, when wounded by a blunderbuss, to turn from a life of Spanish swashbuckling to one of soul-searching demonstrates the intensity of the Society's founder. Vollmann sums up Ignatius' military strategy, calculated through his Spiritual Exercises to teach his Companions the memory skills, the calm under pressure, and the intricate spiritual and practical classifications to call upon in their apostolate. It neatly nods to the Jesuit balance of action with contemplation. "Their plan was simple: to save every soul on earth. The means were complex, requiring the tense spontaneity of generals, the extravagance of jesters, the indifference to comfort of ascetics, the compromising of merchants, the intriguing of diplomats, the patience of craftsmen--all of which were so many pretty veils drawn over an iron purpose." (277) 

Iron speaks too to the natives' lust for it, for hunting and for killing. The French dispense weapons to Born Swimming's people soon after their first encounter, so as to weaken rivals. The titular protagonist of the fourth (2001) of the Seven Dreams, piratical Samuel Argall, kidnapper of Pocahontas, makes a cameo as he conquers the Jesuits' Acadian outpost. Such enmity between British and French heightens, as does tension for the Huron or Wendat, who will under Jesuit tutelage find themselves weakened in conflict with their southern foes, the Iroquois confederacy. The bulk of this narrative, starting a third of the way in, retells the Jesuit role in the fate of the Huron in the 1630s.

Four hundred pages on, Champlain treks into the Huron heartlands upriver. Captives get roasted alive and scalped. Birds keep singing. Brutality on both sides earns Vollmann's calm scrutiny, as does the fearsome vastness of the forests which dwarf native and settler in a continent of foliage, rivers, and ambush. The omniscient teller quietly hints halfway that he's sometimes Jean de Brébeuf, one of the Black Gowns who will in this leafy domain, in the middle of the 1600s, seek and earn martyrdom. 

One who will find this reward, Jean de Brébeuf, begins to shoulder aside Champlain as the central figure, as the Jesuits deflect the Huron from the traders. Vollmann inserts an aside to Robert de Nobili, a Jesuit who in India by going native balanced conversion with toleration of indigenous customs and beliefs. Returning to the Black Gowns, attempting to sway the Huron, we watch their missionary predicament deepen as epidemics decimate the natives, leaving the surviving priests open to charges of witchcraft by the suspicious Huron, egged on by their bitter shaman against the French. 

As at the end of "The Ice-Shirt," vignettes of those taken by the Europeans back to the Old World, here then brought back to New France, depict the complicity of natives caught between resistance and assimilation. "It was the vast crowds that chastened the boy" Amantacha "and fitted him for his purpose: seeing them, he understood that the Wendat could never begin to contest with these folk on equal terms." (503) Filtered through his eyes, we see the inflexible determination of the newcomers. "The Iron People slouched; they threw themselves down in chairs, as if the chairs would never break or be anything but chairs." (504) A separation of maker from creation contends with the native view.

Reliant on the reluctant interpretative skills of another young man taken to France who, returning to the Huron, renounces his Catholicism, a cold, lonely Jesuit reflects during an icy sojourn among them his own cognitive dissonance from those he despises but must preach to. "The bare trees reached up together like pillars; their branches upcurved together into an arched cathedral ceiling." (561) Among this frigid desolation, mortality increases among those whom he seeks to win over. "They pass their lives in smoke, thought Père Le Jeune sadly, and afterwards they fall into the fire." (562) If they, during the epidemic, die, they will be damned; their lives seem as grim as their smoke-choked tents. 

Recalling for me Brian Moore's 1985 novel through Bruce Beresford's adaptation of "Black Robe", Vollmann, publishing his novel the year after that movie, dramatizes this same Canadian conflict of wills. As Moore's screenplay sums up through the shaman Mestigoit: "There are no gifts given by the French that aren't paid for." Similarly, the sorcerer and (Born Swimming's daughter and later Amantacha's wife, conceived by that Micmac woman's rape by a French trader) Born Underwater, one gifted with "seeing-ahead", glimpse the outcome of the implacable struggle between determined invader and indigenous settler. Pitting shamen against priests, as epidemics weaken more natives beyond the Huron, the hidden powers called upon by both sides corner Catholic converts, who have gone over to the French.  Crows caw, cornfields wither, famine stalks. Those who have turned to Christ among the natives, in the steady judgment of the holdout Born Underwater, seem reduced to the status of children, by Black Gowns bent on baptizing the dying, swooping down upon stiff prey.  

