The writer William T Vollman has a distinctive, Germanic name and a distinctive face. A hardened, capable writer with a New Yorker profile written about his latest book, which is about climate change.
Vollman is outraged, rightly, upon finding out the reason for his random detentions, his seized documents, the knocks on his door ; and his personal fury reaches a mighty, impersonal amplitude through the expression of its political ramifications, conscientiously electing to speak in the steady, even-handed voice appropriate to these ramifications. The FBI were investigating William T Vollman as a suspect in the Unabomber case. Vollman and the Unabomber ; Backwoodsy Loners, Gen-X Thoreau’s, houses filled with note-papers and obscure books ; but Vollman won’t make space to dwell upon the, rather occult, connections (no Dosteovskyan doubles, it’s not that kind of writing). The distinctions are clear, Vollman reinforces the dividing lines, revealing the FBI to be masters of credulity and disturbing overreach.
Confusing Vollman for the Unabomber, the FBI have tampered in his native stream, the dignified, independent, humanist, increasingly dissenting tradition in American public consciousness, and have made egregious misidentifications within it, muddying it with fundamental misunderstandings, and for the umpteenth time have been shown up as dunces in the classroom of American Spirit, clots in its bloodstream, unable to differentiate between its various hues and shades. And now the voice of a true heir to Thoreau advances, referencing Steinbeck, dismissing connections with a distorted mirror image, indignant, to give an account and a lesson.
Vollman and the Unabomber ; the association does stuff for Vollman. Vollman can’t see it this way ; when acquaintances talk about his ‘image’ he is dismissive, whatever type of conversation it is, he doesn’t have time for that kind of talk, there’s nothing in it for his seriousness to hold on to, it’s not close to the bone or down to earth. He felt impelled to make a statement on the Unabomber situation, and to speak with the voice he felt was appropriate to the circumstances, then publish it in the NYT, but that’s as far as it goes for Vollman, after that he goes back to work on whatever he’s working on. Vollman has a journeyman’s temperament ; he’s not the kind of writer to be concerned with personal mythology but, despite himself, he’s managed to pick up at least two sizeable chunks of the stuff (the 2nd one is a black-and-white picture of him as a young man, looking a bit like a nerdy extra from a John Hughes film, staring sulkily but also combatively at the camera, wearing a bulky bullet-proof vest with ‘PRESS’ written across the chest in white writing).
Association with the Unabomber increases his fame in an incidental way, by displacing him, knocking him out of his chosen context and into orbit around a mistakenly appointed daemon, an outsized, inappropriate anti-Vollman , but the (extra clear uprightness – see below) bluff clarity of his (moral persona is only increased) by the sharp, definitive contrast, and it’s as if his sentences have been lent a new acoustic (situation?) to reverberate around, put in touch with an increased range of echoes and implications, and it’s a bridge, probably one he’d have destroyed, connecting Vollman to a more mythological, nascent, violent zone in the American consciousness, far from the more ventilated climes he’s accustomed to.
The association also makes it slightly easier to imagine Vollman being read by a man wearing camo, early 30’s, the Vollman novel in his bag with his sandwiches as he goes into the woods, or being read on a Sunday afternoon after church, before supper, with the TV on in the background. A writer read by those who have their own views about the path America’s on.
Like a completely de-Francified Genet, drained of all style, placed in the kind of body you would expect to see at the back of the crowd in an episode of ‘Storage Hunters’, or behind the counter at Home Depot. Genettian characteristics, compassion, decency, valorous forthrightness, benefit from the removal of his airs and graces – transposed to Vollman’s heavyset, short-sleeve shirted body (through some fantastic human calculus, designed, you’d guess, more to the purpose of refuting than refining Genet), they receive a populist cleanse and are enhanced.
Alongside the ‘Cat Bus’ in ‘My Neighbour Totorro’ one of the most enchanting artefacts of the pop-cultural imaginary is the monumental ‘ITCHY AND SCRATCHY : THE MOVIE The Novel by Norman Mailer’ read by Bart Simpson in Season 4, Episode 6 of ‘The Simpsons.’ The gag would work just as well if the writer was Vollman (only requiring that the title be changed to ‘Itchy and Scratchy : ).
‘The Dying Grass : A Chronicle of the Ned Perz War. (Volume 4 of ‘Seven Dreams : A Book of North American Landscapes’)’ – 1374 pages.
Proportions like these are not incidental, the egregiousness (Vollman knows his books are egregious pile-ups) is part of the make-up of the thing, one of the main components, built-in at the conception, part of the germ. Vollman’s readers are alive to the appeal of uncompromising things and count themselves up to the challenge. Altogether the ‘Seven Dreams’ sequence amounts to 5366 pages, around 260 reading hours, easily trumping the Proustian sequence, or the Vedic texts (Upanishads, Rig-Vedas, etc). Even the go-to, ‘Where To Get Started With William T Vollman’-Vollman Book, ‘Europe Central’ comes in at over 800 pages. What’s remarkable about Vollman’s novels is not their structural ambition and complexity, they’re not really masterpieces of schematism, it’s the fact that intensity is sustained – the intensity of the prose, the descriptive passages, the reliable regularity of Vollman’s insightfulness, the narrative intensity, the tempo – what’s remarkable is a 1300 page book written as if its only 400 pages, a book that just keeps on going, not in a dramatic way like a sweating marathon runner but with the unassuming-ness of a carpet that just keeps unfurling. Vollman is not loquacious or extravagant, he just has giant reserves of communicability. The only contemporary literary project of comparable extent (aside from the numerous basement-epics of small-town eccentrics, diaries of compulsive scriptophiles, naive-art cosmologies etc) is Robert Caro’s ‘The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson’, the outcome of a lifetime’s meticulous research, the first volume of which appeared in the 80’s, with subsequent volumes appearing every decade or so ; Caro, nearing 80 now, is only just coming up the years of Johnson’s Presidency. Vollman only has 1 volume left to write in order to complete the ‘Seven Dreams’ cycle, the first volume was published in 1990 and he’s also published 18 books on other subjects in that time, including a Trilogy of novels about prostitution.
(The suspicion that writing comes a bit too easy for Vollman).
The publishers who managed to wrangle together an unabridged edition of Vollman’s 3352-pager ‘Rising Up Rising Down : Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means’ have been interviewed. Just getting the thing out was a monumental achievement in itself, the story of how it was done (merits its own) being told in an accompanying pamphlet, which would bear a similar relation to Vollman’s opus as the making-of documentary ‘Heart of Darkness’ does to ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Vollman wouldn’t be a contributor, instead he’d be a looming presence in the background, imagined hammering away at his computer, surrounded by notes, ploughing on day by day without stopping for a second to countenance the world of logistical nightmares he’s in the process of creating for those who hope to publish him.
Short-story collections are a good way of ‘cracking’ a writer, of mainlining the distinctive set of literary pleasures they have to offer. Short stories are a situation of value-adjusted austerity, economisations everywhere, cutting out mediation, optimizing for style. The form imposes a re-jigging of values, a re-shuffle in the deck of aesthetic priorities, upon the writer ; certain fidelities and obligations (often the semi-ethical ones – towards ‘character’ and ‘subject’ for example – to which Vollman is, under different formal circumstances, especially sensitised) get de-emphasized. Instead of a rounded picture of a particular character you get a sense of how the writer treats ‘character’ in general, you get the Vollman cheat-codes.
Short-stories offer the sinew of a style, a tissue-sample, that can be taken to the lab, inflated, like stem-cells, generalised, stretched to fit certain dimensions : what would this mode of treatment, or this ‘voice’, look like expanded to deal with such and such a subject? how would it fare stretched out across the novelistic architectonics suggested by such and such a contents page? What about this paragraph long description of a backroom in Bosnia, the particular selection of details, the particular (characteristic?) counterbalance the writer strikes between precision and vagueness, can it be expanded? To fit a 10 page description of the American Plains, functioning as a lyric-descriptive overture to a 3400 page series of historical novels?
