I am obsessed with William T. Vollmann, an author and all around supremely interesting person. Many of you will never have heard about this man. I certainly had not, until roughly four years ago. I could probably actually pinpoint the very day I discovered him, as it took place in one of the first classes I had when I began my PhD four years ago. A fellow student who was in my lab and taking the same course told me I would probably like this author, WTV, as he was a modern day renaissance man; a polymath like myself (my friend’s words, not mine). I was skeptical at first. The book my friend was reading was WTV’s seven-volume treatise on violence: 3,350 pages that attempts to examine all facets of violence in different times and different contexts to see if it is ever justified, and if so why. It is encyclopedic in scope, while his prose has been compared to the likes of Thomas Pynchon (another author I have a raging hard-on for). Needless to say, this piqued my curiosity.
When I begin to tell people about WTV, I don’t know where to begin, or from which angle to start with: do I talk about WTV as the man, or as the author? Because, truly, both can get me talking for hours on end – much to the chagrin of several friends or random people I’ve conversationally taken hostage many a-late nights. Let’s begin with him as an author. Here is a complete list of his works, in order, and a short blurb about what they are about:
- An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World (1992): his first written book, but not published till years later, tells the story of how in 1982, at the age of 23, Vollmann quit his job as a software engineer and travelled to Afghanistan to help the mujahideen fight the Soviet invasion. About writing the book, he told a Paris Review interviewer:
I was in San Francisco. My original goal in writing it was to help the Afghans, to come up with some kind of book that would be interesting in the way that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was interesting—a book that contains both narrative description and political analysis. As you read it, you get a sense of a particular situation, but at the same time the book doesn’t date, even though the situation does. It’s still interesting reading in the same way Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian Wars is. That’s what I wanted to do. I was a student at Berkeley at the time. I submitted it to a political science competition. The judge wrote me a little note and said he really liked it, that it was really interesting as a work of literature, but it wasn’t a work of politics. So I gave it to a literary agent, who said it wasn’t literature, it was politically interesting, but not literature.
- You Bright and Risen Angels (1987): His first published work, a novel about a war between insects and the forces of modern civilization. From the back cover:
“In the jungles of South America, on the ice fields of Alaska, the plains of the Midwest, and the streets of San Francisco, a fearsome battle rages. The insects are vying for world domination; the inventors of electricity stand in evil opposition. Bug , a young man, rebels against his own kind and joins forces with the insects. Wayne, a thug, allies himself with the malevolent forces of electricity and vows to assassinate the preying mantis who tends bar in Oregon. A brusque La Pasionara with the sprightly name of Millie leads an intrepid band of revolutionaries.”
In an interview with the Paris Review, he described his writing process for this book as follows:
When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density.
- The Rainbow Stories (1989) (collection): from a 1994 New York Times article:
From 1988 to 1991 Vollmann lived in Manhattan, trying to befriend prostitutes and street people, as he had done in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco while writing “The Rainbow Stories,” his first collection of short fiction, published in 1989.
In the Tenderloin, he also began paying prostitutes to tell him stories, then extended the strategy to skinheads and winos; this research became the core of “The Rainbow Stories,” a work which without Vollmann’s weirdly lyrical prose style and his eccentric, visionary combinations of images would read like the nittiest-grittiest gonzo journalism. True to this form, most un-Pynchonesquely, he left himself in, though just as a shadow, the man asking the questions and feeding the meter.
- and in the Paris Review interview:
It’s clear that parts of Butterfly Stories have to be fictional, but still I wonder, did you have unprotected sex with that many prostitutes? Why take those risks?
Well, I wouldn’t mind finding some other way. When I was writing Angels, Rainbow Stories, and the other stories, that sort of thing wasn’t particularly interesting to me—getting involved with all the prostitutes that way. But I kept thinking when I first began writing that my female characters were very weak and unconvincing. What is the best way to really improve that? I thought, Well, the best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. What’s the best way to do that? It’s to pick up whores.
- The Ice-Shirt (1990) (Volume One of the Seven Dreams Series): I recently read this book by him. It is a retelling of the Greenlandic sagas (the Norse), which goes from early Kings who could ‘put on the Bear shirt’ to convert themselves to Bears (which may be a reference to when the Norse would eat some kind of drug to make themselves go ‘berserk’, which is where that word comes from), telling how the Norse came to Iceland and Greenland (Eirik the Red), and then to Vineland (the Americas) close to 1,000 AD (Leif Eiriksson, and Freydis Eiriksdaughter). It also combines Inuit creation myth and stories of encounters with the Norse, Micmac myths and stories of meeting the Greenlanders in Vineland, as well as present day travelogue stories and thoughts. It’s a real trip to read. I guess the main story is how Freydis, Eirik the Red’s bastard daughter, brought frost to the Americas. Here’s an good interview on the book with Vollmann on a radio program called The Bookworm:
- 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs (1991) (collection): from a Steven Moore review:
a linked collection of novellas and stories, and like his earlier book is peopled mostly by the demimonde of San Francisco, with a few set in Third World locales. “These stories are all epitaphs,” Vollmann writes in an author’s note, and there is a valedictory, memorial air hanging over most of these pieces as Vollmann tells autobiographical tales of people he’s known. His photographer friend Ken Miller appears in many of them—Dean Moriarty to Vollmann’s Sal Paradise—as does the mournful Elaine Suicide, the focus (heroine is hardly the word) of the two longest and best stories in the collection, “The Ghost of Magnetism” and “The Handcuff Manual.” In between the thirteen stories are thirteen brief epitaphs,” ranging from a paragraph to a few pages, each a concentrated vignette of death or loss.
- Whores for Gloria (1991) (First Part of his Prostitution Trilogy): from Steven Moore:
a powerful psychodrama of one man’s quest for happiness and love. Wino Jimmy, an aging Vietnam War vet, tries to keep his memory of Gloria alive by paying whores (the only word Vollmann uses for them) to tell him stories, which he in turn attributes to Gloria’s past. Just as Dr. Frankenstein assembled an ersatz man from various body parts, Jimmy assembles his dream woman from the miserable lives of whores and precariously maintains a modicum of happiness by looking forward to reuniting with her. It’s not clear whether Gloria was a childhood friend of Jimmy’s, or a whore he actually knew, or indeed a complete fantasy.
- Fathers and Crows (1992) (Volume Two of the Seven Dreams Series): from Steven Moore again:
The novel opens in modern Quebec with Vollmann (in his narrative persona as William the Blind) researching the Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert of the 17th century on whom he has an adolescent crush. Attempting a mystical fusion with his materials—as Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius advised in his Spiritual Exercises , often quoted in Fathers and Crows —the narrator recounts his tale like a medium in a trance. His visionary approach occasionally takes liberties with recorded history, duly noted in footnotes and voluminous endnotes; here Vollmann often cites a few experts who read portions of his manuscript, and his cheeky rationale for ignoring their sober advice is often amusing and always interesting for the light it sheds on his artistic agenda. Like the narrator of Tristram Shandy, Vollmann confides in the reader occasionally, asking for patience at times, revealing personal biases, drawing parallels to contemporary Canadian problems, and so on.
from the New York Times article:
The second installment, “Fathers and Crows,” weighed in at 990 pages. Working 16-hour days on the computer, Vollmann came down with a case of repetitive-motion disorder that has not let up since. Because of the carpal-tunnel syndrome, he has to restrict his hours on the computer, and writes more often in a notebook now.
[a] description of the death of a Huron taken by the Iroquois: “They burned him quite artfully. It took a day and a night for him to die. Of the terrible pain of burning, my love Kateri Tekakwitha is perhaps the best witness. . . . At Kahnawake she often ‘disciplined’ herself. . . . She went alone to the Chapel and branded herself with coals like a slave. She put an ember between her toes while saying her Hail Marie. Then she commenced in earnest, and burned herself from toes to knees with firebrands. Upon this charred and bleeding flesh she knelt all night.”
