Monday, September 1, 2014

"Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader": Review


This 2004 anthology, as introduced by critic Larry McCaffery, presents Vollmann's body of work as if a quirky parallel to a fan's in-depth retrospective on Bruce Springsteen. That is, it shows early and obscure work, unreleased compositions, as well as the hits. Michael Hemmingson's preface shows--as with The Boss--how Vollmann inspired his contemporaries to create and to follow his example, if more on the fringes of critical acclaim to date compared to the #1 success of Springsteen. But, as Bruce was once but a cult figure, so may Vollmann still break through.

Part 1 looks at his background and influences. "The Land of Counterpane" reveals a boyhood fear of "wrinkles" that reminds us of the terror as well as release within our imaginary encounters with tales at an early age. "The Butterfly Boy" finds a stand-in for the bullied young Bill; and "Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. (1968)" charts the death of his sister which marked him while growing up. "Some Thoughts on Neglected Water Taps" respectfully surveys his Deep Springs College years. I think the "List of 'Contemporary' Books Most Admired by Vollmann (1990)" is well-chosen for a smart man nearing thirty, but the editors seem to understate that his father taught at Dartmouth, Rhode Island, and Indiana, and that as a straight-A student at Cornell and a dropout from Berkeley's doctoral program, Vollmann certainly benefited from exposure to "high" culture all his life. His early story excerpt "The Ghost of Magnetism" displays well his talents for the hallucinatory and vivid.

Part II plunges into death, war, and violence. "Three Meditations on Death" from the Paris catacombs, the San Francisco morgue, and the Serb-Croatian p-o-v prove harrowing. "Across the Divide" evenly listens to the Taliban and their opponents. "Regrets of a Schoolteacher" glimpses a Yakuza recruit's troubled career. "Zoya" from Europe Central presents a Soviet woman's hanging by the Nazis. From "The Grave of Lost Stories" peeps into Poe. Vollmann's review of Reporting Vietnam shows influences that marked him in his youth (although he seems a bit too young to have feared being called up for any draft over there). "Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing during Wartime" challenges writers to understand goodness and to seek truth honestly from opponents as well as supporters of state and rebel violence. But a snip from his massive Rising Up and Rising Down treatment of a "tentative ethics" of rationales for violence as "Moral Calculus" needed more context.

Part III dives into another controversial theme, that of love and sex, but mainly prostitutes, and a bit of pornography. The amount of material should satisfy casual readers wondering how and why Vollmann gravitates towards this domain. He tells of a seedy hotel, scuttled with cockroaches and smelling of a crack pipe, and you should be convinced that he knows this realm well. He repeats the familiar argument that in our economic reality, we all sell ourselves for another's gain or pleasure. He encourages as with war reporting that observers promote honesty and try to connect the Self with the Other, a theme that he returns to in the literary criticism that he contributes to through his life's work.

Part IV shows the backdrop as travel for these books. I found his collegiate letters about "the advantages of space" and "a bizarre proposition" jejune. More revealing was "The Conquest of Kianazor" as an early template for his fictional imagination. "Subzero's Debt" from The Rifles serves as a dramatic test of his own Arctic limits, and luckily less life-threatening, "The Water of Life" from Imperial charts his attempt to ride the New River through that polluted, parched, and odd valley.

Part V, on writing, literature, and culture champions his what one piece titles "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-Hearted Un-Deleter" and potential Nobel Prize winner" and despite one's caution at such a claim, if you read Vollmann patiently and deeply, you too may be convinced that this isn't hyperbole. He returns to rally by "understanding without approving or hating. By empathizing." ("American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease" 330)  His "Afterword to Danilo Kiš's 'A Tomb for Boris Davidovich' raises the "unending debate between revolutionaries and conservatives" by asking whether "unavoidable, essential existence" accounted for "beaten wives, perished workers and misled children" or "whether their tragedies, being the results of human agency, may be addressed through a massive change in social structures." (337)  He tackles ideology, and why we rush to a cause. "Maybe in politics as in sexuality, a purity of passion exists in the preconsummation state of half-blind surmises." (339) He reviews his own Argall in jaundiced fashion as he imitates critics of his prolixity and proliferation in "The Stench of Corpses." An appreciation of two influences, one prolix, one populist, enlivens "Melville's Magic Mountain" and "Steinbeck: Most American of Us All." 

Valuable appendices as a thorough and revealing Vollmann-and-more chronology by McCaffery and Vollman's "Seven Dreams: Description of Project" assist any researcher or reader of his vast oeuvre to date. Samples of his working style with collaborators and his CoTangent Press book objects show more examples of how Vollmann goes beyond writing, as an artist and documentarian, to try to, as he sums up in a postscript, remain moral. "I have no trade, make nothing but pretty things which fail against the seriousness of rice." He goes on, half-humbly, and perhaps half-self-consciously in a biblical or proverbial sense (I sense he wears many masks): "When they did me evil, I received it gracefully; when they were good to me, I returned my thanks." (479) While I could do without the photo of young Vollmann with his Beretta as this panders to a voyeuristic sensibility that "Rising" may have tempered, and while the blurbed emphasis on not-yet-published works adds up only to the section from Imperial and the then-about to be released Europe Central, it's for now the only way into so many of his many works. For this, thanks to this author and editors, too. (Amazon US 2-9-14)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lus na gréinne, sútha talún, samraidh i tSwanton

Chuaigh Léna agus ár chara Broderick go an feirme sútha talún an Domhnach seo caite. Thúg sé an grianghraf seo in aice leis Swanton. Tá áit ag imeall ar feadh an Aigéin-Chiúin suas Naomh Crios.

Tá sé go minic an-ghaofar ann. Bíonn an samraidh anois, ach mbeadh sé seachto céim ansin. Dá bhrí sin, is féidir liom é go fháil i ngár ar feirm ann.

Má fhéachann tú ar an dheas, tú ábalta ag dul isteach an sabhal sean. Cheannaigh siad sútha talún agus caora órganachaí. Fásann siad ann.

Mar sin féin, is maith liom ag siúl timpeall taoibh lasmuigh an síopa fós. Nuair cuirim cuart ansin, análú mé go mór. Níl mé ag dul ag cois fharraige níos mó.

D'ith muidsa píog na "ollalaberries" an óiche sin ar chéile. Fásann siad ar an cois na Califoirnea Lárnach ina samraidh deireanach. Tá siad milseog speisealta gach uair a thagann againn anseo, gan amhras.

Sunflowers, strawberries, summer in Swanton.

