Thursday, April 28, 2011

Blacklisted, Full-Blooded: William T. Vollmann

"'Cause our joy is fleeting while oppression never goes away.
You look them right in the eye,
yeah you shout and sing them down,
but joy, our joy, don't really care for fighting
while oppression will just wait around-- for you to blink.
Joy beats oppression, but oppression will make you pay.

Speak up, black out, black-listed, full-blooded, red."
--The World/Inferno Friendship Society, "Paul Robeson"

He has, on at least one occasion, been saved by a bulletproof vest.
Vollmann's popped up here before, as the #1 spot on my list of Badass Modern Writers. As a result of that publicity, I'll try and keep the spotlight off his adventures (when I can), and focus more on his endeavors.

Vollmann is the America's most talented living writer. I'm gonna throw that out there so you know where I stand-- like most members of his decidedly cultish fanclub, I'm not one to speak moderately of the man's work. It is a great body of work-- the sheer beauty of the man's prose is astonishing --it is an important body of work, and it is a huge body of work: since his literary debut in 1986, Vollmann has averaged somewhere around 500 pages a year. That's in books alone, not counting his articles for magazines and occasional book reviews. I can't even pretend to have read all of them.

In 1990, Vollmann wrote a fairly brash piece in which he diagnosed, and offered treatment for, the "disease" of contemporary American literature. Also, he promises to "set right all the woes of the world." I think he was kidding, but...the guy's been working hard in the 20 years since that promise at doing just that. It's a great read, and short enough that I suggest you go ahead and do so. I'll wait.

Come back come back I don't wanna be left alone with him.
Essentially, the piece boils down to this: good fiction has a moral responsibility. That is, in large part, what sets Vollmann apart from a lot of contemporary writers. Two of his biggest influences are Dostoevsky and Steinbeck, and it shows: like them, he believes that the artist has a duty to try and help people understand their fellow man. Vollmann is, at heart, an ethical writer. His work is willing to tackle Evil, to call it Evil to its face, and to explore the means of resisting it.

The History of Power
In the mid-1980's, Vollmann had recently returned from his trip to the Afghanistan-Soviet War, been brutalized by security forces while protesting at a nuclear power plant, starting making friends in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and conned his way into a job as a computer programmer (despite knowing nothing about computers) because it gave him access to a word processor. All these things coalesced in his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (from an address the author gives his heroes in the beginning, in which he apologizes for killing them but revolutionaries must always die).

He wrote Angels mostly by sleeping under his desk, living off of vending machine food, and writing the book on his work computer when the office was empty. Not a responsible use of company property, but I think it was worth it. If you didn't want your office to be full of candy wrappers, maybe you shouldn't have hired a slightly insane globetrotting ethicist to work in the IT department.
Yeah, pretty much this.
 Angels tells the story of an imagined war in the American past and present, between the power companies (as in, literal electricity) and the insects, with human fighters on both sides. The electrical engineers take the role of the all-encompassing Authority, whereas the insects-- and the leader of their human allies, a partial Vollmann stand-in named Bug --represent everyone shut out of the halls of power. It's an astonishing book: the chaos and density of writers like Burroughs, Pynchon, and Foster Wallace, but couple with an extreme ethical and political consciousness. Like Burroughs, Vollmann wants to show us an allegorical reflection of modern sin, but he also cautions us: the rebels in the book are clearly our protagonists, but, like real revolutionaries, they can be cold, mad, or brutal. Angels is more about how revolutionaries are made than the revolution itself, and the impact that power and powerlessness have on people. It's also funny, weird, and pretty much like reading Marx on a bad acid trip would be.

In 1992 he published a book on his experiences in Afghanistan, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World. It's out of print now, but you can get used copies pretty cheap. I ordered a used copy and it turned out to be signed, so that was awesome. Picture Show is interesting in that he clearly wanted it to be a badass, Orwell-style war correspondent story but couldn't. Instead, the main theme of his book becomes his powerlessness: his incredible admiration for the Mujaheddin and their courage, his frustration at America's unwillingness to risk anything in helping these people whose heroism he witnessed firsthand, and a love letter to the land, its people, and the incredible kindness he felt for both. It's a moving read, and one of the very few American books on Afghanistan that really looks at the strangeness, beauty, and constant suffering of the land.
"If a plane had come then, not a one could have survived. They were unfailingly cheerful, praying and singing and smiling as they went... A little after sunrise, as we came into the main war zone, we stopped for tea."

