Tuesday, August 12, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Rifles": Book Review

Returning to the lands of ice and snow, this third-published (1994) if sixth in the series of Seven Dreams of the North American landscape "straddles the gap between fiction and documentary history" (409) as it crunches by. Compared to "Fathers and Crows" (1992) and "Argall" (2001), "The Rifles" tells its narrative proper in 340 pages, little more than half, on average, of those two epics.

William T. Vollmann's ambition in this and his life's formidable work investigating violence and power remains towering, but for how long, and among how many? In lengthy, insistent, sprawling books before and after this, he confronts the rationalizations people make for conquest, whether of a prostitute's body or of a proud culture. He was about thirty during this polar travelogue, and begins to shift from cockiness to introspection. He wonders early on, as he sidles past his youth: "Maybe life is a process of trading hopes for memories." The bulk of this Dreams project for posterity (and since then, the time it's taken from or among related projects as massive or more so over twenty years) may bridle his impulsive chronicling. He muses about book-shaped, sulphurous stone slabs, stacked by icy pressure, but easily skipped into a lake to be smashed. "All books are like this; they stand shoulder to shoulder in the library stacks; perhaps they are 'popular' at first. perhaps not, but eventually they stand anonymous, unread, forgotten, and this is how it should be, for this is how it is with lives." (15)

He means to spend as much of his life as he can tracking down human frailty and natural force in remote places. Like the first saga of "The Ice-Shirt" (1991), this tramps into the Arctic. It focuses on the Inuit, who were introduced in that initial Dream, but moves between Vollmann's 1988 and 1991 visits to the Canadian north more evenly. Allowing contemporary insights to contrast with those on Sir John Franklin and crew's doomed expedition of 1845-1848 as they sought a Northwest Passage, again we witness, as in all four installments so far, an attempt to break through the frozen or forested continent. The French traders of Québec, and the English colonists of Virginia, failed to find Cathay, as they traded in respectively iron kettles and copper ones, along with guns, to divide and conquer.

The power of repeating firearms (in a doubled meaning), spirals from the faint impacts of the Norse intruders, eight centuries before. As the narrator asks, "because iron axes had almost decided things in Vinland, because arquebuses had taken command in Kebec, what must rifles have done here?" (45) Within this historical adventure, Vollmann seeks his own maturation. He longs for understanding, becoming a consciously farcical but decently meaning intruder himself as "Captain Subzero" hands out cookies to kids on Cornwallis Island. Older people look through him; older boys shrink back. Three girls (after parental permission for outings) play along with William's earnest exchanges. "He wanted so desperately to be loved; he gave more things away." (33) He's yet another trader there.

One particularly returns his affection, a commodity he laments as so elusive to obtain or share. Reepah's "mouth tasted like the bubble gum she'd sold her tooth for" as Bill, or "John" puts it. For, after he assumes the role of Captain Subzero in his antics with the local girls, Vollmann finds in Reepah's friendship his polar twin, Captain John Franklin. Cleverly, as he (presumably) fictionalizes himself as procreating protagonist, he conflates Franklin's wife left behind, Lady Jane, with "John"'s Inuk lover.  Vollmann, with little pretension and anguished awareness, expands this "grave-twin" trope. Gradually over the first hundred pages, Captain Subzero speaks on behalf of Franklin, until the English explorer's venture intersperses with Vollmann's own, a century and a half later in the Arctic.

The author realizes he may romanticize the region. So might its now aging first Inuk inhabitants, for they were relocated to Resolute by the Canadian police to settle there a hundred years after Franklin's arrival. The indigenous presence ensures the protection of its natural resources against Norwegian claims. The displaced natives look back fondly on their Northern Québec homeland, compared with desolate Nunavit. After all, "the reason we love Eden is that we've been expelled from it". (82) Reepah's past or present suitor staggers in with bloody mouth and black eyes to leer at the teller; the pop songs or television blares; her child cries; she goes to prison; she becomes pregnant by "John".

