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."

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