Whores and Conquerors
Throughout the 90's, Vollmann continued to focus on the nature of power dynamics, both large and small-scale. The Large Scale was his (still ongoing) Seven Dreams series: narratives throughout American history, ranging from the Norse colonization of Greenland to a contemporary reservation, detailing the intersections and collisions of Native American culture and colonial force. They're insanely well-researched and full of maddeningly strange and beautiful touches; for The Rifles, which details a disastrous naval expedition to the North Pole, he holed up in an abandoned weather stage at the magnetic pole for two weeks, suffering through a camp stove explosion, frostbite (he can no longer feel his toes), and eventually, sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations. For The Ice-Shirt, about the Vikings' discovery of a new land and their terror towards the people who inhabited what they could not, he immersed himself in the ancient Norse sagas, traveled to both Iceland and Greenland, and attempted to write in the style of classical mythology. Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith is written almost entirely in the style of Elizabethan prose contemporary with its subject matter. 
What I'm saying is that if you hired him to write Batman, he'd probably end street crime in America for research.
He also wrote a number of books on whores. A lot of whores. All over the damn place. He spent a lot of time hanging out in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco-- one of the absolute scariest places in America, the prostitution, drugs, murder, and gang capitol of the city --hanging out with prostitutes and asking them about their lives. Usually this involved smoking crack with them, to prove he wasn't an undercover cop.
"Nudge that rock down into the end that's burned blacker...Don't push it too hard, or you'll break the mesh...Just tamp it lovingly with the black-burned hairpin.Lovingly, I said, because crack is the only happiness."
           --from "The Best Way to Smoke Crack," The Atlas
He hung out with whores, drug dealers, gangsters, skinheads, and more, expressing a loving humanity and incredible empathy to all of them-- there is no one in this world he would claim to hate, no one he would not want to understand. The books that emerged from this period-- Whores for Gloria, Rainbow Stories, The Atlas, and The Royal Family --are incredibly tender and kind, the kind of "tour of the seamy underworld"  that a lot of journalists want to offer, but refusing to be shocked or horrified or to allow his reader to ignore the humanity of his subjects.
"You know, I like the kind of hotel, where you don't have to buy your own crack because the crack smoke kind of drifts through the walls from an adjacent room, and you can just enjoy the fragrance."
The Symphony
In 2006, Vollmann-- in an event that still amazes and surprises --won a National Book Award. And by God, did he deserve it. Europe Central is the masterpiece of his fiction work, the result of a lifetime's worth of passion for history, ethics, brutality, art, and the human struggle.

The novel takes as its core the Europe that defined the twentieth century: bloody Germanic mythology and conquest on one side, the frozen evil of Soviet Russia on the other. Its protagonist-- or, if not protagonist, at least the character on whose wobbly moral center the narrative pivots --is Dimitri Shostakovich, Modernist composer and probably the greatest classical composer of the 20th century.
The greatest non-classical composer of the 20th century, for comparison.
Europe Central takes as its focus not the grand political movements, but the people within them. Once or twice it flits into Hitler's head to look at his pain and the incredible resentment that made him convinced he had to take up responsibility for the world, but usually the attention flits through the various heroes who toil under evil forces: Shostakovich, German Socialist artist Kathe Kollwitz, Holocaust hero Kurt Gerstein, Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, hosts of nameless bureaucrats and informants who observe and report on them. Vollmann looks at both their attempts to resist this murderous authority and their failures, and the way that the nations themselves become twisted by the madness that helms them.

It's also, out of all his novels, simply the most beautiful. The love for the lands he describes is palpable (the passages describing the beauty and horror of Purge-era Leningrad are up there with Dostoevsky's best odes to that gorgeous and evil city), as is the love he feels for his characters. There's a depth of character in it that's missing from his earlier, exuberant works, and as a result the hell of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany becomes terrifyingly real. It's easy to read histories, it's hard to read the story of Shostakovich buying his family unidentified meat-- hoping that it's only horse or dog meat --without gasping and shuddering. There are moments in here, especially in the novel's strongest chapter, "Cold Hands," which will make you break down in tears. It's about Kurt Gerstein, the Catholic chemical engineer who joined the SS in an attempt to uncover their crimes and do what he could to stop them, but could never convince the world of Germany's guilt or himself of his innocence.
"Boys always love militaria, and this [antique medal] was an eight-pointed star of gold, garnished with silver and diamonds! Actually, what he should have done was sell it and feed his family. Instead, he buried it in the Polish earth, praying softly for its former owner, the grey-green trees going ethereal beyond his tears as they would have done in any rain. Rain of blood, rain of steel, rain on the rich green grass of Auschwitz! Tears and prayers are both supposed to refresh one's soul."
"Rage's beak drilled at the back of his skull. Rage's claws grubbed in his guts, piercing and digging."
 Europe Central is a book that offers you examples and problems but refuses to answer them. There are no triumphant heroes in it-- Gerstein considers himself a murderer until his suicide, Shostakovich joins the party, Vlasov is hanged with piano-wire --only those who are able to maintain some element of humanity under a cloud of evil. After The Sound and the Fury, it's my favorite novel of all time, and my first reading of it-- two months of uphill work, breaking down in tears outside of the Humanities lecture hall  at the aforementioned anonymous-meat scene, walking around for hours listening to Shostakovich's 1st piano concerto and raging at the chains that Stalin put him in. If you're going to read only one thing from this article, pick up Europe Central and read "Clean Hands," "Opus 40" and "The Palm Tree of Deborah."

