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)

No comments: