Tuesday, August 19, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Royal Family": Book Review

After I read the gloomy obsessions of love or lust in the companion piece for this novel, in the briefer "Whores for Gloria" set in the Tenderloin and "The Butterfly Stories: A Novel" in Thailand, a sustained immersion into, as of the early '90s, the not-quite-tamed streets where Vollmann lived and wandered takes its time as it draws you in. Whereas the two earlier novels followed a misfit narrator into the lairs and bars where women plied their trade and sought to secure his affection, for this 2000 noirish tale, we get a gumshoe protagonist and sly antagonist who are brothers, to square off. 

Yes, Cain and Abel, good and evil, are early on referenced via the Gnostics. Vollmann sets up well in its early stages the predicament of another forlorn woman whom the main character longs to comfort and keep, but cannot. Whereas Jimmy (he gets a cameo here, and so does the author as a "moon-faced" journalist) for Gloria and the "journalist" for Vanna in "Butterfly" found their fevered quests dragging them deep, Tyler (Hank to his louche lawyer brother, John) loses his brother's wife, Korean-American Irene, to death. Her plight, like that of other bereft men and women Vollmann tends to listen to and dramatize (such as John's mistress Celia), lingers. We miss her. Accepting his depictions of these beaten down folks, we side with Hank, Celia, and Irene. These, to me, proved more engaging than the tales of grimy johns.

Into this seedy situation, Tyler's sent by one Brady (a cartoonish conveyance of greed and prejudice, reminding me of the White Power + Light villains in "You Bright and Risen Angels") to seek out the Queen of the Whores; his brother is also hired by the same tycoon, so the two stare each other down. John is a wonderfully boorish greed-is-good type, akin to the photographer in "Butterfly"; against him, Vollmann uses the familiar for him perspective of the bullied boy turned hesitant man as Tyler.

Not only San Francisco's fog and vistas but Sacramento's railyards and dust gain attention, too. There's a pleasure in viewing California through Vollmann's eyes, and after the urban clang and urine smell evoked in the Tenderloin, the Tyler brothers' overlooked hometown (now Vollmann's) gains probably one of its first depictions by a major novelist. He avoids cliché about the Golden State, as one who while born there grew up as a child of a professor in Indiana and New England, so his p-o-v is deepened by his travels and his experiences before he came back to explore Californian byways.

There's powerful moments, often in scenes that may not push the plot along much, but which reveal characteristic observations of the author filtered through his put-upon protagonists and those they seek out for support. In a bridal registry at Macy's on Union Square, Irene and John's brother Hank go to pick out bone china. The oddness of that itself stands for their relationships, and Vollmann enhances this tilt by a matter-of-fact observation about how the acquisition of goods such as porcelain gravy dishes but who cannot enjoy them, no less than any product, dispirits those who value value. John seems to stand in that category; Hank resists this classification; Irene and sensitive souls give in.

Vignettes also help enrich characters such as Beatrice, a Mixteca whom we follow in Mexico before coming to San Francisco establish her survival skills as she is reduced to earn a living by prostitution. The Queen whom she and others circle about gains a predictably (given also Vollmann's knack for insect and biological analogies) hive-like domination, and after she is introduced a fifth of the long way in, the novel invites some allegorical interpretations. It also enters disturbing considerations, true to the nature of Vollmann's moral calculus in "Rising Up and Rising Down", of Dan Smooth's sexuality when judged illegal or immoral, and book X offers a similar sidestep into the injustice of bail, as the author observes in Sacramento. This section could have graced RURD particularly well.

After the bail interlude, we return to the Queen and her minions; Tyler gets sucked into her web, and this section, while less inventive as what preceded it, brings a "false Irene" among those under sway. Two-thirds into the novel, John too finds himself lured to the Tenderloin, as Brady's Boys, a vigilante faction purporting to want to clean up the streets, seeks to take down the Queen and her royal coterie.

Vollmann peeps in, via an aside about his agent's complaints about the manuscript, and in section 476 he provides a clever elaboration of a theme which, by canonical and apocryphal Scriptural colophons he inserts throughout. The Mark of Cain on Tyler and others under the Queen's sway proves their membership in the Canaanites, whose practices the Hebrews and their moral heirs the Christians and in this case, Jonas Brady's capitalists, seek to eliminate as immoral, if only to boost their profits from a strange even by Vollmann standards Feminine Circus in Las Vegas, staffed by freakish sex workers. Some of this set-up never gets fully explained, but its veiled mystery suffices to set up odd scenes.

Near the end, as Henry "Hank" Tyler sentences himself to destitution, selling off first gun, then car, but toting a bible, he roams not the Tenderloin but Coffee Camp near Sacramento's vast railyards. Vollmann's experience riding the rails heightens his scenes set among the migrants and misfits. Tyler's travels take him to Miami, Seattle, and Slab City, where Vollmann explored this desert sprawl later in "Imperial". This last tenth of the book accelerates as Tyler's increasingly unhinged quest finds him battling Jesus, if at a remove, and searching for the Queen, Irene, and his lost sense of belonging. Vollmann will return to this milieu a decade later through his travelogue, Riding Toward Everywhere.

In one of his typically revealing endnotes, Vollmann comments that his editor at Viking, Paul Slovak, advised him to trim the book by a third. He refused, but he took a third cut in royalties. This dogged commitment to ensuring his works, big as they can be, remain faithful to his vision may annoy some with less patience for some of the chatter between the whores and some of the habitual roaming Tyler engages in, but in parts on the vagaries of bail, the chapter on Geary Boulevard and Street's sudden run-in one-way at the Tenderloin, or the Buddhist and Christian-Canaanite allusions, a patient reader will forgive some of the excess. Not to mention fine metaphors--my favorite compares a blackening banana to a "scrambled tiger." Amid yellow hills and fog, this novel pairs off brothers contending for the attentions not only of Irene, but for many women who endure a world that diminishes in its pity. (Amazon US 7-14-14)

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