The Answers
I wanted to end this profile with the book I most recently finished, Vollmann's life's work, 2003's Rising Up and Rising Down.
I say recently, but I did start it three years ago.
Rising is a continuation of the work begun in Afghanistan, an attempt to see, comprehend, and explain human violence. Vollmann spends the first half analyzing why we hurt and kill other people-- in self-defense, to protect our (or another's) race, to overthrow an unjust government, for sexual pleasure --and trying to come up with some sort of a code or set of rules about when it is and isn't justified. He starts with the most basic rules, such as saying that all living things have a right to lethal self-defense against mortal threat and that violence should never be used when there is an alternative, and expands from that to question what legitimizes a revolution, what rights animals have, in what contexts sadomasochism is and isn't ethical, etc. With every question he attempts to find two or more historical cases against which he can apply his rubric-- Lincoln and Trotsky's use of military violence in defense of their authority, Jesus's forgiveness of the Canaanite woman and Cortez's conquest of the of the Aztecs as two arguments against and for the use of violence in defense of faith.

For the second half, he takes up the much harder task of trying to understand the violence he has seen, from the sexual violence practiced towards Thai child prostitutes (one of whom he rescued), to his hunting down of a Khmer Rouge general and interviewing him about Pol Pot's violent class struggle, to touring Yemen immediately after September 11 and asking Muslims throughout the country about the nature of jihad and the rightness of violence against the unbeliever (leading to the surreal repeated exchange where he is greeted as a friend and treated as an honored guest while being told that, in an objective sense, he should probably be killed for being an American).
"Just 'probably,' though. That's, like, better than average on the WTV Warzone Tour."
There's beautiful moments in both halves. His historical sections are heavy on character and humanity-- his description of Trotsky, alone and exiled in Mexico City, able to do nothing for the country he tried so desperately to save, is incredibly haunting and powerful --and the theory he works with dense and important. His justifications and answers for violence are well thought out and do as good a job as any human can at trying to give us a set of tools to make the world as good a place as we can. Meanwhile, the stories in the second half are wonderful journalism, travel narrative, and chilling reporting. I'd especially recommend the section on Southeast and East Asia, both for its beautiful descriptions of the land and people and for the incredible journalism as he manages to interview the Opium King, a Khmer Rouge general, child prostitutes, and Yakuza bosses.

"How about a compromise? We'll tell our tale in grey."
It's hard to conclude an article like this. Vollmann's still writing endlessly, and a couple years ago he put out a 1,000 page book on Imperial County, CA and the Mexican-American relations it embodies that I still haven't gotten around to. I'd have liked to talk about Poor People, where he attempts to define poverty and wealth, or Uncentering the Earth, where he examines Copernicus's theories, why they are important, and manages to understand the science vastly better than I can (seriously, I did not pick that book up expecting Calculus). But instead I'll just leave us with his words, or rather, his version of Dimitri's wife's words:
"You know that I love you. Hopefully you're aware that I even respect certain things about you...You're a--well, you don't follow the party line, that's for sure! My God, but you're a free spirit, Mitya! You're a formalist."


  1. Nice page, Bill is a friend of mine and I make a point of singing his praises every chance I can and this would also be a good place for me to direct people to now.

  2. Yes, that was an excellent tribute to William Vollmann and his beautiful work.

    However, because Vollmann groks English perfectly and writes like a demonic angel, I was astounded by an quote beneath one of the photos above: "You know, I like the kind of hotel, where you don't have to buy your own crack because...."

    OMG. How could THE William Vollmann have inserted such a horribly wrong comma after "hotel"?! Was he cracked out? Did he write that sentence after his stroke? What happened to the poor man??

    Imagine my relief when I clicked on the quote and learned that he'd merely spoken those words during an interview. Obviously, some ignorant (Book)slut, not Vollmann, committed the disgusting offense when transcribing the conversation. Whew.

    You really ought to add a [sic] after that damned stinking comma so that you don't give some other hapless reader a coronary, for god's sake. Thanks!