Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Michael Hemmingson's "William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews": Review

In part I: Freedom, Redemption, and Prostitution, Hemmingson discusses dominant themes: the individual seeking to survive or resist within the system. Chapter One covers in more than detail than usual in this volume the debut novel that portrays this as a circle, a spiral, a trap repeated over and over in You Bright and Risen Angels. Then, it's a survey of freedom sought in Rainbow Stories, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epigrams, if far too brief a glance at the massive WWII Soviet-Nazi epic Europe Central.
Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes in its first four installments to date in this monograph remain skimmed rather than dissected. A few pages per novel leave one with an insufficient appreciation of what each chronicle comprises, and their plots. (
I've recently reviewed each: The Ice-Shirt; Fathers and CrowsArgall; The Rifles.) However, Hemmingson explains earlier the general approach Vollmann prefers for most of his oeuvre. He clarified in a 2006 Poets & Writers Magazine interview how the "different genres are like different paint brushes you might pick up, which create different effects"; the works, Hemmingson introduces, combine "fiction, memoir, erotica, journalism, social critique, ethnography, history, and speculative fiction." (7) Hemmingson alludes to the academic apparatus (and, I add, insights informing many of his books via experts) added to the Dreams series (and other books) as Vollmann's typical method, which exposes the difficulty of interpreting claims and judging motives.

Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Royal Family earn attention for their milieux in Asia and in San Francisco, two areas Vollmann has explored as a journalist and participant-observer. In this loose trilogy he also incorporates himself as a character, as well as a chronicler of low-life redemption. Hemmingson makes this seamy material inviting, noting its compassion and nuance.

An enormous project on the ethics of violence and the taking of life, Rising Up & Rising Down earns a brisk survey, more oriented to the condensed version given the original's scarcity to most readers. Hemmingson critiques the scattershot nature of Vollmann's An Afghanistan Picture Show and appears to favor the diverse collage of fact and fiction that comprises a similarly conceived The Atlas. Likewise, he prefers Poor People to the more diffuse and self-absorbed literary musings of Riding Toward Everywhere. As for Imperial, its scope and heft again dwarf the few pages allotted to it here. 

As Hemmingson tallies Vollmann's labels, they prove many: "a postmodernist, metafictionist, contemporary and historical novelist, pornographer, journalist, cultural/social critic, travel writer, and memoirist." (67) One senses this critic and his subject share an affinity for the adventure of a war correspondent, and a journalist willing to plunge into the raw, wounded, and seamier sides of life. Despite a lack of proofreading and a brevity at odds with Vollmann's vast range, this as the author intends represents by default "the starting point for all Vollmann studies." Its compact size may contrast with (as even a sympathetic critic such as Hemmingson confronts) Vollmann's refusal to accept editing, but the summations of texts and the interviews compiled make this a handy reference. 

Part II offers Seven Conversations, many drawn from the Net, but also expanded or published in full. In full form, you can read 1991's "Moth to the Flame," with Larry McCaffery. Then, shorter takes enter as The Write Stuff, a 1994 ALT-X Interview, and
"William Vollmann Shares Vision" with Michelle Goldberg, 2000. Another 2001 interview with McCaffery follows as "Pattern Recognitions."

"Drinks With Tony" is a 2005 interview with Tony Dushane at Bookslut. "The Subversive Dialogues" with Kate Braverman follows from 2006. Finally, "A Day At William T. Vollmann’s Studio" is A Quarterly Conversation 2007 interview with Terri Saul on his series of transformed book objects.

The book concludes with a bibliography up to around 2008. Added is a list of “CoTangent Press Book Arts” about the limited-edition book objects; McCaffery and Hemmingson included illustrations from these and context in their own useful 2004 Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden.
(Amazon US 2-21-14)

Paris Review #163 interview with Madison Smartt Bell, Fall 2000.

Free Williamsburg interview with Alexander Laurence, May 2001.

YouTube shows Larry McCaffery discussing Vollmann at MLA 2011.

Vollmann Club collects links, some dead, from its long-dormant book discussion.

Holdings of the Vollmann Archive at Ohio State University.

P.S. These URLs (excepting my own embedded italicized reviews as linked), expanded the ToC by Nathan R. Gaddis as his helpful 2013 Goodreads post.
Mostly via the working links on Vollmann at Wikipedia, I append a few more interviews and reviews:
Bell again in NY Times Magazine on Vollmann, 2004 profile.  

James Gibbons on Expelled and Europe and much more in Bookforum, 2005.

Ben Bush in the 2006 Poets & Writers Magazine interview cited above. 

John Cotter on Poor People ca. 2007 at Open Letters Monthly.

Jeff Bursey on Expelled and Poor 2008, Electronic Book Review.

Vollmann on the ethics of photography, "Seeing Eye to Eye," Bookforum, 2009. 

Steven Ross at The Brooklyn Rail after the publication of Imperial, 2010.  

Ben Bush after the publication of Last Stories, Bookforum, 2014.

Tom Bissell at The New Republic after the publication of Last Stories, 2014. 

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