Parts of the first story are useful scopes, looking through them one gets a clearer shot into certain sections of Vollman’s oeuvre : his reportage work, on the ground, in warzones and extreme situations. They read like remixed journalistic memories, vivid passages selected and dusted off from the notes written while he was actually in Bosnia. So This Is Warzone-Vollman, Vollman-in-Bosnia, the clear-eyed, slightly gory, cataloguer of destruction. Overlaying that photo of young, pugnacious, warzone-Vollman in a bulletproof vest, overlaying it like a filter, lending it extra clarity and resolution, and added drama (‘this is the stuff he was going through when that photo was taken, he’s still processing it in his work’). These same parts of the first story are also entries into a long essay running through his various books called ‘On the Human Capacity to Create Uninhabitable Spaces, To De-Terraform or Un-Terraform’ ; another branch of which is the 300 page trawl through the debris of Fukushima, which makes up the 2nd half of his climate change book.
Journalistic memories dusted off and mixed with fictional inserts. Fiction used as a way of approaching these passages from different angles, used to plug them up and hold them together… The fictional bits can seem a bit like plumbing, kind of standardised, borrowed (from his Gen X compatriots, Franzen, DFW, whatever’s the current industry standard) components, generic slot-fillers, and awkward.
And was the goriness also slightly gratuitous, slightly stylized?
The second story lacks the journalistic anchorage in Vollman-land, it’s entirely the ennui-filled Gen X fiction stuff : marital subject matter, universalized listlessness, HBO TV adaptability. What could be dismissed as pragmatically installed fiction-plumbing in the first story is the mode of the second story, the dominant feature. There’s nothing extreme or white-knuckle here, in this tonal world everything is vacuum-sealed and sterilised, interactions are super paired back ; so THE MAPS MAY HAVE TO BE RE-DRAWN, there’s no guarantee this isn’t Vollman’s primary mode, that this isn’t classic Vollmanian dialogue – the inflatable, extensional quality of short stories, so quick to fill up any gaps in one’s knowledge of a writer’s oeuvre – new space may have to be made in the Vollman-picture, in the picture of a Vollman novel, to account for the inclusion within them of a tonal world so completely alien to the expectations created by their titles. A dissonant chord struck within the Vollman-model, threatening to spill outwards, contaminate the whole thing, forcing readjustment, the formulation of NEW OVERARCHING HYPOSTHESES, to account for this new, unexpected side to Vollman.
His books are too uncompromising and his pages are not unadulterated enough.
Vollman’s books mix two kinds of airlessness, airlessness of the breathless, roving variety and of the vacuum, postmodern-void (think Jeff Koons suspended basket-balls) variety. The restraint of the characters and interactions juxtaposes awkwardly with the writer’s unrestrained, vigorous approach to his subject.
The next story is tarnished. It is about a Narwhal hunt but everything in it is transposed now : Koons-ice, Koons-Inuits, big inflatable Koons-Narwhal, Arctic Circle as International Hotel Space, Hilton-Nanuk, nothing raw or native. The story is just serial symptoms of a malfunctioning Vollman-model. Stop reading after 4 pages.
Remedial work required, staunching the contaminating flow between the 2 ¼ ‘Atlas : Stories’ and rest of Vollman’s oeuvre, Defence of the Vollman-model as it once stood : Vollman’s short stories don’t have the same relation to the rest of his oeuvre as other writers.
Short-story collections are not a good way of ‘cracking’ Vollman, of mainlining the distinctive set of literary pleasures Vollman has to offer. Short stories are a subsection of his working practise, and serve a particular function within its overall ecology. A writer with a strictly observed ethics of appropriate treatment needs a place to funnel off all the eccentricities and writerly whims which occur to them in the course of a long-term project, the short-story form serves this function for Vollman. To try out such and such a mode, to don an uncharacteristic narratorial voice, like an unflattering hat. Far from being representative of his oeuvre or a short-cut into it, Vollman’s short-stories are escapes from it.
A more syncretic writer would try and find ways of shoehorning them into their main project, but Vollman is strict with incorporation. Vollman must have a very strong sense of the remit [imposed, admitted] by a certain subject matter, must emit waves of highly attuned writerly sonar through the giant, cavernous expanses (Monument valleys) of his to-be-written novels, to have such a clear sense of where their limits lie, of what ideas and approaches fall outside their ordinance and would appear foreign imports.