Between 1634 and 1640, as Vollmann relates in his appended chronology, half the Huron died. The remnant, increasingly Christian, sought refuge from disease, famine, and the Iroquois. Those faithful to premonitions and paganism dwindled. "The dream-Captains sought to protest, but the Christians would not listen to them, and so they withdrew from Ossossané with sadness in their eyes, saying than nothing but selfishness and witchcraft held sway there any longer." (822) Vollmann presents both factions with sympathy but detachment, enabling us to witness the Huron struggle for survival. 

Parts around pages seven- or eight-hundred, admittedly, threaten to belabor the point. Vollmann refuses editorial cuts, so even if one may wonder the reason for so much depth, this deep dive into Catholic and native consciousness, four hundred years ago, triumphs from this sustained commitment. Meanwhile, seasons stretch on and dwindle, distant from the human frenzy for control. "The clouds were like lavender puzzle-pieces floating on milk." (808) Vollmann strives for a fresh presentation, and his language floats between 17th-century chronicler and 1989 visitor to Québec and Amerindian sites. He blends research deftly (sometimes by wry footnotes via academia) and his endnotes attest to the immersion by which he created this dense but absorbing book. Its heft, as with all Seven Dreams to date, may dissuade the faint-hearted, but as with many explorers, rogues, natives, and contemporaries in these thick pages, the adventure undertaken will reward the intrepid. 
(Amazon US 12-29-13 without the FBI paragraph) 

++ "My aim in Seven Dreams has been to create a 'Symbolic History' -- that is to say, an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth. Here one walks the proverbial tightrope, on one side of which lies slavish literalism; on the other, self-indulgence." (939, Author's note)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "An Afghanistan Picture Show": Book Review

Taking place in 1982 and published in its original form a decade later, this account of a hapless pilgrim's progress feels doomed from the start. Vollmann finds early in his career his penchant: a self-deprecating but idealistic and erudite narrator based on himself, a smart depiction of this blundering, determined fellow as he encounters far-flung or down-and-out people who while they lack his book-smarts gain in commonsense, endurance, and/or basic coping skills, a fascination with amassing historical facts and transcripts of interviews about his chosen milieu, and a refusal to organize this material into other than a bricolage of assembled pieces that go on exactly as long as he wants them to, despite the reader's or editor's wish for concision or less running commentary. This is part of Vollmann's presence, always.

With Afghanistan having surged back then, when the mujahadeen sought the aid of Reagan-era allies and long before the Taliban came to its own power, let alone the events since, the timeliness of this paperback edition as the U.S. prepares to draw back from another campaign in a difficult geopolitical terrain is enhanced by Vollmann's brief introduction, looking back on the stubborn young man who comes to Pakistan determined to cover the rebellion against the Soviets. His "picture show" of photos (not included) and his prose version as "slides" in short chapters, mostly taking place then, helps the reader visualize (a few drawings are included, and it's noteworthy that these appear to be more finely executed than many maps and self-drawn sketches in his other and later works) the harsh scenes.

Amidst these, he draws faces. He comes to admire those he meets, and he puts down his own resilience as he is far outmatched in the heat by the natives. He knows he plays a role, that of the American beseeched by many to get visas, to write appeals, to hand out money, to be the object of unrelenting attention (that latter irritation is particularly well narrated). He persists in his attempt to try to raise awareness, and later funds, to help, even as he knows the futility of his moral mission.

The pace of this, as this sums up its pages, can lag. As he nears the actual contact with the rebels (and this is blurred to protect those involved, and is deliberately smudged, to drain it of some of its impact), the inclusions of lengthy interviews with the dissidents (from two identically named but opposing factions for Islamic Unity, a foreshadowing of what will follow in that nation under warlords and fanaticism, perhaps) do slow the progression down markedly. The Young Man he is tries to uncover more about the situation, but neither The General whom he admires nor the Reliable Source whom he implores can fill him, naive and unimportant as he is, in on much. Vollmann weighs in to judge this as a weaker book. It has not appeared before in paperback so the delay may prove it...