Layne and our friend Broderick went to the strawberry farm this past Sunday. He took this photograph near Swanton. The place is along the Pacific Ocean above Santa Cruz.

It's often very windy there. It's summer now, but it may be seventy degrees there. Therefore, it's preferable to get out near the farm there.

If you look to the right, you're able to go inside an old barn. They sell strawberries and berry pies. They are grown there.

Nevertheless, I like to go walk around outside the shop, still. When I pay a visit there, I breathe deeply. I don't go to the coast much.

We ate ollalaberry pie that night together. They grow on the coast of Central California in early summer. They are a special dessert to remember each time that we come here, without a doubt.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Last Stories and Other Stories": Book Review

The title may mislead. In his mid-fifties, after a five-year grant which afforded him a break from frenetic typing and prolific publishing, William T. Vollmann given his work ethic presumably intends to tell more tales. His books blur globetrotting journalism, ethics, violence, sex, travels among the down-and-out, history, cultural critique, and speculative fiction. Michael Hemmingson's 2009 monograph explains: "Vollmann's collections are not compilations of random short stories written over a certain period of time, as many collections seem to be. Each is compounded on a high concept, a grand metaphor; the volumes are cycles of related texts with recurring topics and motifs." (22) In these thirty-two sprawling stories, composed apparently during the past decade, ghosts hover, spirits tell tales, and memories linger, to settle down.

A journalist now "fat and old" returns to Sarajevo two decades after the war. His story, told obliquely, labels him only by his nationality, bound by the dictates of an internecine conflict which reduced neighbors to their territory or tribe. That war shot down any Romeos and Juliets who tried to escape the snipers, as the opening vignette dramatizes. Attracted to the crossfire the natives try to flee, the protagonist echoes Vollmann's experience as it opened his critique of justifications for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), as one of "Three Meditations on Death". This event led to his serious wounding and the death of two of his companions when their jeep was ambushed on the way to Sarajevo. Driven to investigate this, and to make a living off of documenting pain, Vollmann reflects on such collusion by a curious, compliant war correspondent: "The American felt that slight sickness which always visited him on such occasions; in part mere adrenaline, which was intrinsically nauseating, that higher form of fear in which his mind floated ice cold, and a measure of disgust at himself for having voluntarily increased his danger of death. Over the years, the incomprehensible estrangement between his destiny as a risk-taking free agent and the destinies of the people whose stories he sometimes lived on, which is simply to say the people who were unfree, and accordingly had terrible things done to them, would damage him. Being free, however, he would never become as damaged as many of them."

Some of Vollmann's characteristic tics emerge in this representative passage. As his critics contend, it might benefit from editing. Vollmann to past criticism has responded that he submits exactly what he needs to, and he refuses many excisions requested by editors or publishers. Therefore, his books tend towards heft. (See my reflections 25 November 2013 on Imperial.) Does this latest volume need it?

Six-hundred-and-fifty pages of themed stories shift from Sarajevo to Trieste for part two, and then part three in Bohemia. The fourth section leaves Trieste for 1860s Mexico. Fifth, Norway, and sixth, Tokyo follow. The seventh setting is unspecified while the eighth roams further, into Kauai, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the unknown. Here, the ninth portion concludes, as spirits intervene. The success of these restless, spectral stories depends on whether Vollmann can sustain in-depth soul-searching.

Part one explores Sarajevo of two doomed lovers, then that city as revisited earlier this current decade by the "American". The relatives of one of those killed in the jeep distrust the reporter, as if he was a "leader." They resent that he survived and not his Croatian-American friend, although the "patient fatalism" of the journalist proved not a shortcoming but a survival technique for one long bullied.

Three twined tales, for those familiar with Vollmann's themes, fictionalize his reflections on the 1994 death near Sarajevo of his classmate and later interpreter, Francis William Tomasic. What's added for this anthology is the discomfort of a boy once bullied turned middle-aged teller, who with his weary wife revisits, with mixed results for friendship or fondness, his former hosts. One story ends as these two Americans rest by the "Yellow Bastion, with heavy, fragrant clusters of white elderflowers bowing the branches down before them, and then, far down through the greenness, a hoard of those other white flowers called tombstones, rising delicately and distinctly from the grass". Vollmann prefers to underplay such prosier sections, so when these appear, they deepen their emotional impact.

The next story reaches novella length, with purpled, prosy passages filtered through a storyteller from an vague time perhaps two hundred years ago, about Jovo Cirtovich. This Sarajevan wine trader in Trieste seeks arcana of how the spheres move and the earth turns. It deepens Vollmann's immersion into this region's lore and landscape. But its meandering pace recalls digressions within Don Quixote, or or a heady, epic recital, its ending postponed for what feels a thousand nights, from Scheherazade.

This wandering attention persists over part two, with a few stories set around the Balkans. First, a boy who desecrates a statue of Our Lady of Flowers. Second, a shaggy-dog saga dramatizes a plinth of bronze statues which come to life, and then fictionalizes a surrealist painter, doubling as a slinky cat goddess. Then, a haunting episode introduces a trench ghost. Golem-like, this eerie figure animates post-WWI figurines to fight at grave sites, recalling tales of corpses restored and spirits unable to leave their places of death. Vollmann's invention strengthens over these loosely linked Trieste tales.

Back to Bohemia, part three connects stories about a vampire husband and wife, a widow, and a witch-finder. These take place in the 1630s, but retain as many tales in the first sections do a timeless sense. The folk nature of their narratives suspends them, however. A resigned tread dampens them, and they smell musty. As the Trench-Ghost tale's teller averred, "eternal stories do have a way of becoming tedious". But the last, with its showdown "come the dark of the moon" as "a squad of Holy Bohemian Dragons stood ready with garlicshooters, buckets of holy water and arquebuses loaded with silver bullets every third one of which had been blessed by the Pope", enlivens this morbidity.

From Trieste, part four opens with the Emperor Maximilian and his soon-maddened wife Carlota embarking for Mexico. Soon defeated, the Hapsburg claimant to the Second Mexican Empire spends his last night in prison imagining, in a set-piece displaying Vollmann's skill, an eerie Aztec sacrificial ritual anticipating the pretender's humbler demise before a firing squad in 1867 Querétaro. Later, a folklore student in today's Mexico falls in love with the incarnation, or deterioration, of his subject La Llorona, once La Malinche the mistress of Cortes: her lips "were cochineal-red, like the teeth of an Aztec prostitute". Finally, a diabolical fable, in the style of a notary from the Inquisition and the length of a garrulous episode from Cervantes, accounts for Veracruz's reputation for the plague. This moralizes on the fate of the Amazons, producing an allegory for colonialism's deadly sins. While scenes, set in grim prison and then in grim fantasy, benefit from detail, it seems a never-ending story.

