Study Guide

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann Essay - Critical Essays

Vollmann, William T.

Introduction

William T. Vollmann 1959–

American novelist, short story writer, and memoirist.

The following entry provides an overview of Vollmann's career through 1994.

Vollmann is widely recognized as an important novelist and one of the most innovative writers of his generation. His approach to writing combines investigative journalism, intensive historical research, and a metafictional technique that has garnered laudatory comparisons to such writers as Tom Wolfe and Thomas Pynchon. Critics praise Vollmann for his distinctive, often beautiful prose and commend his work for its insights into neglected areas of modern life, noting his fascination with, for example, the Mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan, neo-Nazi "skinheads," prostitutes, and other characters on the margins of contemporary society. Some critics, however, note that Vollmann is prone to writing dense, sprawling works that seem to lack structure, and argue that his fondness for prostitutes is either a perverse fetish or a clichéd attempt to shock bourgeois sensibilities.

Biographical Information

Born in Santa Monica, California, to educated, middle-class parents, Vollmann attended Deep Springs College, Cornell University, and the University of California-Berkeley. His dedication to first-hand experience for literary inspiration has led him into frequently dangerous encounters with the people upon whom his work focuses. For example, in order to gain the trust of prostitutes in San Francisco's "Tenderloin" district, he has shared their drugs and has reportedly smoked "crack" cocaine over one hundred times; and, in the early 1980s, his political idealism led him to assist—ineffectually and foolishly, as he reports in An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992)—the Muslim Mujahedeen rebels in their fight against the invading Soviet Army. In addition to his literary career, Vollmann has worked as a computer programmer and, as founder of CoTangent Press, has produced unique "artist's" editions of some of his works as well as those of other writers.

Major Works

Vollmann's first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), written while he was a computer programmer, is a "cyberpunk" satire of politics and war in the information age. Subtitled "A Cartoon," the novel recounts the computer game-like story of a programmer who, referring to himself as "the author," invokes a huge cast of characters—military reactionaries and revolutionaries, and warlike anthropomorphic bugs—and watches their political, apocalyptic interactions. The novel contains numerous subplots including a surreal digression on the history of electricity. The Rainbow Stories (1989) is a collection of short stories inspired by Vollmann's journeys into American emergency rooms, red-light districts, and other "dark corners." Referring to himself—or at least to the persona employed in this book—as a "recording angel," he uses dark, metaphor-laden prose to document the lives of prostitutes, junkies, and other desperate, marginalized individuals while steadfastly refusing to pass moral judgment on them. Vollmann's short story collection Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (1991) and the novel Whores for Gloria (1991) are further examinations of the disenfranchised members of modern society. In the former, he presents some of his most disturbing tales about death and its consequences for the living; in the latter, he writes about an alcoholic whose undying love for a departed prostitute buoys him in his skid row existence. The Butterfly Stories (1993), a novel comprised of interrelated short stories, similarly concerns a journalist's love for a southeast Asian prostitute. Vollmann is also known for An Afghanistan Picture Show and his multi-novel project Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, in which he plans to chronicle the "symbolic history" of North America. In An Afghanistan Picture Show Vollmann reminisces about his post-college attempt to assist the Mujahedeen rebels in their struggle against the Soviet Army; with a ten-year perspective on the events depicted, he writes openly about his idealism and naiveté. The first work in the Seven Dreams series, The Ice-Shirt (1990), is a fictionalized account of the Vikings' pre-Columbian arrival on the North American continent. A massive novel reflecting Vollmann's copious scholarship into the history of the Norse people's contact with Native North Americans, The Ice-Shirt employs a multifaceted narrative, which includes numerous plots and subplots and retells many Norse myths and legends. Fathers and Crows (1992), the second volume of Seven Dreams, concerns the disastrous clash of cultures between North American Indians and the French Jesuit priests who sought to convert them in the seventeenth century. The Rifles (1994) is volume six, but the third to be written, in the series. In this book Vollmann intertwines accounts of the Canadian government's relocation of the native Inuits in the 1950s, English Admiral Sir John Franklin's attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845, and an autobiographical story about a young American novelist's affair with an Inuit woman.