Still, for admirers of Vollmann's fiction and non-fiction, this has its moments. The episode of learning to cross the rivers of Alaska with his friend Erica holds power, and shows the sustained interest Vollmann has had in both the icy and the dusty barren landscape. Considered loosely as part of a trilogy that began with his debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels and furthered into his study of justifications for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, this book addresses congruent themes. When does one fight an unjust system? How far can one go in compromise of integrity to advance policy for practical gain? What cost does the individual suffer as part of a collective effort?
(Amazon US 5-2-14)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs"" Book Review

This collection's title, as Vollmann "explains" in an author's note, reverses itself. "These stories are all epitaphs; these epitaphs are all stories. (A good story is only a hearse to carry you to the ending where the epitaph waits." Clever even if the meaning eludes me a bit. I find it noteworthy that over two decades later, he returned to title his giant story anthology "Last Stories and Other Stories," all about the blurred lines between graves and tales told beyond them which hover back over all of us. 

Fittingly, this ends with a Poe-homage, "The Grave of Lost Stories," and it begins with one titled by a phrase Poe might have used well, "The Ghost of Magnetism." These two bookend familiar concerns of Vollmann: prostitution in Southeast Asia and San Francisco, the Afghan-Russian war, and life among the down-and-out not only in S.F. but among those a bit more well-heeled but also filled with sorrow and doubt. "Ghost" shows how the narrator, in an "On the Road"-type of stream-of-consciousness reverie, goes in each compass direction, so you get glimpses of the frozen North, the desert, and Asia along with Hawai'i (not a locale explored in other works I can recall to date), Belize and Central America, Sacramento and Las Vegas (two places he returns to with "The Royal Family"). We glimpse Elaine Suicide, to whom we return in "The Handcuff Manual." That didn't grab me as much as I anticipated, but Abraham's immersion into the subway of "Gun City" may reflect Vollmann's own residence in New York City as this section captures its grit and noise and tension. 

The story "My Portrait, My Love, My Wife" as in "Royal" conveys one of Vollmann's strengths. He characterizes unfaithful men sympathetically and the lonely women they court if in vain movingly. As the wandering protagonist in "Ghost" is told by the omniscient narrator" "everything was nice only because you beguiled yourself into standing, so to speak, on one leg, with the idiotic self-confidence of the flamingo, who will 'not' realize that any passerby could kick the remaining leg out from under him". (24-25)  When the narrator of "My Portrait" confesses "My happiness was as green as English apple juice," we can relate, but we also sense as in many stories here a short-lived joy. Vollmann's concerns in 1991 consistently play out in his work before and since, if with caution.
(Amazon 7-18-14)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Whores for Gloria": Book Review

Appearing in 1991, this short novel conveys some of the stories Vollmann gathered during his time among the San Francisco Tenderloin, pre-gentrification, around Jones St. While a familiar topic for this author, and one which his readers will have learned much about given his many stories set in this milieu, this is his first attempt to make a longer work out of episodes. He alludes in the preface that these are true, as told to him by prostitutes, within the fictional framework, typical of Vollmann's blending in much of his books, between fiction and fact.

The grittiness is there. You see via Jimmy, a Vietnam vet on disability living in a claptrap hotel, the lesions and bruises on those with whom he mingles, and while he's out for sex, he's also in search of the titular Gloria. Almost like a sister to him as they grew up, he longs for her and whether he makes up these stories for an imaginary character or a real woman he's loved and lost, this impels him to keep paying for sex and for stories from those around him.

This reminded me of Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, and like that novel, this method Vollmann favors does risk familiarity and sentimentality among the proverbial subjects with hearts of gold. They are tarnished and tawdry here, but Vollmann makes the effort and forces us to take the time to hear their tales from past and present, and we see them as fellow human beings. This intention, the ethical motive underlying his career before and especially since this early novel, keeps him readable even when the material, as here for me, is not what I'd gravitate towards, compared to his historical and political themes in his later books (which I've been slowly reviewing, as this on Amazon 6-1-14).

"The light was very red and warm; the girls were beautiful, and everything was beautiful until later when the girls got anxious and started demanding their tips." That sums up the mood. He and his pal Code Six, also a vet, watch coverage of the past war, with the sound off to block flashbacks for his friend. "The long lean bombs went swimming slowly downward like fish, until they came to the towns and became orange flowers." Not much happens. Jimmy is going downhill, the city draws him down, and everyone's on the make--as the opening vignette with Laredo, who's undercover, introduces efficiently.

