Saturday, August 2, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Rainbow Stories": Book Review

This 1989 collection, his first, represents an early foray into a world he explored, in fiction set in San Francisco, especially the Tenderloin of the first half or so of that next decade. Gentrification has not yet invaded, but it hovers, as Vollmann investigates sordid crime and high times among low lifes. What differentiates this a bit from his "prostitution trilogy" to come is Vollmann's broader look at groups such as hospital patients, white supremacists, and a larger countercultural contingent than the sex trade, itself. Many of these cultures, still, overlap somewhat with it, in poverty and drugs.

The stories, grouped along a spectrum inspired by the haunting Poe quote Vollmann chooses, roam common misery in a rainbow of hues spread across the earth's landscape. Brandi, who entered his previous book, his debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels, appears, and Jenny, a Korean woman whom the narrator loves, points as do The City's prostitutes do to Vollmann's next books, whether set in California or Southeast Asia, involving longing love.

However, as with Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories depicted in "The Indigo Engineers," we also see a wider panorama of intricate, sinister, and odd diversions. Vollmann skillfully documents the experiments done on machines "killing" machines, juxtaposing this with memories from his friend Pawel, a child who survived the Warsaw front, 1944. The SRL performances enticed many, but Vollmann seems to hesitate at their ambition to make machines as "intelligent" as we are when it comes to combat, as SRL staged a theater of props meant to cause unease at a spectacle of cruelty.

Similarly, earlier on, ethics and terror, whether from the "Red Hands" account of "Seamus" an IRA operative on the run in the U.S., or its more mild-mannered researcher in a lab killing a mouse for experimentation, cause the narrator to draw us in, as complicit in the small decisions we make daily to kill organisms, too. "We are all of us technicians and researchers in ethical laboratories." (76) Like readers of his characters, studied for the author's occupation (and he records in "Ladies and Red Lights" how much he had to pay sex workers for their acts or their stories), this anthology provides a meditation on what we seek as entertainment. It assumes a measured, world-weary, jaded sensibility.

Some tales link, as when the narrator's courtship of Jenny in "Yellow Rose" mingles in "The Blue Wallet" with the earlier skinheads featured in "The White Knights." Other stories, such as "Yellow Sugar" set among India's Thugs or "Scintillant Orange" telling anachronistically the story of the three lads cast into Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace, play with the prose experiments Vollmann often uses. However, both of these at length seemed to drain the themes of vibrancy. Likewise, "The Blue Yonder" among his favorite haunts of the Haight and Buena Vista or Golden Gate Parks with its own depiction of life on the streets among derelicts and their murderer, who uses the blue crystals of Drano, takes quite a while to unfold. "Yellow Hair" may represent another of many Vollmann attempts to "idealize" women but I found it sluggish, and when the Heidegger terms appended are livelier than the chapter, that says something. "The Green Dress" cleverly dramatizes a man in love with not a woman but a dress, and this displays Vollmann's literary conceits played out, akin to (as various chapters remind me of) Poe, Borges, and Lovecraft. "X-Ray Stories" wraps it all up quickly.

As usual, Vollmann finds wisdom, and for a writer who had this published in his early thirties, he sometimes sounds older than he was. "We are always waiting for something new to happen. So time passes, and so do our opportunities." (226) "A happy death is as difficult to imagine as a happy life." (333) The opening vignettes as "The Visible Spectrum" conclude by revealing the patients waiting for admission to the E.R. could discern their fate if they looked down at the colored line for their gurney.
(Amazon US 8-4-14)

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