William T. Vollmann’s newest collection of short pieces is a postmodern potpourri of legitimate short stories, vignettes, character sketches, prose poems, and stylistic exercises set internationally, from Cambodia to San Francisco, from Somalia to South Africa. With this international scope, readers should expect to encounter a variety of perspectives, approaches, and insights into a complex world. While approaches to the varied subject matter distinguish this volume, however, there is little by way of insight, variety of perspective, or even borrowing of cultural identities to distinguish the setting of one story from another. Instead, one voice is apparent throughout, and despite the conscious craftsmanship of the author, readers may enjoy what they read without knowing exactly what they were supposed to experience.
Throughout this collection, like his previous works, content is not Vollmann’s strong suit. There are few memorable situations, although scenes such as the boy watching sex on a bus and the killer mosquitoes of America are engaging, surreal, and humorous. Yet such scenes are surrounded by thinly sketched characters undistinguishable in themselves or their surroundings, frequently drawn in seeming suspended animation with no action before or after a moment to give context to the portraits. What matters here is style, and Vollmann is an experienced craftsman and experimenter with an eye for the beauty, flow, rhythm, and interweaving of words, sentences, and paragraphs, particularly his musical metrical lines, a distinctive poetic voice in prose clothing. One example is the following set of images:
So I let my shadow lead me down to the stain, even though you wouldn’t hold my hand (I was only your symbiont). They say that the Cross with the anchor means salvation, that the olive branch is a symbol of hope. I found those symbols scraped into white shards of marble in the dark tufa walls of Saint Callisto’s. I found them in the graves shelved with cool earth. Man-worms bored these caves into the world, some rounded, all so low that my head met the shadow of my head. Looking up into a skylight now very far above, I saw moss around that hole from which I’d been born from within my marble pillar of secretness.
Further, Vollmann is clever in his organization of material,...
(The entire section is 943 words.)