His downcast mood permeates this. "He knew life was going to get worse. Maybe stories weren't enough, he thought. But no, they have to be. Stories and hair." He collects both, the latter to make a sort of snipped tribute to the elusive Gloria. This all lacks resolution, and stops suddenly, as if to jar the reader out of a stupor shared by Jimmy and those who surround him. It's a low-key narration, but Vollmann captures the feel of the down and out with his typical mix of detachment and compassion.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Ice-Shirt": Book Review

After "Europe Central" and "Imperial," I figured I was ready to return to begin this first installment of Vollmann's gradually unfolding chronicle "Seven Dreams", which imagines the conflicts between natives and European settlers throughout what's now the U.S. and Canada. Vollmann's attracted to frontiers, to clashes between civilized and indigenous peoples, and to raw evocations of longing, loneliness, hostility, and tension. A formidable talent, inevitably seen if a "bastard son" of Thomas Pynchon, Vollmann, born twenty years after that reclusive genius, shares the polymath, world-encompassing, and manic drive of that postmodernist pioneer. But I'd aver that in his travels and his journalistic, conversational style, the younger writer strives towards more empathy for those trapped within systems. He talks to the down and out in American hobo camps, in Third World conflict zones, and in cribs where teen prostitutes huddle. He reports from battlefields as well as archives. Pynchon himself appears more accessible in his later fiction, and like Vollmann, he nods to quotidian, pop-cult detritus, as much as arcane lore and recondite legend, in big books.

Surpassing Pynchon in production years ago, if Vollmann can keep traveling and then tapping, might he rival neither Dickens nor Tolstoy but Balzac's La Comédie humaine which comprises over ninety published and over forty unfinished segments? Contrasted with Pynchon, who after all took seventeen years between "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Vineland" (which overlaps with Vollmann's symbolic terrain), and whose seven novels despite some of their heft add up to a comparatively compact stack five decades on, Vollman's oeuvre from a writer now in his mid-fifties overwhelms. I'm barely getting started, after 700 pages of 2005's WWII novel "Europe," and 1300 pages of "Imperial," its data amassed from a neglected corner of Southeastern California. I've commented at PopMatters on the latter tome's prolix penchant. Vollman's obsession generated carpal-tunnel syndrome, sixteen-hour days typing the second of "Seven Dreams" by the age of thirty. Still, he's forgivable for getting every fact down, refusing cuts. I understand that compulsion to record, for if not him, who? When? Michael Wood, reviewing "Europe" in the NYRB, judged how Vollmann's ability signals a rare pair: he's "both stylish and garrulous, a combination I thought impossible until I started to read him." 

Vollmann's 1990 saga about Norse-native contact starts slowly. He forces you over seventy pages to adapt to the mindset of marauders, and in the manner of medieval tales, he repeats motifs and phrases until you adjust to the violent, endemic tribal mentality of revenge, pride, rivalry, and honor. While this insistence may appear repetitive, so were these sources, the Icelandic stories themselves. Then he does the same, in briefer span, now in everyday tone, with Inuit origin myths. That sets up Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, who lands in Vinland. Let the first of many culture clashes commence.

Vollmann therefore allows us to shift gradually from our own expectations of pace and brevity to those of a thousand years ago. There, characters may barely appear, may be given but terse backstory, and we must tease out motivations and contexts. Vollmann does this and does not: as his notes document, he may expand the situation for his needs, or he may go along with the primary text's terse declarations. He, another storyteller, then merges with his inspirations, bringing us back in time. This reminded me of Michel Faber's omniscient narrator at the start of "The Crimson Petal and the White." Few historical novelists mediate to allow contemporary audiences enough of a chance to ease in, and to adjust our sensibilities away from a one-click, fast-forward milieu to one where the story accrues incrementally. Impatient readers, we begin to leave the patter of our own times (although as Vollmann keeps himself in the narrative as a 1987 traveler, current times never recede for long), and we start to follow the thoughts and conversations of Victorian parlor, or polar-bound or mead-hall, conventions. 

Impatience opens the novel: Norway feels too small. Iceland seems too settled. Exile or flight appears the only options for thuggish, stubborn, or deluded dreamers, caught up in a common, magically transmitted sensation of all-encompassing snow that shrouds one in illusory but convincing warmth. Vollmann explained to Larry McCaffery how "the characters in The Ice-Shirt see some way of escaping from whatever they are, either by changing their locations and going to Vinland, or becoming the sun, or whatever. That may or may not be an illusion on their part, but at least it’s their hope not to be fixed."  