[speaking of Kateri Tekakwitha, who is the first Canadian First Nation person to be made a catholic saint, I recently read Leonard Cohen's amazing Beautiful Losers, which is very similar to Vollmann's Seven Dream series, in that it blends post-modern writing with historical fiction... I wonder if that book was in any way an inspiration to WTV.]
- Butterfly Stories: A Novel (1993) (Second of his Prostitution Trilogy): from the NYT article:
Set in Thai and Cambodian brothels, “Butterfly Stories” is a parable of suicide through sexual intercourse; the purpose of the act is to unite the journalist with his dead prostitute lover, but the story is still terrifying to read. A girlfriend Vollmann hadn’t heard from in years wrote in a panic to learn if he had AIDS. The journalist in the novel is delighted to learn that he has AIDS, whereas the “real” Vollmann was equally delighted to learn that he did not. Between self-portrait and fiction there’s a slippery slope. Still, Vollmann has been there, and keeps going back.
- The Rifles (1994) (Volume Six of the Seven Dreams Series): This is so far my favourite book by Vollmann. I can’t even describe how much awesome is packed into it. For the prose alone I would love it, but it goes above and beyond.
from the Paris Review article:
“the third novel to be written (actually the sixth in the series), focuses on the exploits of British explorer Sir John Franklin, who died on a naval expedition to the Canadian Arctic. To research The Rifles, Vollmann spent two weeks at an abandoned weather station at the magnetic North Pole, where his sleeping bag didn’t warm him and he began to hallucinate from lack of sleep: “Every night now he wondered if he would live until morning,” he writes.”
and later Vollmann says in the same interview:
I really wanted to get inside the heads of those Franklin guys and try to imagine what their last couple of years must have been like—in terrible conditions, utterly stuck, and knowing that they couldn’t get out and knowing that they were probably going to die. This seemed like a really good way to do it, just going someplace where I was totally by myself in the middle of the winter. I thought I would learn something about loneliness and fear and the bad weather and survival, which I did.
and the New York Times article describes how the book:
required time travel to the 19th century, when the explorer Sir John Franklin and his party starved to death in the Arctic in a doomed attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin’s tale is filtered through the story of Vollmann’s real-life friendship with a desperately impoverished and alcoholic Inuk girl named Reepah, who becomes the novel’s muse, merging with an Inuk goddess archetype as Vollmann’s own identity diffuses into Franklin’s.
In order to become Franklin, Vollmann decided to spend two weeks alone at an abandoned weather station at the magnetic North Pole. “I really wanted to get inside the heads of those Franklin guys, try and imagine what their last couple of years must have been like, knowing that they couldn’t get out, knowing they were probably going to die. Going someplace where I was totally by myself in the middle of the winter — I thought I would learn something about loneliness and fear.”
Extremes of cold overwhelmed Vollmann’s gear — plastic shattered, the fringe of fur around his face froze to the consistency of a wire brush, and worst of all his sleeping bag failed to warm him, so that he was soon hallucinating from lack of sleep. “Every night now he wondered if he would live until morning,” Vollmann writes. “Lying still in the darkness, waiting for the next shiver, he did his best to thrust beyond notice the collar of iron around his neck, the helmet of iron on his face and the frozen hood behind his head.” Vollmann set his sleeping bag on fire trying to dry it. The rescue plane was late, but he survived.
- The Atlas (1996) (short story collection): another book I’ve read, and probably my second favourite, next to The Rifles. So much humanity in these writings… Also made me want to read Snow Country by Kawabata, which I also highly recommend. From Steven Moore:
The book is difficult to categorize: It resembles a short-story collection in that there are 55 stories, most of them made up of four or five brief vignettes—the prose equivalents of postcards or vacation slides—linked by a particular image or memory. It is like a gazetteer in that you can focus on particular places to read about, if you wish, for the stories are all self-contained. It is also a mathematically structured fiction like Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual or John Barth’s LETTERS. As Vollmann explains in the preface, the book is organized like a palindrome—a sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards. (“Able was I ere I saw Elba,” Napoleon reputedly said.) That is, the first story is linked to the last, the second to the penultimate, and so on. At the center of the novel The Atlas is a story called “The Atlas,” which weaves together episodes from the rest of the book. But the book The Atlas also resembles a novel in that it explores the psychic landscape of a single narrator (never named, but pretty clearly Vollmann), a man who is reminded of the world within by the troubled world at large.
from the Paris Review interview:
I guess Hemingway’s piece about the old man at the bridge in For Whom the Bell Tolls was an inspiration for some of them. The old man is not going to make it across the bridge, or if he does it will be blown up; no one can possibly help him; sooner or later they are going to catch up with him and that will be the end of him. The way Hemingway handles all this—in a page and a half—is pretty amazing.
- The Royal Family (2000) (Third (and final?) Part of his Prostitution Trilogy): from Steven Moore:
Like Steinbeck’s East of Eden, The Royal Family is set in California and is based on the Cain and Abel story. Henry Tyler (Cain) is a struggling private detective in his forties; John (Abel) is an ambitious contract lawyer, a stereotypical yuppie who prides himself on knowing where to buy the finest ties in San Francisco, while Henry is something of a bohemian (he has long hair and prefers City Lights bookstore over a haberdashery). Both brothers are in love with the same person, a rather unhappy Korean-born woman named Irene. She’s married to John, who is usually too busy to spend time with her, so Henry keeps her company—until the day she commits suicide.
One of Henry’s clients is a crass businessman named Jonas Brady who wants to open a Las Vegas sex casino called Feminine Circus. He’s heard of a San Francisco woman known as the Queen of the Whores, whom he feels would be a fine attraction at his casino, so he hires Henry to track her down. As Henry trawls through the underworld searching for this mysterious person, he’s introduced to the members of the Queen’s royal family,” a pool of cunt-sharks” with names like Sapphire, Chocolate, Sunflower, Strawberry, and Domino. After Irene kills herself, he redoubles his efforts to locate the Queen, hoping to find some kind of salvation by passing through a refining fire of grief and degradation.
Henry’s quest for the Queen rings with religious overtones supplied by Vollmann’s occasional references to Gnostic scripture and Canaanite mythology. God set the Mark of Cain upon the brow of Abel’s murderer that he might be avoided by all decent people, and Henry comes to view prostitutes—and eventually himself—as members of Cain’s tribe. When he finally meets the Queen, she provides him with rituals of degradation intended to purge him of his grief for Irene, and when those don’t work, she becomes his lover. Eventually she disappears, and Henry gives up his profession and becomes a hobo, riding the rails in search of his lost Queen.
- Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (2001) (Volume Three of the Seven Dreams Series): from Steven Moore:
Argall deals with the British annexation of what they later called Virginia, and focuses on three colorful characters: Pocahontas, Captain John Smith, and the sinister Sir Samuel Argall, who eventually kidnaps Pocahontas and introduces slavery into the New World.
- Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (2003): I have only read this book in its abridged form. In its unabridged form, it is about 3,300 pages. The book is a 20-years-in-the-making effort to answer the question: When is violence justified? The book is divided into two parts plus a ‘moral calculus': the first part is the first four volumes (of seven), which mostly deals with the analysis of violence in all its forms drawn mostly from historical accounts of violence, while the fifth and sixth volumes are from Vollmann’s own experience with violence, such as his many travels to war-torn areas (Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Japan, the former Yugoslavia, Madagascar, the Congo, Somalia, Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia, Jamaica, and various parts of the United States). The moral calculus is Vollmann’s attempt to create a ‘guide’ to when Violence can be said to be justified.