Norwegian tales, of a spider-love, a graveyard, and a churchyard, mire themselves in the icy macabre. Perhaps the climate can be blamed. Set on an emigrant ship to Québec, part five's longer story fuels a hellish excursion, concluding in a gruesome, if at least warmer, cannery run by trolls. Two more stories, one in the first person, also end abruptly, although this leaves them lasting longer in memory.

For Vollmann's meandering prose, followed for long stretches, blurs these ghosts with doom-laden narratives. Committed to these, the dogged reader must capitulate, following the protagonists on their decaying pursuits. "The reason I had first approached her," one man who longs to turn a ghost rationalizes, "was to overcome the defining human error of despising death's carnality". This articulates Vollmann's motive, and reveals his determination to pursue hermetic themes. Embracing what repels most of us, part six's shift to Japan reaches its peak in loosely paired stories: the lover of the ghost of Rainy Mountain haunts the slopes in the feudal era; in modern times, a "camera-ghost" sucks its title character into its inner mechanisms, perhaps a setting no previous epic of ectoplasm has explored. More tales waft about the floating world of geishas, and over all them there rises a miasma.

"Defiance Too Late" comprises the total of part seven. This dour story, about Abraham's connivance and capitulation to God's command, cannot free itself from too-dutiful a recital of biblical cadences.


Part eight saunters first to Kauai for an love affair between another mortal man and an increasingly formless presence. The narrator confides for her his "capacity for affection--I nearly wrote infection"; this proves too true. At first, courtship appeals. "Swimming in her foamy white petticoats and her long green seaweed hair, she sang me the same melody she'd sung Ulysses", but the fun fades. That siren song "made little impression on me; I'd heard it all before." Vollmann lets the bracing impact of her humid, tropical, and watery allure or disgust dissipate. "Wringing out her sea-black skirt afterward, on her tiny lava-islet decorated with skulls, she offered me eternal life beneath the water; unfortunately, I was already diseased by that curse." This jaded attitude does not keep pages turning as fast as most authors may desire. As this narrator saunters off mid-tale to pursue a Greek corpse in Paris, before his return to Hawai'i, the novelty of an extended pursuit of a siren fades into narrative lassitude. A gruesome Poe-type tale of corpse robbers and flesh-eaters turns humdrum.  A fable emanating from Toronto incorporates a time-altering view from a telescope perched high on its immense sky tower promisingly, as it allows the narrator to see past and present, but it peters out. 

"The Grave House"  refreshingly, conveys spiritedly not a haunted but a haunting house. Very brief and witty, it evokes by its inversions a spooky series such as Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone.

This section concludes with "When We Were Seventeen" which at over fifty sections nears another novella. Dying of cancer, a middle-aged man rummages through his desk to conjure up, through a witch's magic potion, not only the letters from a long-ago failed romance in his teens, but the woman herself, after she has died, also from cancer. This uneasy affair between a revenant and his past object of affection, who keeps humiliating the clumsy swain who in middle age repeats the failures of his teenaged dating gaffes, enlivens this epistolary encounter. But again, energy fades, over such length. 

Part nine by comparison moves this creaky compendium briskly towards a conclusion. In its entirety, here is the first entry, "The Answer": "I asked the grave why I must die, and it did not answer. I asked who or what death was, and it kept silent. I asked where the dead I loved had gone, and its earthen lips did not open. I begged for just one reply, to anything, and then its grassy lips began to smile. Moistening itself with its many-wormed tongue, it opened. Too late I realized the answer."

Returning to the site of one of the tales in part six, Kamakura, "Goodbye" recalls earlier entries of watery seduction, subterranean skeleton-lovers, and ghoulish embraces. Then, these stories fade away, with their protagonists. They recall H.P. Lovecraft, by conjuring sinister, sinuous elongations.

In the typically diligent endnotes explaining where fact (such as Jovo or Maximiliano, or feline-obsessed one-time Trieste resident, surrealist painter Leonor Fini, whose works decorate the dust jacket) departs from fiction, Vollmann lets his sly hand show. He claims that he "cut a few pages, out of compassion" for his agent and editor. "No doubt Last Stories will make us all rich, at least in those 'hell banknotes' at certain ethnic Chinese funerals in Southeast Asia." Out of paper, Vollmann constructs his own tiger, words to howl at death. (PopMatters 7/3/14; to Amazon US 7-18-14)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

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


This diligent author has returned to attention, discussing in Harper’s Magazine “My Life as a Terrorist” in September 2013. That essay documents his discovery of his FBI file from the mid-1990s through the next decade, with its informant’s claim that William T. Vollmann might match the profile of the Unabomber, and another that he might be an anthrax suspect. I had set the magazine aside in my to-read pile.

Two months later, I saw a New York Times piece on Vollmann’s cross-dressing as “Dolores”. Minutes before, I had received an e-mail about my review [on Amazon] of his 2005 National Book Award-winning novel Europe Central. An hour previous I had been staring at my bookcase. I’d been meaning to pick up again at page 123--and this time, twenty years after I had bought a first edition of that book as soon as it was published, to finish--his saga Fathers and Crows, about the Jesuit incursions into Canada during the seventeenth century; a recent trip through Québec had revived my interest. Culture clashes, progress and tradition, nature and exploitation, violence and endurance: these themes characterize Vollmann’s concerns.

Three reminders of Vollmann (all before noon the same day) had caught my attention, too. First, I read the Harper’s article; Vollmann mentions his scrutiny by those he calls the “Unamericans”. The New Haven FBI, while hunting down Vollmann's supposedly anti-capitalist, pro-Iroquois sympathies had noted, perhaps ruefully, how Fathers and Crows was, as the author himself acknowledged, “his most difficult work”. Vollmann sympathizes. That was in the mid-1990s. More Federal surveillance followed, via an informant he nicknames “Ratfink”. Crossing the Mexican border in 2002 and 2005, both times with women of Middle Eastern origins, Vollmann and his companions were delayed by U.S. agents for what appeared then inexplicable rationales. These perplexing scenarios appear, within the limited understanding Vollmann possessed before he received the 294 pages released to him under the Freedom of Information Act from his 785-page file under “review”, within his book reviewed by me here.

For, since the Unabomber’s apprehension and the post-9/11 anthrax scare, more of Vollmann’s “difficult works” have appeared, one of which, his latest large tome to date, came out in 2009. It’s a report from a region closer to my home than the wilds of French Canada. As his run-ins with the Feds demonstrate, issues of sovereignty and threat, terror and capitalism, continue to dominate not only his texts but his life, For, roaming a harsh domain a few hours from Los Angeles, Vollmann had, in thorough and very dense, dogged style, spent a long time amassing information and experiences for another long book.

It’s an effort to pick up this weighty tome on Imperial County, in content and heft. Sections ramble as a massive compilation on purportedly a single subject. Similar criticisms were aimed at Moby-Dick. Vollmann digs deep in 1100 pages (the paperback reprint excises some hardcover endnotes), annotated with dissertation-level documentation. This tribute to the overlooked Southeastern (rather than scrutinized Southern) California stands as a leviathan of fact and lore.

Vollmann brings his research and his passion to this idiosyncratic, erudite, restless investigation. The tone can be personal, with detours into his own breakup with his girlfriend, his past travels, or academic, with eye-glazing statistical accumulation. He passes Palm Springs to beyond the Mexican frontier, the glaring desert, lake basin, and mountains called Imperial, the “entity” beyond its square county borders. This block of the Golden State’s rarely promoted. It’s known for irrigated croplands, a saline Salton Sea far below sea level, and outmanned attempts to shut the border. Vollmann spends the first decade of this century wandering, talking (often with an interpreter), and boating (up the polluted New River) its dessicated, wet, and barren corners.

At first sight it “unimpressed me as hot, flat, muted and dull”. (302) He struggles to understand it as he does a Mark Rothko painting, rather than an Ansel Adams representational photo landscape. This dexterity typifies his eclectic, smart, and unpredictable approach.

The book opens with him accompanying a Border Patrolman in 1999, as Vollmann explains that “whether the laws which made them illegal from working on American soil were good or bad, and they were probably (so I suspected even then, and now I am sure) the latter,” the officer’s “mandate was to prevent illegal entry, a necessary labor in and of itself, because any country unable to control its borders cannot adequately enforce nor even define itself”. (18) He sides, as in his sprawling fiction roaming time and space, and his prolific journalism from war zones and among prostitutes, with the poor and the marginalized, but he tries to remain fair to all he meets, even as he confesses his prejudice, or tolerance.

This patient attitude makes him an inviting companion. You’ll sign on for the long haul. In a place where summer may pass 120 F, reality can brutalize. “Why be exposed to the searing eye in the sky? Whatever doesn’t hide gets half-bleached, half-effaced, like the lettering on the welcome-signs of those visionary cities around the Salton Sea. Is that convenience store closed? To find out, it’s necessary to press one’s nose against its dark-glazed windows. That’s why the everydayness of Imperial is a mystery.”(54)

Gradually the narrative brings you from Spanish and pioneer days to a surprising origin for the county. In 1907, an accidental diversion of the Colorado River flooded the inland soil, far from the usual riparian shore. Channeled by this deluge into an ancient dry lake, the Salton Sea filled in. For a while it promised fishing and boating, marketed as such in the era of the Rat Pack and the Space Age. I can attest that around the sea, subdivided streets are named after the rockets and astronauts of the early NASA era.

Now that sea ebbs, emitting its stench from thousands of dead fish, as scavenger birds hover over its waters and its shore reveals millions of tiny fish bones, ground up by erosion. Here and there, decaying wharves provide an ironic commentary on what fifty years ago was marketed to such buyers as my father-in-law as lots near or on a then-sparkling desert sea. I recently visited the one my wife’s father bought decades before: it is a dirt square surrounded by others under a harsh horizon, but a few plots now feature modest, beige stucco homes matching the bleak terrain. Purchasers from Baja California apparently have taken advantage of cheap land and the drop in demand after the recession, despite the inhospitable weather and saline smells that dominate Salton City’s forlorn tracts much of the time.

After all, Mexicali looms not far away, south of the border with Calexico, both cities luring campesinos. Many immigrants to this region a century ago were Chinese. Vollmann searches Mexicali’s “Chinese” tunnels; an amazing subplot sustains for seventy pages a sampler of his investigation. As with his writing, he rejects editors. He crams all his research in. He recounts natives, missionaries and Mexican colonizers, agricultural syndicates and land-boom capitalists, white ranchers, and especially today’s migrant workers, legal and illegal crossers: both legions confront those guards from both nations who patrol the militarized border.

This panorama can overwhelm even a sympathetic reader. A chapter titled “Warning of Impending Aridity” emerges early on, as Vollmann heaps up data “about a hot sad place when my life was draining away and everything felt stale” (103). But what does it all add up to? He hesitates to accept that “Imperial remains unknowable”, yet he insists that “Imperial remains unknown.” (98) He confesses: “my ignorance of Imperial has filled a long book”. (99)

Yet, this volume records an invaluable compendium about Imperial County and its vicinity. Livelier at least  than a hundred professorial monographs, a first-person perspective energizes much of this arrangement. Its story turns poignant: Vollmann tells of his break-up near Indio with his girlfriend, and how he sees the entity through her eyes as well as the now-lonely views he must carry with him alone, when he then returns to the scenes they once loved together. “It was because she took such pleasure in Imperial that I began to write this book. In my mind’s sad confusion after she was gone, I could not distinguish, much less define, any Imperial that did not include her.” (111)

He sides with the underdog, the down and out. As in his other books, he journeys with what used to be called hoboes and what are still called whores. He praises American efficiency while he accepts his inherent expectation of privilege by way of his fair skin. However, his encounters with blacks, Indians, Indios, Chinese, Mexicans, and combinations thereof complicate facile delineations of equating complexion with status. These meetings, as his book’s structure incorporates them, follow discovery and precede subdivision. The frontier daunts every human who faces it. Vollmann submits to an easy metaphor despite its neatness: “I felt hollowed out, ready to cross the border from life to death, from the urgent color and filth of Mexicali to the museum called Calexico, whose regular sidewalks empty long before dark.” (298)

Beauty endures on both sides, often in what has been abandoned or become enigmatic in an American (and increasingly Mexican) rush to profit, plow up or over, and obliterate. He favors recital of what he gleans from public records, newspapers, interviews, and photos. From the mundane comments of those in Imperial before him, he embeds a few sayings until they either numb you by this trope or convince you of their demotic inevitability, as even the fonts change and the italicized quotes hammer away at your attention span. His prose for long intervals prefers information to description, so when Vollmann depicts a scene, its sensations after so many melon production reports or cotton baron imbroglios may jolt you.