The Inuit share this restlessness, as even the first two beings created in their white world wonder at fulfillment: "What is loneliness? Does the lonely space between two rocks vanish when spanned by a spiderweb?" (93) The novel then shifts into the contacts between the Norse who, having settled Iceland and Greenland, seek another shore in Markland, Slab-Land, and Vinland: the Atlantic fringes of what today the descendents of later coastal settlers and explorers know as the Maritime Provinces.

First, Eirik's daughter--by a mother who may not be a being we'd recognize--Freydis, seeks her own quest. She has been captivated by the shirt of the title, and the dream which will compel her to leave Greenland to seek Vinland's promise, for her own greed and her own power. However, on her mission, she first must climb a peak in Greenland. "Blue-Shirt Glacier was a pillar to mark her way. The sun wheeled round and round the mountains, making each snow-tip orange in turn while the rocks fell and the ice shattered, instantaneously swelling the roar of waterfalls, and the creeks trickled and the tundra meadows moved scarcely a muscle in the world. It was all unspeakably grand and beautiful. The world was still being created here." (177) Vollmann excels in a set-piece passage which follows, as Freydis proves herself and meets her foe, her lover, and her dark lord, Black Hands.

In Vinland, Freydis lures her rival Gudrun into the fray. "Oh, just as the Bear-Shirt made men see red-leaf forests through a hot rainy haze of blood; just as the Blue-Shirt made the wearer's world glitter cold and grand and beautiful in a thousand twinkling mirrors, so the Gold-Shirt glared and shone like the sun's eye" (242). Freydis goes to hell and back; others trade scraps of coveted red cloth and pails of milk to the Skraelings, as the Norse gain fur and amass riches. But the natives grow restless, and soon clashes among the settlers and against the natives put an end to the Vinland colony.

Vollmann over about 350 pages of narrative, enriched by his sources, glossaries, and commentary, dips in and out of the tale. He mixes lengthy digressions to bring his characters into the conflicts of the original sagas, and he blends his conversations with the natives on Baffin Island and Greenland. These show how the imagery he immerses this book in reverberates a thousand years later. As a fellow traveler to the former Slab-Land, Baffin, tells him in 1987: "If you hear a river moan, you know it has life." (211) In this novel, despite some languor in Vollmann's endemic drive to not leave a detail or a factoid out of his presentation, the stylistic leaps and the thematic sprawl produced attest to his dogged determination to recreate the mood of the Norse who possessed a similar desire for success. Their failure, and the predicament of those who, a millennium later, find themselves again colonized by Scandinavia, across the lands near the North Pole, leave their own telling mark on us. 

The last pages of "The Ice-Shirt" narrative tell over the past five centuries of the Skraelings captured and forced to board the English or Danish ships taking them back as souvenirs for the Europeans. A poignant coda, this allows Vollmann to contrast the homeland of those who call themselves the Inuit, "the People" in Greenland today. Of their counterparts to the south, on Vinland, known as the Micmac to the French, it appears that they survive, but again, in a manner beholden to those who supplanted them as they moved west across the ocean. 

That western impact resumes in the early 1600s with the second installment in "Seven Dreams" which appeared in 1992, "Fathers and Crows." As Vollmann told The Paris Review, he started to test out his craft with "Ice." Compared to "Fathers" and then (back to the Inuit) in "The Rifles," his debut "Dream" has its rough spots; he finds his stride in the next volume, which expands its Canadian plot: it's five hundred pages longer than "Ice." (Except for paragraphs one and two: Amazon US 11/28/13)

P.S. For "Ice" insight, see 1) Heloise Merlin at her blog June 24, 2013. 2)  James Gibbons Bookforum June 2005. 3) McCaffery introduces a 2004 Vollmann anthology, placing his friend firmly in a less post-modern and more post-Pynchon category. Yet this editor connects Vollmann to early Pynchon, for Vollmann "seems able to unweave the fabric of modern history, then put it together again in a new garment showing off the features of this history in ways we've never seen before". ("Expelled from Eden" xx) Speaking of garments that Dream protagonists don metaphorically (or, as in "Ice", as mythic totems) which manifest the coming of ice, axes, iron, Christianity, and capitalism to North America, Vollmann titles two more Dreams with "Shirt". Part four in the series "The Poison Shirt" will pit Puritans against natives during King Philip's War in Rhode Island, and part seven "The Cloud-Shirt" will be set in a Navaho uranium mine later in the last century (ibid, 450). "The Dying Grass" (projected for 2015, part six) is mooted to cover the Nez Perce in the Northwest rather than Hawai'i as once suggested. Ted Gioia champions such conceptual fiction, which "plays with reality, rather than defers to it". This decades-in-the-making project began in the slurry of concrete and speculation.  Vollmann first mused on the Dreams when he pondered how a parking lot in San Francisco's Tenderloin got that way. What happened before this continent was paved over by us?