There is a particular way of thinking about the oeuvre of each different writer, a particular congealed geometry, regulating and crystallizing the relations between different parts of their output (in some cases this geometry itself can be counted among a writer’s pre-eminent achievements – a gorgeous geometry assembles itself in the quiet spaces between Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and psalms – (often it is in the oeuvres of writers especially suited to the formation of ‘personality cults’ that these geometries assert themselves with the most force, as if they are some kind of correlate or by-product of ‘charisma’)). Often there is a temporal dimension to these geometries, a trajectory, the swelling arc up in to a late-style for example, but Vollman’s output isn’t organised in phases, cumulative stages of stylistic development. Nor is it fixed is an atemporal state of eternal return to a perennial set of issues and pre-occupations, in fixed orbit around them like a feverish satellite : Vollman’s oeuvre doesn’t cohere around certain thematic concerns, isn’t integrated by certain subjects, it is riven by them, veering off in their pursuit. It can best be characterised as a set of compartmentalised, concurrent and exhaustive investigations into a set of distinct subjects – ‘The American West’, ‘Prostitution’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Violence’ – each of which steadily mounts up material until the point at which it can be laid to rest, like the Elephant-bone remains of some ossified Norse God, in the form of a giant, multi-volume sequence. [The approach of the journalist, resolutely adhered to, is the central factor determining the fractured, veering geometry of Vollman’s oeuvre, it is the skeleton key to his output, Vollman is a megalomaniac journalist-novelist hybrid.- rework?]
Conclusion : Vollman isn’t the type of writer to lend himself to ‘being cracked’ too easily. There is no way of escaping the size of his books and the commitment required to read them.
‘RISING UP AND RISING DOWN’ – A CONTENTS PAGE FANTASIA
‘Rising Up and Rising Down : Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means’ opens with a Vollmanian dual-Overture : ‘Three Meditations on Death’, one of which takes place in a catacomb and ‘Introduction : The Rise of the Nibelungs’ (concretising the sense of Wagnerian-scale ambition spread across the contents pages). The metaphysical-sounding section title ‘Definitions for Lonely Atoms’, an address to some kind of human material strata, is derailed by a series of subsection with titles borrowed from an ‘Introduction to Law’ undergrad textbook, or maybe a Libertarian pamphlet (‘Where do my rights end?’). ‘Definitions of Lonely Atoms’ would be preferable. Pages 145-416 are dry and legalistic, apart from one subsection on ‘Moral Yellowness’ in which Vollman attempts to imagine, and then juridify, a moral ‘yellow-zone’ to supplement the already existent ‘grey’ one. The culmination of this 300 page grapple with various justifications of violence is Vollman’s ‘Moral Calculus’, ‘a structured decision-making system designed to help the reader decide when violence is justifiable and when it is not’ (Amazon blurb). The ‘Moral Calculus’, like all over-zealous attempts to install a barometer within the turmoil of human motivation, is a naïve, utilitarian clusterfuck, unless, unlikely given the self-seriousness of the preceding sections and the rest of Vollman’s oeuvre, it is intended as an ironic entry into the tradition of universalizing, cod-philosophical self-aggrandizement, a postmodern, kitsched-up counterpart to Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
‘Part 2 : Studies in Consequences’ is fantastic. All of Warzone-Vollman’s Greatest Hits ( – there must be a reason ‘Rising Up and Rising Down’ holds such an acclaimed, central position in Vollman’s oeuvre, and it can’t be found in the legalistic desert of Part 1).
Even the abridged version of ‘Rising Up and Rising Down’ is 737 pages, which would take up a lot of space in my bag and threaten the structural integrity of any of its cohabitants (especially sandwiches).
Vollmanian Gusto in full effect : The rumblings of war hooked up to a giant amplifier, fantastical war journalism as Drone Metal Prose Edda, or a mobilisation shock-collage, planes flying overhead, tanks being built, titled ‘Grand Opening of the European War-Chest.’
‘Europe Central’ is the one. A superbly well-researched piece of non-academic historical reconstruction remixed into literary significance by an author willing to restrict the remit of their creative activity to the sequencing of information, the visceral re-staging of certain crux events and personalities, and the highly skilful embedding of analysis. And panoramic excess.
