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)

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