P.P.S. As he wrapped up an interview with Madison Smartt Bell in the Paris Review 163 (Fall 2000): "All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure."

Saturday, August 2, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Rainbow Stories": Book Review

This 1989 collection, his first, represents an early foray into a world he explored, in fiction set in San Francisco, especially the Tenderloin of the first half or so of that next decade. Gentrification has not yet invaded, but it hovers, as Vollmann investigates sordid crime and high times among low lifes. What differentiates this a bit from his "prostitution trilogy" to come is Vollmann's broader look at groups such as hospital patients, white supremacists, and a larger countercultural contingent than the sex trade, itself. Many of these cultures, still, overlap somewhat with it, in poverty and drugs.

The stories, grouped along a spectrum inspired by the haunting Poe quote Vollmann chooses, roam common misery in a rainbow of hues spread across the earth's landscape. Brandi, who entered his previous book, his debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels, appears, and Jenny, a Korean woman whom the narrator loves, points as do The City's prostitutes do to Vollmann's next books, whether set in California or Southeast Asia, involving longing love.

However, as with Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories depicted in "The Indigo Engineers," we also see a wider panorama of intricate, sinister, and odd diversions. Vollmann skillfully documents the experiments done on machines "killing" machines, juxtaposing this with memories from his friend Pawel, a child who survived the Warsaw front, 1944. The SRL performances enticed many, but Vollmann seems to hesitate at their ambition to make machines as "intelligent" as we are when it comes to combat, as SRL staged a theater of props meant to cause unease at a spectacle of cruelty.

Similarly, earlier on, ethics and terror, whether from the "Red Hands" account of "Seamus" an IRA operative on the run in the U.S., or its more mild-mannered researcher in a lab killing a mouse for experimentation, cause the narrator to draw us in, as complicit in the small decisions we make daily to kill organisms, too. "We are all of us technicians and researchers in ethical laboratories." (76) Like readers of his characters, studied for the author's occupation (and he records in "Ladies and Red Lights" how much he had to pay sex workers for their acts or their stories), this anthology provides a meditation on what we seek as entertainment. It assumes a measured, world-weary, jaded sensibility.

Some tales link, as when the narrator's courtship of Jenny in "Yellow Rose" mingles in "The Blue Wallet" with the earlier skinheads featured in "The White Knights." Other stories, such as "Yellow Sugar" set among India's Thugs or "Scintillant Orange" telling anachronistically the story of the three lads cast into Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace, play with the prose experiments Vollmann often uses. However, both of these at length seemed to drain the themes of vibrancy. Likewise, "The Blue Yonder" among his favorite haunts of the Haight and Buena Vista or Golden Gate Parks with its own depiction of life on the streets among derelicts and their murderer, who uses the blue crystals of Drano, takes quite a while to unfold. "Yellow Hair" may represent another of many Vollmann attempts to "idealize" women but I found it sluggish, and when the Heidegger terms appended are livelier than the chapter, that says something. "The Green Dress" cleverly dramatizes a man in love with not a woman but a dress, and this displays Vollmann's literary conceits played out, akin to (as various chapters remind me of) Poe, Borges, and Lovecraft. "X-Ray Stories" wraps it all up quickly.

As usual, Vollmann finds wisdom, and for a writer who had this published in his early thirties, he sometimes sounds older than he was. "We are always waiting for something new to happen. So time passes, and so do our opportunities." (226) "A happy death is as difficult to imagine as a happy life." (333) The opening vignettes as "The Visible Spectrum" conclude by revealing the patients waiting for admission to the E.R. could discern their fate if they looked down at the colored line for their gurney.
(Amazon US 8-4-14)

Friday, August 1, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "You Bright and Risen Angels": Book Review

When this debut novel appeared in 1988, Pynchon's "V." (world domination, reactionaries vs. revolutionaries, sinister technology) as well as inevitable Burroughs (cut-up, prickly, bugs) inspired critical comparisons. For a writer just over thirty, this represents a promising, if raw, post-modernist epic produced by an Ivy League (via Deep Springs College, which one senses in the remote version of the School of Daniel) grad immersed in computers (Vollmann wrote this while living under his Silicon Valley cubicle, subsisting after hours on candy bars from the vending machine) and avant-garde techniques, pitted through a doomed humanism suspicious of leftist platitudes as well as capitalist slogans, self-help get off your duff and quit your guff vernacular (sent up here often via Dr. Dodger and Mr. White, the forces that conspire to ruin lots of lives and lots of ecology) and corporate blather. (Cf. many of WTV's books reviewed on Amazon + blog.)

Vollmann sustains the energy in the same manner as most of his works to date which I've been reading. That is, he postpones fulfillment. Big George, the mysterious force that narrates this along with what seems an alter ego (as is common not only in a debut but throughout Vollmann's career, a blurred fictional-factual stand-in who channels and also questions the real-life author's claims to verisimilitude), tells us early on that a key revelation of the Kuzbuite ideology (which generates the opposition to the well-named electrical force in this computer simulation between big and small as the White Power & Light monopoly) will not be revealed for 400 pages. 400 pages in, two-thirds of the way through, this reader felt the pace lag, as still many more adventures in the Arctic, digressions, and side trips awaited. Sure, some of these are wonderful.

Frank canvassing in the rain of the East Bay suburbs for the cause, Bee dumping the lovelorn "other" narrator, a dramatic fight at an Oregon bar and pool joint, the reveries and terror of summer camp, the privileged affinity group at a college much like the author's alma mater Cornell or his father's Dartmouth who tries to overwhelm the system and revels in its inefficiency, Bug's hitchhiking in the Yukon, and the satirical yet still somewhat disturbing attack by the revolutionaries on a family cruising down a Canadian freeway reveal grand vignettes. Some scenes will reoccur in later books set in the frozen North, in investigating terror and violence at home and abroad, and depicting totalitarian WWII-derived entities in charge. Here, allegories to the Great Beetle taking over an ant's nest, the hive mentality of bees, the subversion of those rising up who get caught in the rising down: the themes of decades of formidable works can be seen embedded and embryonic within YBRA.

I admit the insect plot dissuaded me for a long time from reading this, until I learned that Rising Up and Rising Down is part of a loose trilogy starting here and shifting, in its power struggles and big. vs. little guy battles, in the 1982-set An Afghanistan Picture Show (alluded to in an aside in YBRA). It has its slow spots, but coming to this after a few Vollmann works, I adjusted to its verbal immersion.

As is typical, fewer passages themselves leap out for demonstration of this style, as Vollmann for all his apposite or wry epigrams and arch stances prefers to plunge the reader into the narrative flow and not to isolate any particularly prosy ripple. Still, the sections entitled "Trees" and "Another Anecdote" provide strong evidence for his philosophical bent. The first considers the ''unfair qualities of ecology" (148) and the second dramatizes by a grasshopper in a jar scenario mortality's impact.

Bug similarly stares at the grey poisons over a Silicon Valley vista (nearly thirty years ago; imagine it now). He longs to revolt, to force this all back to forests, and so he takes up arms. Yet this mission totters and will not win the masses over, even if "surely this change in him was necessary, for without wretchedness and degradation of self one will never accomplish anything." (204) After "Operation Hammer Blow" crushes his affinity group, Bug reasons "if all he had for a weapon was goodness and rightness, he felt a strong sense of fear and powerlessness. Everything he learned was making him more like an insect." (301) After one member has his arms broken by the National Guard when abandoned to his fate, and another vanishes when trying to rescue him, "Bug concluded, perhaps not without reason, that bravery alone, like love and openness, was of little value. So his development continued. He was now thinking in a truly revolutionary way." (306) This type of tone can demoralize you in a six-hundred-plus page work. Humor survives, as mockery or self-deprecation. Underneath, loneliness seeps. For Bug's fellow comrade in their polar lair, it's also grim. "When he had broken himself out of his chrysalis Frank would go to the edge of the plateau and pat the snow as if it were his best friend, and then he would squeeze some of it in his hands and throw it over the edge." (532)

The real author, as opposed to his equally garrulous dual narrators who blur here, has stated he could have gone on ten thousand pages with this. I wanted more vim from Milly and more vigor from Susie; Frank and Stephen Mole as their male counterparts in the circa 1986 uprising seem to get more depth, such as it is for caricatures; their foes Parker, Taylor, and Wayne strut around a lot on but then fade into the workings of White and Dodger who use them as pawns, and all these figures start to look like windup toys even more than when the novel began, although this seems intentional. This all reminded me strongly of Pynchon's Against the Day. I found it eerie how it precedes it by 20 years.