The first item on the Vollmanian’s itinerary is searching for clues, indications, about what Vollman’s ‘approach’ is going to be, in the blurb, the contents, the first page, the first sentence even. That first glimpse of a novelistic procedure capable of holding this whole mass of material together, a much-cherished glimpse, like the brief glimpse of a celebrity caught through the crowd. Because the approach is in many ways the star of the show, reached after a long process of internal writerly negotiation, and then adhered to, proceduralised, an anchor in the tumbling sea of material ; once the Vollman reader has gauged the novelist’s approach a sizeable portion of the game is up, now it’s just more of the same. But the subject matter is interesting, Vollman makes it so (a master of treatment is one who prioritises engagement at every juncture) : the game may be up, but it’s difficult to stop playing,
‘if textual indications allow (as they should) a literal reading’, they shouldn’t, in this case it’s crucial that they don’t : The whole point of Vollman is to avoid invention, definitely the invention of stories but also the invention of conceptually ornate structural mechanisms, the material of his books is supposed to be given, second hand, to be properly Vollman is to be all about treatment.
He could never smuggle in such a flashy, postmodern, meta-narrative construct, a big spreadeagled literary device, no matter how much it was dressed up in a camouflage of analogue knobs and buttons, switchboards and codebreakers, WW2-period stylistics, Vollman wouldn’t [consider] it. It would be left on the cutting room floor. Vollman’s cutting room floor is uniquely located. Vollman expends the majority of his editorial, tinkering, revisionary energy on plans for novels rather than novels themselves. Drafts up proposals for tonal consistencies, sequencings, approaches, organisational strategies and then nixes them, or, sometimes, saves a few elements in order that they might be recycled, re-incorporated, into other plans. Entertains some of the wilder, more baroque ideas for approaches that enter his mind, and then, firmly, gruffly, refuses them, again and again and again. He wants to end this drawn-out process with something smart, sharp, incisive, and knows it will take as long as it takes to disinter himself of every impulse to the contrary. A ritualised deep-cleanse of his writerly instincts, an strict training regime before setting off on his writerly marathons, accruing the self-discipline required to endlessly elaborate without ever being overly elaborate. The ‘Secret Master’, ‘self-conscious distributed network (see AI; Computers; Internet)’ would be right there on the cutting room floor, next to the idea for a 100 page phantasmagorical dramatization of the day Paul Celan spent in the company of Heidegger, or the idea to write the narrative from the perspective of De Gaulle’s stomach bacteria, in the junk-heap of overly complex, flashy, exhibitionist approaches.
However, in Vollman’s oeuvre there is evidence of a tendency to broker extraordinary compromises allowing for the admittance of such Pynchonian excess. ‘Argall’, the third novel in Vollman’s ‘Seven Dreams’ saga, is narrated in a flowery Elizabethan prose, a stark departure in approach from its companion volumes. ‘Mason and Dixon’, with its celebrated anachronistic historical-vernacular prose style, one of the most notorious conceits of recent American letters, was published only a few years prior to ‘Argall’; Vollman must have gone giddy for it. IT SEEMS that even in the midst of all his gruff editorial acuity Vollman is liable to leave a backdoor open for Pynchonianism.
The possibility that Vollman considers himself more an heir to Pynchon than to Mailer. More than a possibility, to think otherwise would be a misconception, would produce some alternate-Vollman, some chimaera.
A tearing, geological sound as the Vollman-model, already riddled with stress-fractures, finally succumbs ; the association with Mailer, unconsciously held, is revealed to have been a crucial structural component, a secret keystone, maintaining the model’s internal consistency, warding off unwanted associations. Suddenly bereft of this hidden immune system Vollman is laid open to the eager associational networks parked outside the gates, that is, Vollman finally becomes a Postmodernist as opposed to some anachronistic remnant of America’s tradition of journalistic vanguardism and Transcendental historiography – Thoreau, Douglas, Tarbell, Sinclair, Steinbeck, Mailer – Vollman is extracted from this company, sliding horizontally, disappointedly, across the Family Tree of American Letters to take his place next to Franzen, DFW and those other heirs to Pynchon.