From Steven Moore:
To organize his unruly subject, Vollmann divides acts of violence into their various possible defenses: self-defense (the only clearly justified use of violence according to Vollmann), defense of homeland, of honor, authority, race, creed, gender, and more recent concerns such as defense of earth against polluters and defense of animals. For his examples, Vollmann draws on nearly all eras of recorded history—in volume 2 he tosses off “A Survey-History of Property from Nomadic Times to the Russian Revolution”—and treats nearly every culture on earth, from the hapless Afghans to the Zulu.
The scope is immense, and his reading wide. Though not an academic, Vollmann scrupulously documents everything in hundreds of source notes (his philanthropic publisher hired a team of fact-checkers to help) and goes out of his way to be as fair and respectful toward his material as possible. He is so open-minded that he can identify and praise Trotsky’s few virtues while admitting “To Trotsky I’d be scum.” There’s no agenda, no pre-ordained thesis, no political bias: he simply wants to understand violence and share his findings. Nor is he prescriptive; though sickened by violence, he’s concerned here with how to judge it, not how to eradicate it. We know how to eradicate it: as Vollmann counsels, just observe the Golden Rule, perhaps fleshed out with the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights , but that’s easier said than done.
- Europe Central (2005): from Steven Moore:
The former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are the settings for his new novel, a grimly magnificent dramatization of the impossible moral choices forced on individuals by those totalitarian regimes. Ranging from 1914 to 1975, the book is organized as a series of paired stories, like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, comparing a German and a Russian facing a similar situation. For example, one set pairs Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who deserted his army for the enemy’s, with Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus, a Nazi who collaborated with the Communists after capture. But most are not so neat. The danger of using violent means to attain idealistic ends is the point of the first pair of stories, which contrasts the revolutionary idealist Fanya Kaplan, whose failed attempt to assassinate Lenin in 1918 unleashed the Red Terror wave of executions, with a nameless German whose patriotic idealism inspires him to cheer Kaiser Wilhelm’s decision to begin World War I; and “right beside me a pale little man, probably a tramp, with disheveled hair and a dark trapezoidal mustache, began to caper, smiling at the world with a sleepwalker’s eyes.”
- Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (2006): This book is probably about Copernicus and his theory that, perhaps, the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.
- Poor People (2007): from Publisher’s Weekly:
The varied responses to the question “why are you poor?” fuels this meditation on the nature of poverty by journalist and National Book Award–winning novelist Vollmann (Europe Central, etc.). The book, structured as a series of vignettes that span the globe and decades, describes Vollmann’s encounters with individuals and families who many would consider poor. A handful of these people, including three generations of women in Thailand and two men in Japan, drive the book, as Vollmann closely examines their circumstances. His alternately sentimental and erudite inquiry is based in large part on his and their personal experience, as an antidote to the official and scientific data about poverty. Indeed, his attempt to understand poverty is deeply entwined with a more poetic inquiry into happiness. Some of the anecdotes set aflight by Vollmann’s novelistic attention to details are provocative;others, however, come off as more nostalgic than illustrative, and give the book a desultory feel. But the book’s movement between details and thought, spiced with Vollmann’s singular style, is intriguing. On the table is not just poverty, but questions of community, fate and perspective. The book’s greatest accomplishment is that—unlike other works of this sort—it’s neither guilt producing nor guilt absolving. At the end, there’s no implied sigh or self-congratulation, for writer or reader. This is the book’s greatest achievement.(Mar.)