This winds down after one of the revolutionaries fails to break out of a clever take on the prison genre, in fact and in story. He is immured among those British incarcerated from the War of 1812 in the San Francisco Mint building. No less strange than any other episode I suppose, but after his spectacular demise, the energy of the novel seems to deflate. Vollmann's standard lowlife scene, here set with a prostitute named Brandi near the Haight, does not gain the drive that his later depictions of this milieu will, and after more sparring between Big George's and Bug's forces, as the outcome has been long predestined, the novel sputters out. Still, the haunting and bitter cuneiform transmission of the final section shows a writer refusing to give in, and even if Bug never gets the sequel the other narrator promises, this novel ushers in quite a determined turn at bat for Vollmann, who soldiers on. (4-20-14 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ag plé Durrell san Asilomar

Go iontach, thosaigh mé an mí Iúil ag caith mo seaicéad. Go nádurtha, mbeadh seo go hionduil anseo agus ansin i nÉireann. Ach, ní bhíonn sé i gCalifoirnea Thuas anseo.

Ina theannta sin, chuaigh mé agus Léna go hAsilomar in aice leis an cathair na Sleibh ar an Rí i gCalifoirnea Lárnach. Tá ionad cruinne ag imeall An Tuaisceart ann, go fírinne. Fhán muid ina óstan ar feadh an seachtaine leis fiche duine a plé "The Alexandria Quartet" le Lawrence Durrell

Is deacair a labhairt go raibh fuar beag orm roinnt uaireanta ansiud. Is maith liom an aimsir éagsúla ann. Shiúil Léna agus mé ar an claddagh, nuair a bhí ceo, agus nuair a bhí té.

Ith muid leis mic leinn eile i gCarmel dhá uair agus mé leis Léna amháin i Coill Chúin fós. Is maith liom gach trí bhéile (agus fíon, gan amhras, ar bealach Clos Pepe). Bhí mé comhra agam leis an lucht cliste, freisin.

Is dóigh liom ádh a dul go bhfuil siad imithe agus iad go obair leo. Tá mac leinne mo mhac níos sine ar an hOllscoil Mhac Eoin na Tailte Dearg anois; grádaithe Léna sísean féin. Ní chuaigh mé ansin, ach mhúin mé ansin ag an Ollscoil...b'fhéidir, féadfaidh mé aríst an lá amháin.

Discussing Durrell in Asilomar.

Wonderfully, I started the month of July wearing my jacket. Naturally, this may be normal now and then in Ireland. But, it's not in Southern California here.

Furthermore, Layne and I went to Asilomar near the city of Monterey in Central California. The exact location's on the edge of the North, certainly. We stayed in a lodging a week with twenty others to discuss "The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell.

It's hard to say that I was a little cold sometimes up there. I liked the different weather there. Layne and I walked on the seashore, when there was fog, and when there was warmth. 

We ate with other students in Carmel twice and I with Layne alone in Pacific Grove as well. I liked all three meals (and wine, by way of Clos Pepe). I had conversation with a smart set, too.

I feel lucky to have gone and joined them. My older son is a student at Johnston Center at the University of Redlands; Layne graduated from there herself. I did not go there, but I taught at the University there; perhaps I may again one day.(Photo/ Grianghraf: an tra na h/the beach at Asilomar)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Donal McLaughlin's "Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories": Review

Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them."  He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character, who in "Somewhere Down the Line" lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, given "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart", Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around the O'Donnell's home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo, but fewer in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained abuse uncovered sexually at home by a cruel father and in the parish at the hands of a cunning priest, a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his eighteenth year, 1979, his studies in Germany and German remind him of sinister echoes. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the mass rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner again reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around now, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendents abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.
(6-12-14 to PopMatters; Amazon US 7-28-14)