The Rifles

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Volume six of William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes is the third book to appear in the series, designed to present a symbolic history of how European intrusions changed the lifestyles of circumpolar natives. The Ice-Shirt (1990) and Fathers and Crows (1993) are the earlier volumes. The former deals with the Norse incursions into Greenland a millennium ago and details the three hundred years that followed; the latter deals with French entry into what is now southeastern Canada in the sixteenth century and chronicles events during the next centuries.

Vollmann, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of history and possessed of a firm grounding in anthropology and sociology as well, has based the Seven Dreams series on a prodigious assortment of historical record. He has not, however, been constrained by his documents to adhere to a narrowly factual representation of the historical events about which he is writing. He never forgets that he is creating fiction, or, in the eyes of some recent critics, metafiction. He permits himself artistic leeway.

Readers who fail to recognize Vollmann’s right as a novelist to take liberties with historical fact will find his historical novels frustrating and bewildering, despite their excellence. Readers who appreciate the fanciful distortions of linear reality and chronology found in works by writers such as Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Norma Marder, and other artists with well-developed right brains will adapt readily to the demands Vollmann places upon their imaginations and will value his virtuosity.

Vollmann writes from a firsthand familiarity with the area that John Franklin explored, having himself, in March, 1991, undertaken an arduous trip to the magnetic North Pole, near which the final days of the Franklin expedition were played out. On that trip, he spent thirty-four days in the area in which his novel is set, enduring and coming to respect the extreme physical demands that climate places upon those who venture north of the Arctic Circle in winter.

As he conceptualized this book, richly illustrated with his own hand-drawn maps and sketches, Vollmann was faced with a structural nightmare. He needed to balance two major story lines and to connect them in some meaningful way. On the one hand, he needed to deal with the question of the Canadian government’s forced resettlement of the Inuit people in remote circumpolar areas. The early pages of the book deal with this relocation and, in doing so, begin to sketch clearly the climatic realities of the region.

In this section of the book, Vollmann also begins to build a subtle but controlling metaphor that has to do with lead: The gasoline that the Inuits of Resolute and Pond Inlet sniff for the high it provides leads to lead poisoning. The ammunition necessary to fire the rifles from which the book derives its title and which occurs in each of the two major story lines also has a high lead content, and these rifles lead undeniably to death.

In the second story line, that of the doomed expedition that Franklin led from 1845 until its grisly conclusion with the death of all of its 129 members by 1848, Vollmann tells of how the men of the Erebus and the Terror were provisioned with a three-year supply of food, a major portion of whose meat was sealed in Goldner containers, recently patented and, as it turned out, having a dangerously high lead content that inevitably led to the derangement and death of many members of the expedition.

In reading The Rifles, one must remember that it constitutes one of the dreams of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series. As such, the author can allow himself liberties that exempt him from presenting his material in the linear chronological form that his sources might immediately suggest. Dreams are products of the unconscious mind. Normal logic often evades them. Vollmann takes advantage of this caveat in presenting his material, never forgetting the dream context within which he is working and exploiting it to the utmost.

Viewing Vollmann’s artistic task, some writers might simply have begun with the Franklin expedition before moving chronologically to the more contemporary story of the Inuit relocation in the area of that expedition more than a century later. The result would be two novels—perhaps two novellas—bearing some relationship to each other geographically and thematically. Vollmann, on the other hand, taking full advantage of the dream design to which he has committed himself, creates a some-times baffling autobiographical protagonist, Captain Subzero, who is a reincarnation...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)