Critical Reception

Vollmann is recognized as a major figure in contemporary literature. He is most often praised for the uniqueness of his perspective, the exuberance and beauty of his prose, and his great literary ambition. In interviews Vollmann has suggested that his works, both his straight fiction and his historical novels, are motivated in part by altruism. For instance, The Rainbow Stories and Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs were inspired by his belief that providing information about the world's neglected and despised people will help bring about greater understanding and harmony. Many critics see this missionary impulse in both the choice of subject matter and in the often elegant prose Vollmann uses to present it. His Seven Dreams series is similar in this regard, incorporating a didactic element and representing to many critics one of the most ambitious literary projects in modern history. This same idealism, however, has frequently been interpreted by critics as immature and naive. For example, some commentators view Vollmann's interest in prostitutes, both as people and as metaphors for contemporary existence, as juvenile. Additionally, his very ambition in Seven Dreams is seen by a number of critics as hubristic and egotistical—evidence, they claim, that he lacks the maturity to know his limitations. Moreover, some critics note that Vollmann's work rarely displays a mastery of narrative structure, tending to sprawl and meander with numerous digressions and simple, unshaped sequences of images and scenes. Nevertheless, most critics regard the power of Vollmann's prose and his uncommon prolificness as proof of a great, developing talent. Novelist Madison Smartt Bell has written that Vollmann "is the sort of phenomenon that might turn up once every couple of generations, if that often…. There is every reason to suppose that the writers who come after him will find new freedoms of their own in his work, in the same way that Faulkner found freedom in the work of Joyce."

Principal Works

You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon (novel) 1987
The Rainbow Stories (short stories) 1989
The Ice-Shirt (novel) 1990
Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (short stories) 1991
Whores for Gloria; or, Everything Was Beautiful until the Girls Got Anxious (novel) 1991
An Afghanistan Picture Show; or, How I Saved the World (memoir) 1992
Fathers and Crows (novel) 1992
Butterfly Stories: A Novel (novel) 1993
The Rifles (novel) 1994

∗These novels are, respectively, the first, second, and sixth volumes in Vollmann's series Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes.

†Although considered a novel, this work contains several linked short stories, including "More Benadryl, Whined the Journalist," "Butterfly Boy," and "The Soy Cowboy."

Criticism

Gail Pool (review date 21 June 1987)

SOURCE: "Tune In, Turn On, Short Out," in The New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 10.

[In the following generally positive review, Pool assesses the strengths and weaknesses of You Bright and Risen Angels.]

In his inventive first novel, William T. Vollmann has given us fiction for the electronic age: a social and political satire that critiques America in technological terms, a computer cartoon that is both a product of technology and a comment on it.

On one level, You Bright and Risen Angels depicts an elaborate computer game. As the book opens, the narrator—a programmer who refers to himself throughout as "the author"—presses...

(The entire section is 751 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 16 July 1989)

SOURCE: "The Yawp of Reason," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 16, 1989, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Eder praises the wide range of themes and styles in The Rainbow Stories.]

The rainbow in the title of this collection of pieces by William T. Vollmann refers to the author's use of different colors as codes for different chunks of human life and human spirit.

It is a private and hermetic conceit, one of a good many in Vollmann's writing. More immediately, though, the "Rainbow" suggests the extraordinary range and fire of the author's style.

The pieces in Rainbow extend from fiction to spooked poetic narratives to...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

John Clute (review date 30 July 1989)

SOURCE: "Skinheads, Punks and Dropouts," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 30, 1989, p. 5.

[In the following review of The Rainbow Stories, Clute criticizes Vollmann for the cluttered, "overwritten" quality of the work, claiming that it obscures the merits of many of the stories.]

There is not much that William T. Vollmann does not ask of his readers, and not much that he is unprepared to give. Whether these gifts will be accepted is another matter. They include passion, amplitude, a deep love and knowledge of the underside of urban life in San Francisco, a muscular grasp of large issues of the imagination, and a dark and gruesome humor; but they are...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Caryn James (review date 13 August 1989)

SOURCE: "California Screaming," in The New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, pp. 6-7.

[In the following mixed review of The Rainbow Stories, James compares Vollmann's literary technique and ambitions to those of Tom Wolfe and Thomas Pynchon, arguing that the stories in this collection belong somewhere in between the former's reportorial style and the latter's "fabulism."]

Halfway between Tom Wolfe's journalism and Thomas Pynchon's fabulism, William T. Vollmann's Rainbow Stories search for a new form. In stories that blend colorful documentary evidence with a novelist's dark imagination, Mr. Vollmann offers images no ordinary reporter could glimpse,...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

Noah Richler (review date 8 June 1990)

SOURCE: "Symbolic History," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 3, No. 104, June 8, 1990, p. 38.

[In the review below, Richler offers praise for The Ice-Shirt.]

The Ice-Shirt is the first of seven planned novels in William T. Vollmann's "symbolic history" of North America, a strange fusion of Norse myth and legend dealing with the arrival of the first colonists and their encounters with the native Indian and Inuit peoples. Occasionally interrupted by his own travel observations of Greenland, Iceland and the Canadian sub-arctic—the book is illustrated by sketches and maps the author made during his researches there—his sources are the Greenlandic and...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

David Sacks (review date 14 October 1990)

SOURCE: "From the Folks Who Brought Us Winter," in The New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1990, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Ice-Shirt, Sacks praises Vollmann's imagination, use of myth, and prose style, but argues that the novel fails to reach narrative closure.]

Imagine a performance of Wagner's "Ring" cycle directed by Sam Peckinpah, with a new libretto by J. R. R. Tolkien and occasional music by Aaron Copland, and you'll be getting the feel of this ambitious, often enthralling novel about the Vikings' arrival in North America, in the blissful place they called Vinland, circa A.D. 1000. The Ice-Shirt contains notes and glossaries...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Helen Dudar (review date 4 November 1990)

SOURCE: "Deeds and Dreams: Visiting the World of the Norse Adventurers," in Chicago Tribune—Books, November 4, 1990, p. 5.

[In the following review, Dudar criticizes Vollmann for the lack of character development and narrative focus in The Ice-Shirt.]

The review copies of William T. Vollmann's The Ice-Shirt arrived with a publisher's notice that roughly promises: Stick with it, reader, and you won't be sorry. You may not be glad either.

It is hard not to be amazed by the titanic ambitions of the author—whose earlier works, a novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, and a collection of short fiction, The Rainbow Stories, were...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Duncan Bock (review date October-November 1991)

SOURCE: "The Ice-Shirt Cometh," in The American Book Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, October-November, 1991, p. 25.

[In the following review, Bock describes The Ice-Shirt as a "near-masterpiece."]

Since 1987, William Vollmann has published 1,524 pages of fiction—more than most writers wring out in a lifetime. The bulk alone would be worth remarking. As it happens, Vollmann's writing is wildly inventive and does not hesitate to deal with large issues. You Bright and Risen Angels, his first novel, creates a surprising, comic world of animated jungles, sentient electricity, urban realism, and political insurrection. In the age of understatement, he has set himself...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

Mary Hawthorne (review date 29 November 1991)

SOURCE: "New American Gothic," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4626, November 29, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following review, Hawthorne commends the surreal nature of Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs.]

William T. Vollmann is not the first writer to declare that words are cold and dead, though it's difficult to imagine anyone working harder to recall them to life. For Vollmann is nothing if not ambitious. At thirty-two, he has three big books behind him—a novel (You Bright and Risen Angels, 1987), a collection of stories (The Rainbow Stories, 1990), and the first volume (The Ice-Shirt, 1990) of a projected seven-volume "symbolic history" of...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

Joseph Hooper (essay date February 1992)

SOURCE: "The Strange Case of William Vollmann," in Esquire, Vol. 117, No. 2, February, 1992, p. 35.

[In the following essay, Hooper favorably reviews Whores for Gloria and discusses Vollmann's approach to literature.]

It could have been worse. In William Vollmann's novel, Whores for Gloria, the hero, an optimist burnout named Jimmy, wanders the Tenderloin district of San Francisco collecting stories and venereal diseases from street hookers in order to flesh out his somewhat sketchy vision of true love, Gloria. There is one queasy moment early in the novel when Vollmann looks to be teetering on the edge of American Psycho. Jimmy contemplates how...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Michael Coffey (essay date 13 July 1992)

SOURCE: "William T. Vollmann," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 31, July 13, 1992, p. 5.

[In the following excerpt, based on an interview with Vollmann, Coffey discusses Vollmann's works to date and the author's approach to writing and publishing.]

"I'd say the biggest hope that we have right now is the AIDS epidemic," offers William Vollmann, sipping from a glass of dark rum in his living room in a quiet section of Sacramento, Calif. "Maybe the best thing that could happen would be if it were to wipe out half or two-thirds of the people in the world. Then the ones who survived would just be so busy getting things together that they'd have to help each other, and in...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)

William McGowan (review date 19 July 1992)

SOURCE: "The Grail at the End of the Pass," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 19, 1992, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following largely positive review of An Afghanistan Picture Show, McGowan argues that the power of Vollmann's writing—which here concerns his trip to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the early 1980s—is partially blunted by his failure to address certain crucial underlying assumptions and motivations.]

In his introduction to a 1984 fiction collection, Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon admitted that he had been jarred by reading stories he had written more than 20 years earlier. At first, the pretension and the goofiness of his efforts made him want...

(The entire section is 1605 words.)

Madison Smartt Bell (review date 26 July 1992)

SOURCE: "A Tale of Two Saints," in Chicago Tribune—Books, July 26, 1992, p. 3.

[Bell is an American novelist and short story writer. In the following review of Fathers and Crows, he extols Vollmann's ability to imbue historical writing with human poignancy.]

Two saints preside over Fathers and Crows, the second installment of William T. Vollmann's series of novels, Seven Dreams: Ignatius de Loyola, the soldier who became a religious zealot and founded the Jesuit order, and Kateri Tekakwitha, who as the victim of her own mortifications became the first Iroquois martyr for Christ.

The form of the novel is patterned upon Loyola's...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)

Annette Kobak (review date 26 July 1992)

SOURCE: "Send Stronger Americans," in The New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1992, pp. 10-11.

[A biographer, Kobak is the host of the BBC series The Art of Travel. In the following negative review of An Afghanistan Picture Show, she argues that Vollmann's attempt to help the mujahedeen, the Afghan rebels who fought the Soviet army, was more foolhardy than the subsequent examination of his naïveté, unpreparedness, and impotence can justify. She also suggests that Vollmann's honesty is ultimately self-serving and egotistical.]

William T. Vollmann went to Pakistan in 1982 as a 22-year-old would-be adventurer, determined to get over the border into...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Steven Moore (review date 2 August 1992)

SOURCE: "William Vollmann: An Artist in the American Grain," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 2, 1992, pp. 1, 10.

[Moore is senior editor of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. In the following review of Fathers and Crows and An Afghanistan Picture Show, he discusses Vollmann's life and career and calls him "the most prodigiously talented and historically important American novelist under 35."]

From where I'm sitting, William T. Vollmann looks to be the most prodigiously talented and historically important American novelist under 35, the only one to come along in the last 10 years or so capable of filling the seven-league boots of such...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)

David L. Ulin (review date 23 August 1992)

SOURCE: "Fire and Ice," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, pp. 2, 7.

[In the following review, Ulin, an editor and poet, offers a favorable assessment of Fathers and Crows.]

Toward the end of William T. Vollmann's 1990 novel The Ice-Shirt—the first installment in his ambitious and farreaching seven-part "symbolic history" of North America, Seven Dreams—a Micmac Indian chief named Carrying the War-Club picks up an iron ax left behind by a dead Norseman and, after turning the weapon viciously upon one of his tribal rivals, throws it into the sea. It's an odd moment, climactic even, and it resonates with the weight of premonition. Iron,...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)

Lawrence Thornton (review date 6 September 1992)

SOURCE: "When the Bears Turned into Frenchmen," in The New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1992, p. 14.

[In the following review, Thornton claims that the bulk of historical background material Vollmann includes in Fathers and Crows dilutes much of the novel's power.]

William T. Vollmann's gargantuan Fathers and Crows is the second in a projected series of seven novels collectively titled Seven Dreams, which he says will form "a book of North American landscapes" and "a symbolic history of North America from its earliest days." The first volume, The Ice-Shirt, published in 1990, examined the 10th-century conflict between American...

(The entire section is 1117 words.)

Eric Korn (review date 23 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Along the Stream of Time," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4673, October 23, 1992, p. 21.

[In the following review of Fathers and Crows, Korn concludes that, despite certain problems, "the narrative grips."]

[Fathers and Crows] is the second of William T. Vollmann's planned Seven Dreams, a sort of mythic history of North America. The first, The Ice-Shirt (1990), followed the voyages and feuds of the Norsemen, their encounters with Inuit and Amerindian beings, natural and supernatural, their conflicting greeds and dreams, ghosts and demons. Restricted to the comparatively narrow stage of Scandinavia, Greenland and Newfoundland,...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)

Catherine Bush (review date 23 May 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1993, p. 10.

[In the following review of Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, Bush, a novelist, discusses the uneven quality of Vollmann's literary technique.]

William T. Vollmann's new collection, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, can be read as a feverish contemporary travelogue—and as a tour of Mr. Vollmann's brain. It's a frontline bulletin from the world of those whom the writer Pico Iyer has called "the Transit Loungers," the new rootless wanderers who speed through cities and continents as if through revolving doors, torn between...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

William T. Vollmann with Larry McCaffery (interview date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: An interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 9-24.

[McCaffery is an American editor, essayist, and nonfiction writer who has done extensive research into modern and postmodern literature. In the following interview, Vollmann discusses his career, authors and works that have influenced him, and his main literary preoccupations.]

[McCaffery]: In one of your biographical statements, you emphasize your absorption as a kid in books—this sense of riding on the magic carpet with the caliph, and so on. Did inhabiting these exotic places so long and so deeply in your imagination have anything to do with wanting to actually...

(The entire section is 8481 words.)

Geoff Ryman (review date 14 November 1993)

SOURCE: "'That Most Honest Form of Love,'" in The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, p. 13.

[In the following review of Butterfly Stories, Ryman, a novelist, praises Vollmann for his frequently beautiful writing, but faults him for being manipulative and at times disingenuous.]

William T. Vollmann has written about prostitutes before, most recently in the novel Whores for Gloria, and it would appear that he encountered criticism for it. His latest novel, Butterfly Stories, begins with a plea for the public not to be censorious about "that most honest form of love." He compares himself and prostitutes to butterflies, of which there are...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

Madison Smartt Bell (essay date 6 February 1994)

SOURCE: "William T. Vollmann," in The New York Times Magazine, February 6, 1994, pp. 18-21.

[In the following essay, Bell discusses Vollmann's life and career, focusing on his often dangerous methods of research into street life, prostitution, and war.]

Most likely you would not look twice at William T. Vollmann tonight, slumped on the bench of the downtown N train in his shapeless, grubby red parka and oversize jeans. His face is blank, eyes distant behind large, rectangular glasses. He is as unremarkable as Bernhard Goetz. Because he looks as if he has probably passed the last 10 years in a windowless room behind a computer terminal, you would be surprised to hear...

(The entire section is 3275 words.)

James McManus (review date 27 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Captain Subzero and the Lost Expedition," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 6.

[McManus is a poet and novelist. In the following review of The Rifles, he admires and appreciates Vollmann's ability to convey massive amounts of useful information, but faults his narrative method as hasty, ungainly, and ultimately hubristic in its ambitions.]

While The Rifles is the third book to be published, it is Volume 6 of William T. Vollmann's startlingly ambitious project, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, seven long novels in which he proposes to narrate the entire "symbolic history" of the settlement of North...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

David L. Ulin (review date 21 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Northern Exposure," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 258, No. 11, March 21, 1994, pp. 384-87.

[In the following review, Ulin claims that in The Rifles Vollmann does not fully develop his themes or his characters.]

I've often thought of William T. Vollmann as the oddball monk of American letters, a man who sits in a stark room creating his illuminated manuscripts (literally illuminated, since Vollmann's work routinely features maps and line drawings by the author, sketched in a primitive, if evocative, hand) twelve or fifteen hours a day, stopping only to go on fact-finding missions or to pick up a hooker and pretend that he's fallen in love. Actually,...

(The entire section is 2408 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 11 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Dream Factory," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 15, April 11, 1994, pp. 40-2, 44.

[Birkerts is an American critic and educator who has won numerous awards and grants for his essays on literature. In the following review of Butterfly Stories, he praises Vollmann's evocation of the main character's perspective and states of mind, arguing that, though the plot at times "strains credulity," the poignancy and dreamlike quality of the narration imbue the novel with credibility and authenticity.]

William Vollmann is the kind of writer who sets other writers to calculating—totting up published pages and dividing by the guesswork figure of years spent at...

(The entire section is 3220 words.)

Gary Krist (review date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: "Bad Art, Good Entertainment," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 304-05.

[In the following review, Krist remarks unfavorably on Butterfly Stories, arguing that Vollmann's overarching cynicism and contempt for the protagonist is unrelieved by brief moments of beautiful writing.]

[I read] Butterfly Stories this quarter, a book that (despite its title) is a novel—and a novel that certainly no one would confuse with entertainment. The author's name, William Vollmann, may be familiar, since he's been producing books at a feverish rate: eight in just the past few years (and a ninth is on its way even as I write this). He's a...

(The entire section is 854 words.)