Within this disconcertingly bleached domain, full of blue water and sometimes sky, green and yellow rocks, and the red Maple Leaf flag, as well as a ruined airplane, Vollmann admires its terrain. "The islands were mottled in all distinction, like the forehead of a Nobel prize winner, the moon through a rich man's telescope." (95) Sparing in descriptions, he freshens them to convey his presence. He enters this Fourth Dream dramatizing his own quest, as the third (at least, among his main male Dream characters to date) hesitant white man courting a native girl, uncertain of his claims on her.

The predicament of the native, entangled along with those who seek to master the people and their land, mirrors Franklin's ice-bound position. Yet, "Subzero enjoyed 'being' Franklin, being now occupied by only physical constraints", for in this paring down to the elemental, the essential lesson emerges. "Captivity frees one from the anguish of a liberty bereft of the good", he asserts. (116) That is, the reason ex-prisoners and ex-soldiers return to wax nostalgic among like comrades lies in the fact that then, the "future" with "all that" for better or often worse still lay ahead, as yet unknown. Yearning within the imprisoned or conscripted soul, in Vollmann's view, enables inner liberation.

Excited by the prospect of a Northwest Passage, the Victorian-era crew feels "on the edge of something new, moving with an ice-horizon that was banded like some grey Easter egg, frilled and starred with most subtle lacings". Certainly, dazzling horizons stimulate those new to them, then or now. The narrator shares in them "to the extent that" he is Franklin; but "to the extent that" he is Subzero, he cannot escape the "daily ache like old ice, knowing as you did that Reepah was in need, that seals were dying for nothing, that Fox and Raven were rotting in the dump at Pond Inlet, that PCB contamination had been reported at Yellowknife:-- the agony was not moot as for earlier pages of our continent". The Greenland Norse, the Québec French, the Virginia English have long lost their colonies. This fourth of the Dreams jolts more. The teller blames himself for some of this vast loss. "When you hear someone screaming for help and you do not know what to do, it is much worse than when she is already dead. This is the reason to get stuck in ice." (137) Vollmann reiterates Franklin's uneasy freedom, for soon his crew find themselves unable to move, trapped for seasons in the Arctic.

On an earlier expedition, about to leave behind a native girl he has impregnated, one of Franklin's crew, facing depleted supplies, worries. "Just as Mr. Franklin was doing with the others of her race, he used her only as a temporary source of meat. He said this to himself, and yet it was not true. He loved her. That made his helplessness more miserable than ever." (180) Another kindred spirit preceding Captain Subzero. He compassionately relates dragging a drunken Reepah through a (New York?) city, blurring her into Hood's consort Greenstockings, abandoned by Hood, pined after by a rival officer, Back. Soon, around the Arctic Circle to find a passage, Franklin's men starve.

They will again, on their last journey which deepens the despair on that second doomed foray. Vollmann enlivens the weary imagination of weakening Hood, near the polar Barren Lands. "Somewhere the caribou were so numerous that their antlers were a moving forest and their dark shoulder-bumps were tussocks; their legs were grass and suddenly the barrens grass was gone and a moving forest came galloping across the rivers." (197) On their arrival, the English had given out rifles, and shot caribou as the sailors meandered past the shore. Now, they scout each other, to devour.

Franklin, by the last third of this narrative, stands with his men "watching the open water die" (241). As Subzero muses, it's always lead, in the repeating rifles--bringing dependency, decimation of the native ways of life, and destruction of the native habitat--or, in the case of Franklin's men, the lead-soldered tins of meat that slowly poisoned some over three years, and addled the reasoning of the survivors, none of whom lasted for long, The final sections, after the set-piece of Subzero's ten days in an abandoned weather station near the North Magnetic Pole as he tries not to freeze to death, peter out into a blur of white pages and black print, as the memories of men merge and wander off.  I liked this better than "Ice-Shirt" but the willfully, if fittingly, vague concluding pages may not please those wanting closure. (2-18-14 to Amazon US)

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