- Riding Toward Everywhere (2008): from Publisher’s Weekly:
In this sometimes heavy-handed though brief (especially for Vollmann) memoir of hopping trains and riding the rails, Vollmann, National Book Award winner for Europe Central, explores a personal and national obsession. From a certain open boxcar in a freight train heading the wrong way, he writes, I have enjoyed pouring rain, then birds and frogs, fresh yellow-green wetness of fields. Taking to the rails out West, Vollmann sometimes travels with buddies pursuing the same thrill, the same freedom people have long associated with railroads. Other times, he meets up with grizzled hobos and degenerates, reflecting on himself and his reasons for risking life and limb to see America from a speeding freight train. Whatever beauty our railroad travels bestow upon us comes partly from the frequent lovely surprises of reality itself, he says, often from the intersection of our fantasies with our potentialities. While he never really gets around to fully explaining his own reasons for doing so—he makes long, curlicue allusions to his restless soul and search for deeper meanings of things—Vollmann pieces together a kind of patchwork portrait of the lusts and longings of a nation torn by social inequity and riven with anger about the current state of affairs, especially but not limited to the war in Iraq and the ongoing sadness of American overseas misadventures. Through the self-indulgent mist, though, a sharper picture emerges. Vollmann captures an ongoing romantic vision of America—a nation always on the move, nervous and jittery, and never really satisfied with itself.
- Imperial (2009): from a Powells blog post:
I thought first, “Well, maybe I could write some long, Steinbeck-like novel about illegal aliens crossing the border.” Then I realized, No, I don’t have the knowledge to do that. And I never even pretended to myself for a second that I had the knowledge to do that.
study of south-east California by American author William T. Vollmann. The product of over a decade’s research, the 1,344-page published text is Vollmann’s longest single-volume work. The book is divided into thirteen sections and explores the history, economics and geography of the region from 13,000 B.C. to the present day, with a particular focus on the border with Mexico. Vollmann has called Imperial “my Moby-Dick“
- Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater (2010): from a Vice article:
As its title suggests, it is a sociological exploration of the strange, veiled world of Noh and its practitioners. The book is filled with transvestites, geishas, sex fiends of the red-light Kabukichō district, and many other interesting characters both elegant and perverted. It also marks the first time that we have read the word “neovagina.”
and from a Powells blog post:
But once I started watching these actors turn into women, then I thought, “Wow. How are they different from a tea girl in a kabuki show, making herself up? She still has the penis, but she is out there as a prostitute. People are paying her because she is pretty and sexual. How is she different from a geisha?” I started hiring geishas, and it is $1,000 to $2,000 an hour to have a geisha pour you a little sake and very, very slowly dance for you. What about transgender people here, and what about g-girls (genetic girls)? Is there any sort of commonality to all of this? I knew that the biggest mistake I can make would be to answer the question, especially as a man.
But precisely because I’m a man who is attracted to women, there may be some things that I have to say as a spectator of feminine grace that women themselves may not be able to see. I quote this one friend of mine named Shannon in the book. I asked her, “What is it like for you? You have all this power over men.” She said, “I’ll tell you how it is. You are constantly checking. You’re repairing your lipstick. You’re worried that your high heel might be breaking. So while you’re young, you can’t enjoy it. Then you start to get old, and then you’re just really sad, because it’s gone.” That is her perspective.
I think that to ask the question and realize what an incredibly deep question it is can maybe encourage everybody to appreciate beauty in his or her own way. That’s sort of my intention.
- Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan (2011) (eBook): from the Amazon.com review:
Do you think that nuclear power is wise or unwise? When you think about radiation, what comes to mind? How relevant is the nuclear accident to you? So, you approve of nuclear power? These are not questions asked around a water cooler in Anywhere, USA, a safe distance from the eastern coast of Japan, which is experiencing a nuclear disaster of Chernobyl-like proportions. These are questions William T. Vollmann asked a handful of people who were there–who were rocked by the 9-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011; who managed to survive the tsunami that followed; and who are now dealing with what is probably the most fearsome element in this trifecta of catastrophes–the unknown. Armed with a dosimeter and an anti-nuclear agenda, Vollmann boldly goes where even the most hungry and seasoned journalist would fear to tread, “the forbidden zone.” The answers Vollmann gets may surprise you. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the kindness and enduring spirit of the people he encounters–people still abiding what had seemed like a remote horror that now, yet again, is all too real. –Erin Kodicek
- The Book of Dolores (2013): from the dustjacket (I believe):
William T. Vollmann has travelled to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with Islamic commandos, shivered out a solitary stretch at the North Magnetic Pole in winter, hopped freight trains, studied the stately ancient beauties of Japanese Noh theater, and made friends with street prostitutes all over the world—all in the interest of learning a little more about life. Now in his mid-fifties, Vollmann sets out on what may well be impossible for a heterosexual genetic male: to envision himself as a woman. In these photographs, block prints, and watercolor drawings, he portrays his alter ego, Dolores, with whimsicality, and sometimes with cruelty—for Dolores would like to be attractive, or at least to “pass,” but the ageing male body in which she remains confined requires lowered expectations. Meanwhile, the drawings and block prints, composed with the artist’s glasses off, show Dolores as she imagines herself to be. The Book of Dolores brings the genre of self-portraits to a new level of vulnerability and bravery. In the process, it offers virtuoso performances of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century photographic techniques, including the seductively difficult gum bichromate method. Each section of the book is accompanied by an essay on motives and techniques.
That covers all the books that Vollmann has published to this day. The following are random interesting facts about the man. To be honest, I started writing this post LONG ago, and I’m tired of how big it has become. So the following is sort of coddled together:
When Vollmann was 9, his parents put him in charge of looking after his 6 year old sister. Under his watch, she drowned in a pond. From the Paris Review interview:
When I was nine years old and my sister was six, she drowned. I was supposed to be watching her and I didn’t. I always felt guilty about it, and my parents kind of blamed me for it a little bit too, I think. It was a pond in New Hampshire; it had a shallow bottom, which dropped off abruptly and . . . she couldn’t swim. I knew she couldn’t swim, and I was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. My father and my uncle were out swimming. I just stopped paying attention at one point. I was lost in some sort of daydream.
[...] I had nightmares practically every night—of her skeleton chasing me and punishing me and stuff like this—pretty much through high school, and then things got a lot better for me.
Steven Moore describes a story from The Atlas about how the memory of his sister haunts him:
For example, one of the best stories, “Under the Grass,” opens with the narrator brooding on the day in 1968 when his negligence led to his sister’s drowning in a pool. (Sad to say, this tragedy actually occurred when Vollmann was a boy, as he once revealed in an interview.) Buried under the New England grass, his sister becomes a combination of spirit guide and ghost to haunt the boy: “Now you’re my white witch,” he says, like a narrator in one of Poe’s tales (evoked here by the lush, Gothic prose). From there we jump to an airport in Mauritius 25 years later, where the narrator is so fatigued and disoriented that he asks the authorities how to find his sister, a request that leads to comic misunderstandings and ends with a taxi driver assuming the narrator wants a prostitute. Then we jump to Thailand in the same year, at a bar for prostitutes, where the narrator is feeling good for having recently rescued a child-prostitute from “a nightmarish brothel in the south.” (This was the subject of a photo-essay Vollmann contributed to Spin in 1993.) He has sex with a prostitute, then dreams of seeing his sister’s coffin, and wakes up “either screaming or thinking I was screaming,” realizing that his rescuing exploit was a failed attempt to appease the spirit of the sister he failed to rescue 25 years ago. The story concludes in the catacombs of Rome, back in Poe territory (this story is a micro-palindrome mirroring the macro-palindrome of the book), where the narrator envisions a gruesome resurrection for his sister, only to see her metamorphose into the presiding spirit of “the girls from Firenze who drink the sun . . . the girls who sing a-la-la- la! and ‘Ciao, Maria'”—a puzzling but cathartic ending to a moving story.