He scrambles around figures scratched into desert rocks centuries ago: “In a swirling rocky hole amidst the open golden shadows on the rock are pale red hoops, nested circles, waves, infinity signs, insectoid and humanoid figures scratched into the dark shiny rock, and perhaps it would be worth the effort of a lifetime to understand the female figure with golden vegetation lunging below her, sun gilding the top of her shadowed rock; from her, one clambers down past spirals and leaves, sun and white-pebbled pavement.” (618) Far from factories and pollution, Vollmann rediscovers traces of Imperial’s past peoples.

This narrative moves fitfully. I wanted far more on topics and places that he skims over or never mentions. Nothing on the globally-known music festival that recently jams Coachella Polo Grounds. The “corrections industry”, as prisons loom to provide jobs and generate malls, gains all of two sentences. Soldiers on duty, dirt bikers, desert hikers, the Chocolate Mountains, and the sand dunes earn scant or no inclusion compared to the constant presence of the border, its chemical effluents and fearsome maquiladoras, and Baja California. Despite their formidable southern tug, I felt that Imperial’s survey could have covered more topography, and also could have ventured farther north within the county more often. Los Angeles sprawl grabs a starring role; this book needed more on Imperial’s bit players, from northern edges nearer Palm Springs, Indian casinos, and the transition zone between the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts.

Vollmann inserts a “Pleasure Map of Imperial County” from 1967 (much clearer than his own cocktail napkin-sized sketches of the region), full of tiny clip art figures. Its largest typeface warns of a “Naval Air-to-Ground Gunnery Range”. That’s never discussed, nor will you find any detail on Slab City and Glamis, which attract thousands of snowbirds and off-roaders each winter. The promises on the pleasure map for rockhounds hunting petrified palm or oyster beds or gold get little attention; the burgs of Niland and Calipatria and Westmorland languish. Salton City’s chapters appear shallow, while the ruins of Bombay Beach and its three-hundred holdouts deserved a chapter or two. After all, similarly misfit photographers, filmmakers, and artists have been attracted for decades now to the Salton Sea’s hardscrabble enclaves.

A few errors slipped in. In spite of attention to copy that inserts footnotes for interpolated words by the author into transcriptions, and [sic] after misspellings in documents, Vollmann adds his own typos, if relatively few over so long a manuscript. I found five places needing correction, and these were mainly due to my local knowledge; others with awareness of other areas may find more. Collis P. Huntington’s first name is given twice without the double letter. Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park studio would have been in Santa Monica, not Venice. Echo Park’s boundary with Silverlake gets crossed a few sentences too soon. Vollmann cites a source about a “ten mile” distance for a Spanish irrigation canal connecting Redlands with San Gabriel. This falls far short of the mileage between these two cities; perhaps the Asistencia San Bernardino near present-day Redlands was meant, for that supported faraway Mission San Gabriel? He also mixes up the Feather River closer to his home in Sacramento with whatever concrete channel (once the Santa Ana River, in fact) trickles into Corona’s exurbia at Prado Dam.

Inevitably perhaps, such minor distractions matter little given the life’s work that for many authors less prolific this compilation would be; Vollmann has amassed a massive book while preparing texts even longer over his twenty-five-year career. He loves to accumulate data, but he also longs to make it matter. He connects his life, or lets us see fragments, as when he and his then-girlfriend are sequestered by Operation Gatekeeper. We never know why. (And until Vollmann looked at his FBI file, he did not, either.) This adds tension. He makes the border matter. After I read this, I found myself cutting grape bunches unable to shake what I had learned about those who stoop in the heat to grab this fruit to send on to me.

Vollmann’s works often bring him in, half-disguised in his fiction or in his journalism, as a participant-observer. Regarding his well-documented immersion among those who sell their bodies, some lament Vollmann’s bluntness when it comes to prostitution. There’s little in this book on the actual sex industry along the border. A pair of quotes that explicitly make metaphorical connections between the landscape and a streetwalker appeared almost demure, barely noticeable amidst this bulk. “Progress is the delicious Mexicali whore who’s just had a happy orgasm with her hand in your hair and your head between her legs; when it’s your turn, and the condom breaks.” (802) Vollmann’s restraint heightens his sporadic applications of a bolder image within statistics, names, dates, and eagerly assertive typefaces.

That passage about progress goes on another sentence, within a chapter on the demise of the Inland Empire, once as fertile as Imperial, now a stretch of endless tract homes over streets named for demolished orchards. As one who grew up next to one of the last lemon groves in Los Angeles County, on its far-eastern border, I found this saga of the suburbanization of the Inland Empire painful to relive. As the beige stucco, red-tile tracts, and big-boxes now stretch nearly non-stop down the interstate past the casinos and resorts to Indio, it seems that in a few years, even the salty declivity will fill with housing.

This sprawl inches into the entity. Water rights loom in the next section, as Los Angeles and San Diego demand more of the Colorado River. America imports crops from Mexico, and that nation wants its water. Mexicali’s demographic boom dwarfs Imperial County, and rivals the growth in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. Artificial lakes in Las Vegas and a hundred golf courses in the resorts around Palm Springs remind Westerners of the odd tradeoffs between recreation and agriculture, residences and resources, in this arid, drought-ridden territory.

Few Americans not lured here by cotton or melons or migrant labor have come here to settle, south of the air-conditioned resorts. Vollmann visits Leonard Knight, a transplant and a local character who’s painted Salvation Mountain with bible slogans and bright images. Vollmann notes: “Up close, it became the world; a few steps away, it began to resolve itself into the puny production of a single human being. Nearly as foolish as my own attempt to express Imperial in a book”, but both attempts leave their mark. (1033) After some laconic, heartfelt, and passionate prose about the fate of this land that the Pleasure Map called “the West’s Favorite Sun and Air”, Vollmann muses again about water, population, immigration, and the relentless pressure to plow over thirsty fields under sea level, to send river water to suburban lawns.

Vollmann concludes after over eleven-hundred pages: “Nothing can touch this marriage of land and sky, of heat and salt, this hammer and anvil, this procreating couple whose only child is a plain which unlike a rainforest, an empire or a work of art can outlast anything the planet itself can, anything, even human beings even water or waterlessness; and if, God forbid, Imperial itself does someday get riddled with cities, its character will remain almost unaffected; it will go on and on, true to itself, long after such temporary superficialities as ‘the U.S.A’ and ‘Mexico’ have become as washed out as old neon signs in the searing daylight of Indio.” (1120)  In spite of the size of this study, this chronicle does not begin to exhaust this flat entity; that remains a wonder. 

(This appeared slightly edited in PopMatters 11/25/13: “In 'Imperial' Vollmann Struggles to Understand the Salton Sea as He Would a Mark Rothko Painting.” In shorter and altered form to Amazon US 11-17-13)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Riding Toward Everywhere": Book Review

In "The Rainbow Stories," Vollmann paid prostitutes for their stories; in "Poor People," same for that group, across the world. So, this third investigation into how the other half (or more) lives "catching out" on the rails promises an intriguing journey. Some of the best moments in his novel "The Royal Family" were at the last tenth, when the protagonist leaves San Francisco and Sacramento (Vollmann's own residences) for taking the train all over. How does this non-fiction excursion pan out?

The best part is the first fifty pages. This is re-arranged from a Harper's Magazine piece, and benefits from cohesion, even it it sprawls in typical fashion for this author who tends to write big books. This one's comparatively brief, and it appears as if from the opening chapter, it's on target, matching author (who keeps lamenting as he's back in California that "I've got to get out of here") with a subject where he incorporates Kerouac, Twain, Thoreau, Hemingway, London, and Thomas Wolfe. But like the last-named predecessor, he rambles.

"All the waiting, that living-fieldmouse smell in the grass, was a necessary part of our experience, because it transformed motion into salvation. When I hitchhike, I experience the same feeling. And I wonder whether life can be good without the hard times." (19) But, "riding the rails, like any attempt to escape from life, must taste of failure now and then unless one is willing to die." (22) A middle-aged Vollmann will not die, of course, writing this, and he often laments his slowness compared to his buddies. One expects after the start of this adventure a lot more stories about who he meets, but as he admits very late in the narrative, "absence" dominates. It seems few hobos exist now, compared to decades ago; survivors lay low, resist intrusion, and resent "citizens" such as Vollmann.

His inquiries tend to meet with terse replies, and few stories emerge from his informants to entertain. So, he resorts to citing the authors mentioned above, or telling related stories of loneliness such as the best one, when he must kill a fieldmouse in a deserted cabin in the desert. He evokes the necessity to protect his daughter from infection and the divided loyalty between compassion and action vividly.

"I go my own bumbling way, alone or in company, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there." (73) He admits this in Wyoming and while that vast state seems to beckon, he reveals few moments why or how, and he tends in uncharacteristic fashion to gloss past much that may have happened, perhaps as it's so mundane. But we may raise questions we expect answered. Is it difficult to board a train in motion? If so, how it is done, and what is the best way to leap off, and when? How hard is it to sit for so long in a boxcar vs. a grainer, and feel the bumps and grinds of the tracks and rail cars?  What happened when people on the trains shared stories, or shut up?  How much did he carry along with his orange bucket? Even accounting for boredom surely novelty happened.

Still, no Vollmann book (and I have by now reviewed nearly all, including the ones listed above) is without value. "My darling America has become a humpyard where cars and citizens can be nudged down the hill onto various classification tracks. I've got to get out of here." (180) As he admits with the government trailing him and how since this 2008 book he has published on the Fed surveillance of himself, he tends to live largely off-grid if in the heart of Sacramento. So, he already has separated himself, as with his father--whose treatment at the hands of an officious bakery clerk he recounts in the first paragraph presciently--from much which pursues those of us who choose to live among officials and paid employees who try to restrict our liberty in the name of efficiency and conformity as the security state grows. This lesson, beneath the rather mundane situations which surprisingly fill much of this travelogue, assure that its core truths remain relevant. (8-12-14 to Amazon US)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Poor People": Book Review

For an author as prolific as Vollmann, this is a short book on a vast topic. Chapters heighten the focus of his travels and interviews--often as he credits to interpreters, acknowledging the difficulty of getting to the nuanced or deflected truths told to him-- as he tries, living on $100 daily while his subjects must scrabble fractions of that, to figure out why a few are rich and most of the rest remain poor. They may blame karma, tuition, the rich, Allah, or themselves. Many claim they aren't poor compared to, well, what always seem to be people still worse off.

Vollmann admits his hubris, but here unlike his previous journalism, he steers clearer of the "drug addicts, street prostitutes, and criminals" to listen to more ordinary dwellers at the bottom rungs. He realizes he makes his living off of their stories, and he can grate or pose as if naive, but how else can we listen to those invariably so distanced from us? "Steinbeck did his homework. This is why The Grapes of Wrath is not only "universal," as any vague emotional overflow can be, but accurately particular." (xiii)

By particulars, Vollmann attempts to pin down the mindset of the poor within their own habitats. "People who are poor but not in imminent danger of perishing have more of a chance of catching their breath and actually conceptualizing their poverty." (xv) Do they respond well to his presence?

Given his interest in the Marxian "cash nexus" for gunrunners, migrants, and whores, Vollmann seems well-suited for this topic. He tries to elude the trap laid by patronizing or brutal intellectuals who try to raise the consciousness of those they claim to help. He defines in a prefatory dictionary a few terms, and the problem of how the poor themselves rank themselves as "normal" rather than poor leads to his frustration with "False Consciousness: A charge leveled against the perceptions and experiences of others whenever we wish to assert that we know their good better than they do." (xxi)

Vollmann maintains his slightly ironic authorial presence while stepping back and letting the interviewees have their say. He balances his editorial comments and his leading questions with their comments, or their gestures or refusals. "This deeply religious woman had never been inside the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood, since that would have cost money. But who knew its outside better than she?" (56) From 2005 Russia, this captures his eye for phrasing, and his own perspective, deftly.

Speaking of distancing, he wisely chooses to include his photos of those he talks to (and many staying silent, from his decades at the margins of the world) at the end of the volume, allowing us to "see" the people he interviews first by his verbal descriptions, rather than jump to conclusions or let our prejudices or sympathies interfere with what he wants us to focus on as he transcribes them. 

He emphasizes the agency that any humans possess; he will not condescend or place theory upon the reality. He dismisses the UN recommendation of "more aid, better directed," as admirable but of course, with a devil lurking in the details. He prefers to listen to the poor rather than speak for them. "Because I wish to respect poor people's perceptions and experiences, I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, gilds their every choice with my benevolent approval. Once again I submit the obvious: Poor people deserve are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as do I myself." (170) 

In 2002 Nan Ning, China, this sudden city confirms his interpreter Michelle's pride, and her dismissal of the excuses she has heard on Vollmann's behalf, for her own bargained salary daily. "Everything you should do by yourself, she replied sternly. You should not complain life is unfair to you. The history is the history!" The lack of quotation marks heightens Vollmann's ability to convey this tone.

Vollmann tells of his own workspace, an abandoned restaurant in Sacramento, and how the homeless surround him, to cajole or threaten, and how he and his daughter react to their presence. Echoes of earlier books endure, and readers of The Rifles (reviewed by me 2-2014) will recall his near-fatal encounter with a soggy sleeping bag in the Arctic when he muses: "Life is like an extended camping trip. With a leaky, inferior tent one runs no more risk of rain than anyone else; but if it does rain, the person in the cheap tent chances soaking his sleeping bag, and possibly dying of hypothermia." (137)

He conflates his travels with his residence, and he settles down to write behind a steel door at his stucco inner-city bunker. About the poor, "I shut my door on them, just as when we who are in first-class train compartments pull our glass doors shut to drown out the poorer sort in the corridors, who will be standing or leaning all the way across Romania; of course I'm doing them a favor." (276)

Chapters on Kazakh energy exploitation and Japanese "snakeheads" who smuggle from China girls for the sex trade feel imported from his journalism, and they lack the power of his more eclectically arranged sections. By contrast, "The Rider" although it too remains tangential to the theme, offers a gripping and lively look at a white man in the Philippines who ferries the take from jai alai betting.

Vollmann lags as the book goes on and fails to answer the question of why the poor are always with us. The book's brevity by his standards may betray how he can't offer any nostrums on how to solve what may persist as an endemic human flaw, the impulse to hoard, to compete, to fend off others with what we gather. "What can they do?" he asks of the poor. "Hope, accept, escape." (253) The shifting focus Vollmann prefers when speculating about poverty better captures the vagueness of this subject that entangles investigators: "money just goes to where it goes," shrugs a Japanese man in Vollmann's last pages, which seems to sum up this weary subject.  Not that there's not wit and irony to leaven the sour, sullen moods: see the first of Vollmann's many diligently documented end-sources: "Thoreau was interviewed by ouijah-board." (Amazon US 3-14-14)

Monday, August 25, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Europe Central": Book Review

Having finished this a few minutes ago, I must record my reactions. I spent the last few weeks in its passages--on and off, necessarily--it's an overwhelming monolith as forbidding as its 1935 Deutschland, das Land der Musik stylized eagle cover image. Yet, like the somber image, it attracts a certain reader curious to part the curtain and enter. This mythic structure towers over the individual, whether in the storylines or ourselves, wandering into a great labyrinth.

The blurbs summarize the plots, but a few overall reactions may let you know if this book may be worth the considerable effort and investment of time. I was pleased to see that in the sources appended to the text, Guy Sajer's outstanding memoir (which I reviewed for Amazon) The Forgotten Soldier is cited first of all. This account of an Alsatian fighting for the Germans (although it's been charged with taking liberties) on the Ostfront came often to mind as I read Vollmann. The author's scope and research simply is not the type we expect to find so evidently scaffolding even "historical fiction," and this involved me more in the result even as it distanced me from the conceit that I was listening to fully-realized narrators rather than, as Vollmann gives away in one footnote, a "fabulist."

The musical themes I found appropriate, but lacking knowledge of Shostakovich's ouevre, the exacting attention given to them left me floundering for long stretches of an already nearly endless work. (My wife was reading Anna Karenina simultaneously, and we kept pace with each other!) Unlike the earlier Russian writers, Vollmann's epic does not unfold so easily. Even with background knowledge of the conflicts (in no small part thanks to Sajer), the panoramas, like the Ostfront serving as the focus for so many scenes, astonish but diminish you as a reader, struggling to keep up with the events. Perhaps this reaction is intended by Vollmann as the appropriate response?

My favorite parts were those of Kurt Gerstein, Van Cliburn, Vlasov and Paulus, and Hilde Benjamin, the GDR's "Red Guillotine." Vollmann takes on a very intriguing narrative style imitating the leaden justifications of Soviet propagandists well for many vignettes, and his energy often seems more expended on the side of the USSR rather than the "German Fascist" entries, leaving the book a bit more lopsided than the design of paired stories would suggest. This probably, given the determinism of the Soviets as well as actual events, nonetheless may convey the force--in so many ways--of the Russian over the German ideology in the struggle for Europe Central--which tends to get overlooked, actually, in the novel in favor of the Russian steppes.

If you're somewhat familiar with the contexts already, this is in my opinion a fitting and challenging work that will force you to enter into the minds of people that you may have only glimpsed at a distance in grainy documentaries--this itself serves as one of many motifs--the humanity is less directly perceived than in more accessible, sentimentalized, or tidy novels.

Yes, the work needed an editor. A lesser author would have ironically earned another star! But a writer as intelligent as Vollmann should know that he needs to keep his reader in mind, and not expect us to labor for so long on what his labor needs to compress into a more comprehensible form. The Shostakovich-Elena-Karman triangle makes its point and encapsulates the question of "can art fight evil" well. But it goes on three times longer than needed in an already stuffed narrative that needed more concentration upon, say, Zoya. Ties with the Nibelungenlied, Tristan, and the Germanic myth are excellent, but I think these could have been tightened and honed. You also sense that Stalingrad, Dresden, the gulags and lagers all are filtered through book-learning. Vollmann for all his impressive research tends to let it sit on the page as "facts that need to be made into fiction to make it a WWII story" rather than to incorporate what's been published as memoirs and first-hand interviews, say, into vividly rendered experiences transferred into the plight of his imagined protagonists.

For many authors, this would have been the work of a lifetime. For this prolific if admittedly prolix writer, it's an immersion that seems to have been, more or less effectively in parts rather than the whole--within who knows what shorter time. And what's Vollmann getting at in blaming "wartime paper shortages" for the lack of the supplement's chronology? Perhaps a sly relevance for us today? (7-17-05 to Amazon US in slightly altered form as the first of his books I'd reviewed, years before...)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dinnéar bréac leis sútha talún

Tá mé ag suí i cábáin in aice leis Naomh Críos san óiche ann. Thiomaint Léna agus mé go an Cathair na hÁingeal go dtí California Thuas (ag imeall Lárnach i ndáiríre) an Déardaoin seo caite. Fán muid anseo trí amárach.

Bíonn solas beag an láe fós ann. Tá leath tar eis seacht anois. Ach, féacaim na crannaí rua agus duilleogaí glan lasmuigh den fhuinneog.

Bím ag síochána anseo. Níl ábalta choisint an torann ar an bóthar mór ag trasna na sruthín. I rith an lae, roimh an breacadh na lae agus riamh an luí na gréine, chuala mé an cuid mhaith na tráchta idir An Gleann na Albanach agus Sliabh na Hermon in aice láimhe.

Thúg ár chara Broderick go Tuirlingthe de Chaonach cliabh seo na sútha talún inné. Tháinig sé go ár comharsanachta go dtí anseo a cur cuairt anocht. Bhuail sé ár chairde Críos agus Bob fréisin; ith muid dinnéar breac blásta a cóicaireacht le Léna a chéile.

Tá siadsa i gcónaí ina Sliabh na Hermon mar chomharsana go cábáin seo i gcéanna. Go nádúrtha, ba mhaith liom a bogadh anseo, go cábáin seo féin. Ar ndóigh, tá sé an-daor a ceannaigh teach anseo. Mar sin féin, tá brionglóid agam, agus is breá liom sútha talún ó Contae Naomh Crios i dtólamh.
  
Trout dinner with strawberries.


I am sitting in a cabin near Santa Cruz this night. Layne and I drove from Los Angeles to Northern California (near Central, really) this past Thursday. We are staying here through tomorrow. 

A little sun is still there. It is 7:30 now. But, I see the redwoods and green leaves outside the window. 

I am at peace here. I am not able to hear much of the noise on the main road across the little stream. During the day, before the break of day and after the setting of the sun, I hear the traffic between Scotts Valley and Mount Hermon nearby.  

Our friend Broderick brought from Moss Landing this basket of strawberries yesterday. He came from our neighborhood to here to visit last night. He met our friends Chris and Bob also; we ate a fine trout dinner cooked by Layne together.

They are living in Mount Hermon as neighbors to this very same cabin. Naturally, I would like to move here, to this very cabin. Of course, it's very expensive to buy a house here. Nevertheless, I have a dream, and I love strawberries from Santa Cruz County, always. (Grianghráf/Photo le Broderick Miller)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" (abridged): Book Review

These 730 pages compile but one-fourth of seven volumes in 2003 published by McSweeney's as "some thoughts on violence, freedom and urgent means" about the justifications for violence and inflicting death on others, usually human, but also upon other sentient beings. William T. Vollmann admits in a brief introduction to this 2004 Ecco abridgement that it "falls short of being short enough" considering the "simple if laborious inductive method employed" to ask "when is violent defense of X justified?" (xii-xiii) Speaking of justification, he claims right away: "I did it for the money." He figures "the possibility now exists that someone might read it." Such off-handed if frank statements typify Vollmann's conversational style. For me, this shows his strength, and his appeal.

Many criticize this erudite, garrulous, probing, restless style, and Vollmann's refusal to submit to editing. Once in a while, as with his promising explication of the "cash nexus" (cf. 203), I found myself frustrated as Vollmann tried to cram in too much in too little space (despite these dimensions) as when he conflated this (on page 274) with a denunciation of "dekulakization" and collectivization.

Sometimes, he favors aphorisms. "An authority is by nature noxious, a windbag, a parasite, a professional vulture." (34) This recalls Swift, Bierce, Orwell, or Twain. Or, "only a saint can practice nonviolence in isolation; the rest of us have to do it in gangs." (61) He asks profound questions of the social contract, which may elude glib solutions: "law and government of any kind--even if the dispossessed are self-professedly conspiring to overthrow it--implies consent!" (98) He muses whether selfishness persists as our "quotidian quality" rather than a utopian "tidal pool" isolated from both land and sea as its viable locale, protected as it were, where self-sacrifice may flourish. (274)

Emerging as "that transitional life-form, a highwayman with an ideology," Pancho Villa rises up. "Having crawled out of the primeval sea of manifest self-interest, he could now evolve successively into each of the following creatures: guerrilla, leader, general, statesman, underdog, martyr." (357-8) Vollmann avers: "No matter that self-interest nourished these incarnations, too; authority needs to act a rarified part in order to legitimize itself." If this intrigues you, this book rewards your and his labor.

The author often defends his writing as precisely the length he wishes it to be, and given few can now access copies of the original series (3,500 sets were printed, but no reprints seem probable), the extended attention "to categorize excuses for violence" in this condensed form merits and rewards concentration. Befitting his attempt to verify his belief how "every violent act refers back to some more or less rational explanation," this serious topic merits the depth Vollmann provides. Still, it may exhaust the patience his less fervent readers may bring to even a shorter, if as demanding, study. (xi)

Vollmann's audience, familiar with his massive fiction and non-fiction, and his blurring of these two genres in so many books before and after this, might not be so surprised; this took twenty-three years "counting editorial errands," he avers coyly, while the "abridgement took me half an hour." (xii) Part i elaborates categories and justifications, as exemplified by Trotsky and Lincoln, and John Brown in their actions, as challenged by Cortes, and as enriched by Napoleon's appeal to honor, authority, and self-defense. Some of this suffers from allusions to material that a reader may not have found earlier; this may be inevitable if most of the germane content has been excised, leaving us with nearly no editorial guidance about what has been lost. As partial compensation, Vollmann inserts the moral calculus from the original series. Part II surveys global case studies, some adapting his journalism, some introducing in-depth interviews with victims, participants, and perpetrators. It ends with the annotated table of contents for reference from the full edition. Despite tempting glimpses this précis embeds from its predecessor, it adds value in (relative) concision for a wider audience of inquirers.

This reminds me, in its verve and its embrace of a big idea, of a book that inspired Occupy nearly a decade later, anarchist anthropologist David Graeber's "Debt: the First 5000 Years." Vollmann shares, with a few principled dissidents before and after, a willingness to delve into academic sources and political categories without resorting to tenure-track cant or think-tank jargon. What such contributions may lack in fealty to scholarly convention, they make up in a mass appeal to the restless and frustrated, wanting bolder interpreters able to leap over categories. "Rising Up and Rising Down" provides a convenient compendium for Vollmann's time-tested themes of state-sponsored and insurgent brutality, his roaming into remote terrain to uncover those who perpetrate such activity, his compassion for those victimized by policies and bullets, and his determination to listen to witnesses. (3-8-14 to Amazon US)

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.)