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, claiming the pieces are juxtaposed thematically with early passages paralleling later refrains. This may be true—although pinning down just what Vollmann’s themes are may take more effort than the individual stories warrant—but, again, such techniques only emphasize Vollmann’s interest in method rather than what the stories are meant to convey.
This penchant of Vollmann’s has been noted before, despite critics’ praise for his first three books, comparing the author to such innovative American novelists as Thomas Pynchon. In his novels and previous short-story collections, Vollmann used complicated plots and numerous character types to critique human behavior, the nature of political power struggles, and the dynamics of history. In The Atlas, Vollmann can no longer be accused of complexity, and this is perhaps why his stories seem unrelated and not interwoven and integrated parts of a whole dependent on each brush stroke to make a volume fulfilling his clear intentions to link the disparate settings in The Atlas. Part of the problem, too, is that Vollmann is reworking subjects and themes from earlier, fresher volumes that were more important because of their then new innovations. Beginning with You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), reviewers observed Vollmann liked large, sprawling, disorderly canvases that operate on many levels suggesting many interpretations.
Touted as ingenious, bizarre, playful, ambitious, and crafted by a virtuoso, Vollmann’s second book, The Rainbow Stories (1989) explored Vollmann’s themes of death and alienation in more depth, a single-setting opus in which a frank and disturbing exploration of the lives...
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