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)

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