He graduated summa cum laude (in comparative literature) from Cornell
Vollmann started a PhD in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley but dropped out after a year (Paris Review interview):
I was in a Ph.D. program at Berkeley for a year. Then I decided that it wasn’t for me. They had given me a fellowship for that year, and I felt kind of guilty about taking it. At the time what I needed to do was just go out there and have experiences and express myself. So I dropped out after a year and never went back. I became a door-to-door canvasser, and that lasted for about six months. Then I got a computer-programming job in Silicon Valley, and I started working on You Bright and Risen Angels in the office.
I slept in the office quite a bit. I worked at midnight. I don’t drive, so I stayed there all week, sleeping under my desk, a wastebasket in front of my head so the janitors wouldn’t discover me, living on candy bars. I always got Three Musketeers because you got an extra half ounce for the same amount of money. I worked on the book whenever I could, and stored it on computer tapes. I very rarely printed out a hard copy—I think I did it once.
When he got back (from the NYT article):
Vollmann took a job as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, and returned wholeheartedly to the world of daydream. After hours, he slept under his desk, subsisted on candy bars and composed his first novel, the mammoth metafictional fable “You Bright and Risen Angels.”
To research material for his Rainbow Stories, Vollmann took up smoking crack (from the NYT article):
Because he found the San Francisco prostitutes would not trust him unless he shared their drugs, he smoked crack about a hundred times, though he does not seem to miss it.
In the mid 1990s, he was a journalistic correspondent for magazines like Spin and Esquire (from Steven Moore):
he has been sent by magazines such as Esquire and Spin to the world’s hot spots—Somalia, Bosnia, Thailand, Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots—often at considerable risk. (He narrowly missed being hit by snipers in Croatia; his two companions were killed.)
Here’s an article about his narrow escape from death when he and two other journalists accidentally drove over a land mine.
When Vollmann was in Thailand, he rescued a 10 year old prostitute: (from the Paris Review interview):
Anyway, so when I was in Thailand, I went to a town in the south and bought a young girl for the night. This awful brothel—one of these places hidden behind a flowershop with all these tunnels and locked doors and stuff—was like a prison. I tried to help a couple of the girls but you just can’t get them out. I tried and I couldn’t. I made the mistake of going to the police, trying to have the police get them out—all that did was nearly get them arrested and put in jail, because the police are paid off. I managed to get the raid called off by taking all the cops out to dinner and buying them Johnnie Walker. I bought this fourteen-year-old girl and got her in a truck and drove like hell to Bangkok. I was with this other girl at the time—Yhone-Yhone, a street prostitute, a very happy one. She was my interpreter. She put the fourteen-year-old girl at ease and got her to trust me. We got her set up at a school run by a relative of the king of Thailand. I went up north, met her father, gave him some money, and got a receipt for his daughter. He didn’t know she’d been sold to a brothel. When I met him and told him he said, Oh. I didn’t know that, but, well, whatever she wants. He’s not a bad guy, just a total loser. He’s a former Chiang Kai-shek soldier. They’re all squatters there in Thailand. They can’t read or write. He lives on dried dogs and dried snakes.
You own his daughter?
That’s right. I own her. She doesn’t particularly like me, but she was really happy to be out of that place. She loves the school. It’s sort of a vocational school. It’s called something like the Center for the Promotion of the Status of Women. Many former prostitutes are in there. Most of them aren’t learning how to read or write because that’s useless to them. She is learning how to sew. Some of them are learning how to be beauticians.
Bosnia (Paris Review):
Well, I tried to get one girl out of Sarajevo, a Serbian girl, but I couldn’t do it. People at the UN were bickering with the Serbs; Croatians and Muslims wouldn’t talk to each other. I couldn’t get permission to get her out.
Loneliness: (paris review interview):
Also, I often feel lonely. It’s been really nice for me to have all of these women who really, I truly believe, care about me. I care about them. I keep in touch with them. I help them out, they help me out; they pay my rent because I can write about them. I do pictures of them, I give them pictures; I paint them myself. It works pretty well.
Most recently it was discovered that the FBI investigated Vollmann because he was one of their suspects for the Unabomber: