Vollmann, William T.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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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 "resurrection button" on his terminal, calling up his "bright and risen angels," the cast of characters brought to life by the electrical current: the hero, Bug, powerful Mr. White, shady Dr. Dodger, plant-like Parker, macho Wayne, dangerous Big George and others who will be "made to kill each other, and fall and die."
Early on, the author tells us that he would like to save his characters, but he cannot entirely control their fate. In determining the outcome of events, he must contend with Big George, who is "pure electrical consciousness itself, insinuating itself everywhere, drifting in and out of all stories and machines." In the narrative, sometimes the author speaks, sometimes Big George, sometimes both within a...
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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 intoxicated reportage to reportage so meticulously uninflected as to suggest Dada. Vollmann manages a whole wardrobe of voices: ornate, inconsolably bare, romantic, and something resembling messages on computers. A single author's voice would imply synthesis and connection; Vollmann's pieces are rafts foundering in the divided waters of a world blown apart.
He writes with a fierce and bright-hued sensibility, perpetually inflamed. The disconnection and threat of modern, or if you like, postmodern life—Vollmann stands in our avant-garde—goads him to the farthest possible remove from the minimalism that reigned in our fiction a decade ago, and still has important voices. He is the most maximalist of writers. "Ladies and...
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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 packaged in a text that is hugely overwritten, callow, logorrheic, unkempt and undeft and incontinent. The Rainbow Stories is not an easy read.
Some hints, therefore, might help novices to get through the racket of Vollmann's post-modernist prose-gamesmanship, and into the meat of a fine book. First, the name Rainbow Stories itself needs to be understood, and disposed of. After learning that the titles of the 11 stories included in the book advance in succession through the visible spectrum, from "The White Knights" to "Violet Hair," and that the author rather harps upon an arbitrary metaphysical scheme that links this sequence to the colors of the human viscera after dissection, the reader will be best advised...
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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, no typical novelist invent: a 16-year-old skinhead called Bootwoman Marisa bites her lip while a dragon is tattooed on her thigh; a bag lady carries around black plastic sacks filled with her most prized possessions, dead pigeons; a murderer called The Zombie preys on homeless people, feeding them crystal-blue Drano before he decapitates them; a legendary practitioner of thuggee kills for the goddess Kali.
Mr. Vollmann's loving attention to the grotesque particulars of anatomy and murder is often as disturbing as he means it to be. Yet these 13 lengthy tales, each composed of dozens of short takes that substitute for plot or narrative momentum, are also maddening in their overblown language and self-indulgent accumulation...
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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 Icelandic sagas, the chronicles of travellers, but also Butler's Erewhon, tourism brochures and conversations with drunks. It is "an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue, based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth".
As in last year's eclectic The Rainbow Stories, a sordid trek through San Francisco's Tenderloin, Vollmann finds that truth in focusing on characters at the edge—this time at the very edge of the world. This is also an exhaustive, compendious odyssey, in which no detail is insignificant. Vollmann does not make judgments; he is an observer, near scientific, and he records everything: every genealogy, every incident.
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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 indicating that William T. Vollmann has drawn on medieval Norse sagas, legends of the Micmac Indians and Greenland Inuit, and his own travels along the North Atlantic seaboard. But his main source seems to be his powerful imagination, with which he imposes a unifying theme on this mass of material.
The Ice-Shirt is the first of seven projected novels about the changing American landscape and the relationship between pioneers and Native Americans. The story's melancholy prescience of doom, a feature borrowed from Norse literature, is well suited to this somber topic; without harping on modern-day racism or pollution, Mr. Vollmann clearly foreshadows them.
The author of two prior books—a novel, You...
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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 received with respect and some enthusiasm. The title page tells us that The Ice-Shirt is the first of Seven Dreams, A Book of North American Landscapes. In 10 or 15 years, Vollmann, now 30, expects to complete six more volumes setting forth 1,000 years of the white man's exploitation of the New World.
This opening volume begins with the dreams and deeds of the intrepid Norse adventurers who, nearly 10 centuries ago discovered and briefly colonized a small stretch of North America. They came from Greenland and are thought to have settled in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the Vinland of legend. They encountered Indians, traded with them, cheated them, finally warred with them and, after a few years, sailed home....
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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 task of describing the motives of his characters in admittedly sometimes excruciating detail. The Rainbow Stories introduced a journalistic dimension with its firsthand narratives of Vollmann's sojourns among disenfranchised San Francisco subcultures, like those of skinheads, prostitutes, and the homeless. Now he has undertaken an ambitious, seven-volume "Symbolic History" of North America called Seven Dreams—"whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth"—of which The Ice-Shirt is the first volume. In the sense that his writing has established a new literature of exploration, it is appropriate that this novel recreates an age of continental exploration and migration. A potpourri of tales, The Ice-Shirt...
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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 North America (Seven Dreams). (The second volume, Fathers and Crows, is due out next year.) It is said that he attends his readings carrying a gun, presumably loaded, and attired in a SWAT uniform decorated with painted iceberg and prostitute motifs. And, for $4,000, he will sell you a hand-printed, limited, artist's edition of his ode to a massage parlour, The Happy Girls (a story included here); photographs, underwear, mirror-glass, peephole, buzzer, electric red light, and bra straps included.
In introducing the recent anthology The New Gothic (which features, as does the present collection, Vollmann's story "The Grave of Lost Stories", a surreal excursion into the vaulted chambers of the...
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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 Gloria might look assembled on his bed from the hacked limbs of his whore friends, but he quickly retreats into more spiritualized country—Gloria as "a sky-goddess feasting upon the smoke from sacrifices." Vollmann says he decided against the mass-murder route after reading newspaper accounts of real-life psychopaths. "It didn't seem that they had fulfilled themselves," he says.
Not everyone appreciates such scrupulousness. Vollmann says he was giving a reading from Whores in Oregon, supplementing his text with photographs of ulcerated genitalia and that sort of thing, when a few women in the audience took exception. "I felt they were vultures circling for the kill," he says. Then a woman who had evidently been...
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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 time maybe the world would recover ecologically, too."
Vollmann delivers this startling observation in a languid, deceptive drawl, like a pitcher with a slow, deliberate windup blazing a fastball by your eyes. You look closer to see just who this guy is, but his features recede in a haze of blandness. In person, the prolific young writer—at 32 he has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, three of them in the last four months—is unprepossessing and somewhat odd. His bearing is distorted, or distorting: he seems wider in the hips than at the shoulders (perhaps an occupational hazard of the writing life) and looks the taller for it, narrowing toward the top; behind glasses, his right eye has a bleary cast to...
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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 to gag and call rewrite; then, in a mood of middle-aged tranquillity, he settled into an acceptance of the younger writer he once was. "I mean, I can't just very well 86 the guy from my life," he explained. "On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down to the street to have a beer and talk over the old times."
A similar ambivalence informs William Vollmann's latest work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I saved the World. But Vollmann does his younger self one better than lending him money or buying him a beer. A successful novelist now in his 30s, Vollmann...
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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 "Spiritual Exercises," the hypnagogic system of meditation that allowed the Jesuits to strengthen their faith and intention by imaginative entrance into the life of Christ. Carving a similar door in his own imagination, Vollmann relates Loyola's exercises to what he calls the Stream of Time, for which the physical metaphor is the St. Lawrence River, standing in turn for the downward rush of history toward the future:
For history is like a string that the cat has swallowed:—drawing events and events from the poor creature's throat, one is surprised at how much must be disgorged. To know how BEELZEBUB was expelled like an OKI from Huron stomachs, I must draw out the knotty life twine of Pere Brebeuf,...
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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 Afghanistan and help the mujahedeen fight the Soviets. In this account of his visit, the novelist (author of The Ice Shirt and Whores for Gloria, among other works) pictures himself with hindsight as an innocent abroad, a "panting puppy" filled with illusions about his capacity to sort out good from bad determine who were the people we should give our nickels and dimes to, and to whom we should give the business end of a Chinese-made 7.62-millimeter light machine gun.
"I just wanted to comprehend what had happened there," he explains. "Then I would put myself at someone's service. I meant to be good, and was prepared to do good." Mr. Vollmann also tells us in An Afghanistan Picture Show that he wanted...
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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 meganovelists as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Since 1987 he has published seven books—four novels, two collections of short fiction, and a nonfiction account—which tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, huge ambition, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation and sardonic wit. If the man and his work are unknown to you, here's a brief resume:
He is 33 years old, graduated summa cum laude (in comparative literature) from Cornell, and worked as a computer programmer until devoting himself full-time to writing a few years ago. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels was published in 1987; a massive (635 pages), surrealistic work that reads like...
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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, after all, was the instrument 17th-Century European colonialists used both to barter and to battle America's native populations into submission, making Carrying the War-Club's rejection of the ax a gesture of defiance toward the dual forces of time and culture, forces against which his descendants were ultimately unable to hold the line.
Fathers and Crows, the second volume of the Seven Dreams cycle, tells the story of those descendants and how they were corrupted, not only by the iron that, unlike Carrying the War-Club, they were moved to accept, but also by the men who offered it in what they first took as the spirit of friendship, only to discover later that this assumption had been dangerously wrong....
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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 Indians and Norse Greenlanders. Fathers and Crows is set in the 17th century as Jesuit priests begin their work of converting the Indians to Christianity. Weighing in at just over three pounds, Fathers and Crows includes 869 pages of footnote-, map- and drawing-studded text. Six glossaries, a chronology, a source list and acknowledgments fill the remaining 121 pages. The length (and heft) of the text suggest the hybrid nature of Mr. Vollmann's enterprise: part history, part novel, this juggernaut of a book strives mightily to enter the list of epics.
In his preliminary remarks, the narrator, William the Blind, urges us to approach his narrative by immersing ourselves in the Stream of Time, which will carry...
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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, it weighed in at a laconic 400 pages. Now heavier still and hot on its trail, comes this massive second dream, focused on the second stage of the fatal impact: the arrival in Canada of the French traders who messed up the Indian economy and the Jesuits who messed up their minds. It is vast and rocky and criss-crossed by innumerable streams, like Québec itself.
The strong, circuitous and episodic tale comes with a heavy apparatus of indexes and glossaries, notes on sources and overly explicit acknowledgements: essential travel documents for a writer who regularly crosses the meandering boundary, until lately formidably walled, between history and mythopoeia.
The language, likewise, moves interestingly...
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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 global familiarity and the loss of home.
In his last few prolific years, Mr. Vollmann, who is just 33, has produced a substantial body of work, juggling reportage with fictionalized plunges into urban subcultures (The Rainbow Stories and Whores for Gloria) and the quasi-historical novels (The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows) in his Seven Dreams series about "the transformations of North America." He's gained a literary reputation as well as notoriety for some of his subject matter, such as the skinheads and prostitutes (always "whores" in Vollmann-speak) of San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs opens in San Francisco, the...
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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 visit them now that you're grown up?
[Vollmann]: My primary world is just this one basic "dream world" that I've been in from the time I was a kid. All these worlds that I see and write about are equally real and can coexist, so it's not like I have to leave my own world in order to inhabit them. That's my ability, I guess. But this also means that these different worlds are also equally unreal, so I can't take anything too seriously. None of them take precedence over any others. The truth is, I get kind of bored with a lot of ordinary people. It's not that I think that I'm better than they are (if anything, I think they're probably better than I am, because it's easier for them to be happy and just live their...
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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 "billions of species."
One of Mr. Vollmann's stated aims is to detail such variety. He distinguishes his prostitutes by what a customer sees of them—their varying abilities to feign affection, their working procedures, the state of their pubic areas. Sometimes he gives the women a name, sometimes just a label: the white girl, "the transvestite whore, the street-corner whore," The result is that they run into one another, like characters in long Russian novels. The effect is one of sameness, not variety.
Butterfly Stories is a novel that takes the form of linked short stories. The nameless hero of the book is a journalist. The first story, "The Butterfly Boy," intercuts his childhood travails with...
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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 that he has spent the last few months swashbuckling through Thailand, Somalia and Bosnia with a disregard for personal danger that would shame Hunter S. Thompson, or Jack London, or Errol Flynn. Likewise you would not suspect him of a literary ambition more overweening than anyone's since Faulkner.
Vollmann has been sometimes considered part of a new wave of metafictional writers, including David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers and Susan Daitch; he is also sometimes grouped with quite a different movement known as "transgressive fiction," including writers like Catherine Texier, Joel Rose and Dennis Cooper. In fact, while he has appropriated styles and techniques from both groups, he belongs fully to neither; the complexity...
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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 America. Volume 1, The Ice-Shirt (1990), recounts the arrival of the Norse in Greenland in A.D. 981, and their clashes and accommodations with the native Inuit during the next 300 years. Volume 2, the 990-page Fathers and Crows (1992), chronicles in prodigious detail the savagery that attended the 16th-century confrontations between the French and the Iroquois in what is now southern Canada. In both of these volumes Mr. Vollmann made wide-ranging imaginative use of legend, native and Christian mythology and historical sources intercut with his observations as a traveler in these regions, as well as his own illustrations and maps. In The Rifles he has enriched this strange brew by insinuating himself and his novelistic...
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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, given Vollmann's avowed fascination—some might say obsession—with prostitutes and other denizens of the urban demimonde, the monk analogy doesn't hold up in any but the most abstract way. Yet when I consider his profligacy (since the appearance of his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, in 1987, Vollmann has churned out eight more books) or that at the age of 34 he's still at the beginning of what is already a major literary career dedicated in part to re-rendering a mythic past, the comparison seems apt, something that, in Vollmann's own words, may be "untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth."
For the past several years, Vollmann has been...
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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 desk. My math, which takes into account six novels (including the one under review and his most recent book, The Rifles), two story collections and a travelogue/documentary, tells me that over a ten-year period Vollmann will have brought into print some 5,000 pages of prose: a Balzacian rate of production. The fingertips prickle at the thought of so much typing (or processing). And the reader, no longer buying the idea that he should be grateful for any and all artistic bounty, rebels. He wants to hear that much of the work is just that—typing—and can safely be disregarded.
So far as I have read, and so far as I can judge, it cannot. Though he is prolific in the extreme, there is little contaminating sense of...
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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 writer who appears to take big chances, wrestling with grand brawny subjects in a sometimes baroque, sometimes hallucinatory prose that has inspired all sorts of reviewer hyperbole. But if Butterfly is any indication, the chance-taking of Vollmann's work is largely bravado. While his personal life may be full of recklessness (according to his press materials, he spends much of his free time wandering around war zones and getting beaten up by members of the various demimondes that seem to intrigue him), Butterfly Stories strikes me as—at least on an emotional level—entirely safe, mainly because Vollmann refuses to commit to any stance toward his main characters besides contempt. Yes, he pays exaggerated lip...
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Review of The Rainbow Stories, by William T. Vollmann. Chicago Tribune Books (2 August 1992): 2.
Summarizes criticism of John Calvin Batchelor, who deemed The Rainbow Stories a "domineering display of rare talent."
Review of Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, by William T. Vollmann. Kirkus Reviews LXI, No. 5 (1 March 1993): 258.
Short review that concludes that Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs is not of the caliber of Vollmann's earlier works.
Kisliuk, Bill. "Barbary Coast Whores and Tenderloin Tricksters." San Francisco Review of Books 17, No. 2 (Fall 1992): 15.
Review of Jacqueline Baker Barnhart's The Fair But Frail: Prostitution in San Francisco, 1849–1900 and Vollmann's Whores for Gloria.
Oldfield, Paul. "Theatre of Destruction." New Statesman and Society 2, No. 35 (3 February 1989): 44.
Extols the spectacular elements of The Rainbow Stories.
O'Toole, Laurence. "Weird and Wonderful." New Statesman and Society 6, No. 279 (19 November 1993): 46.
Short and unfavorable assessment of Butterfly...
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