Monday, September 1, 2014

"Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader": Review

This 2004 anthology, as introduced by critic Larry McCaffery, presents Vollmann's body of work as if a quirky parallel to a fan's in-depth retrospective on Bruce Springsteen. That is, it shows early and obscure work, unreleased compositions, as well as the hits. Michael Hemmingson's preface shows--as with The Boss--how Vollmann inspired his contemporaries to create and to follow his example, if more on the fringes of critical acclaim to date compared to the #1 success of Springsteen. But, as Bruce was once but a cult figure, so may Vollmann still break through.

Part 1 looks at his background and influences. "The Land of Counterpane" reveals a boyhood fear of "wrinkles" that reminds us of the terror as well as release within our imaginary encounters with tales at an early age. "The Butterfly Boy" finds a stand-in for the bullied young Bill; and "Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. (1968)" charts the death of his sister which marked him while growing up. "Some Thoughts on Neglected Water Taps" respectfully surveys his Deep Springs College years. I think the "List of 'Contemporary' Books Most Admired by Vollmann (1990)" is well-chosen for a smart man nearing thirty, but the editors seem to understate that his father taught at Dartmouth, Rhode Island, and Indiana, and that as a straight-A student at Cornell and a dropout from Berkeley's doctoral program, Vollmann certainly benefited from exposure to "high" culture all his life. His early story excerpt "The Ghost of Magnetism" displays well his talents for the hallucinatory and vivid.

Part II plunges into death, war, and violence. "Three Meditations on Death" from the Paris catacombs, the San Francisco morgue, and the Serb-Croatian p-o-v prove harrowing. "Across the Divide" evenly listens to the Taliban and their opponents. "Regrets of a Schoolteacher" glimpses a Yakuza recruit's troubled career. "Zoya" from Europe Central presents a Soviet woman's hanging by the Nazis. From "The Grave of Lost Stories" peeps into Poe. Vollmann's review of Reporting Vietnam shows influences that marked him in his youth (although he seems a bit too young to have feared being called up for any draft over there). "Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing during Wartime" challenges writers to understand goodness and to seek truth honestly from opponents as well as supporters of state and rebel violence. But a snip from his massive Rising Up and Rising Down treatment of a "tentative ethics" of rationales for violence as "Moral Calculus" needed more context.

Part III dives into another controversial theme, that of love and sex, but mainly prostitutes, and a bit of pornography. The amount of material should satisfy casual readers wondering how and why Vollmann gravitates towards this domain. He tells of a seedy hotel, scuttled with cockroaches and smelling of a crack pipe, and you should be convinced that he knows this realm well. He repeats the familiar argument that in our economic reality, we all sell ourselves for another's gain or pleasure. He encourages as with war reporting that observers promote honesty and try to connect the Self with the Other, a theme that he returns to in the literary criticism that he contributes to through his life's work.

Part IV shows the backdrop as travel for these books. I found his collegiate letters about "the advantages of space" and "a bizarre proposition" jejune. More revealing was "The Conquest of Kianazor" as an early template for his fictional imagination. "Subzero's Debt" from The Rifles serves as a dramatic test of his own Arctic limits, and luckily less life-threatening, "The Water of Life" from Imperial charts his attempt to ride the New River through that polluted, parched, and odd valley.

Part V, on writing, literature, and culture champions his what one piece titles "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-Hearted Un-Deleter" and potential Nobel Prize winner" and despite one's caution at such a claim, if you read Vollmann patiently and deeply, you too may be convinced that this isn't hyperbole. He returns to rally by "understanding without approving or hating. By empathizing." ("American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease" 330)  His "Afterword to Danilo Kiš's 'A Tomb for Boris Davidovich' raises the "unending debate between revolutionaries and conservatives" by asking whether "unavoidable, essential existence" accounted for "beaten wives, perished workers and misled children" or "whether their tragedies, being the results of human agency, may be addressed through a massive change in social structures." (337)  He tackles ideology, and why we rush to a cause. "Maybe in politics as in sexuality, a purity of passion exists in the preconsummation state of half-blind surmises." (339) He reviews his own Argall in jaundiced fashion as he imitates critics of his prolixity and proliferation in "The Stench of Corpses." An appreciation of two influences, one prolix, one populist, enlivens "Melville's Magic Mountain" and "Steinbeck: Most American of Us All." 

Valuable appendices as a thorough and revealing Vollmann-and-more chronology by McCaffery and Vollman's "Seven Dreams: Description of Project" assist any researcher or reader of his vast oeuvre to date. Samples of his working style with collaborators and his CoTangent Press book objects show more examples of how Vollmann goes beyond writing, as an artist and documentarian, to try to, as he sums up in a postscript, remain moral. "I have no trade, make nothing but pretty things which fail against the seriousness of rice." He goes on, half-humbly, and perhaps half-self-consciously in a biblical or proverbial sense (I sense he wears many masks): "When they did me evil, I received it gracefully; when they were good to me, I returned my thanks." (479) While I could do without the photo of young Vollmann with his Beretta as this panders to a voyeuristic sensibility that "Rising" may have tempered, and while the blurbed emphasis on not-yet-published works adds up only to the section from Imperial and the then-about to be released Europe Central, it's for now the only way into so many of his many works. For this, thanks to this author and editors, too. (Amazon US 2-9-14)

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