(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

William T. Vollmann’s The Royal Family begins like any other hard-boiled detective story. The protagonist, Henry Tyler, is a private investigator who has trouble paying his bills and who occupies a sleazy middle ground somewhere between the police department and the underworld. He has contacts in both areas, knows San Francisco like the palm of his hand (his favorite activity is cruising the mean streets), and has computer skills (which he uses to track information without ever leaving home). The novel begins with Henry in the employ of moneyman Jonas Brady, and they are on a mysterious quest to find the Queen of the Whores (if, in fact, such a person exists). Naturally the quest requires a lot of cruising through the Tenderloin district and a lot of patronizing and questioning of prostitutes, with tough dialogue along the lines of: “—We’re not cops, said Brady brightly, but the fat lady only said: Uh huh, and you really love me and you won’t come in my mouth and the check is in the mail.”

Perhaps this all sounds entertaining in a conventional detective-story way, but readers should take warning from such dialogue. Eventually, not finding the Queen of the Whores, Brady fires Henry, but by this time Henry has become so fascinated by the quest that he cannot abandon it. Unbelievable as it is, he continues to search on his own, without pay. Supposedly his continuing quest is motivated by a void in his soul (which is believable) and by the recent suicide of his sister-in-law, Irene, whom he loved. In any case, Henry finally does find the Queen, is initiated into her circle, and becomes her lover and devotee—though not without paying a terrible price. Apparently he has to reject the conventional world and experience the self-abasement of the prostitute, including some mortifications of the flesh best not mentioned here.

As one might surmise, The Royal Family is loaded with sex, from the straight to the kinky to the perverse. The activities of the prostitutes are described in detail, from their street vigils to their flaccid customers to their crack addiction. One of the main characters, Dan Smooth, is a pedophile. The language of the novel is likewise filled with the slangy lexicon of sex. Yet somehow the novel does not seem pornographic; rather than making sex attractive, it has just the opposite effect. Sex as depicted here tends to be disgusting and degrading. The prostitutes stink, are abscessed and diseased, and are aged before their times. Dan Smooth is a slimy creature, and other characters are hardly more attractive. Overall, the sex trade as depicted in The Royal Family seems like a circle out of Dante’s Hell.

The novel’s depiction of the sex business reaches a kind of climax in a satirical section on the Feminine Circus, a Las Vegas sex emporium opened by Jonas Brady. The emporium’s opening is like Oscar night in Hollywood, covered by the media, attended by celebrities and politicians, and protested by the unions. Monstrous crowds of eager customers swarm in, served by “customer support specialists” and “virtualettes” (business lingo for pimps and prostitutes). The prostitutes are supposedly creations of virtual reality, triumphs of modern technology: “And since they’re not real, nobody’s getting exploited, and there’s no disease to worry about. . . . Come to Feminine Circus and indulge your fantasies in a safe, healthy and tasteful manner.” In actuality, however, the virtualettes are retarded girls or lobotomized prostitutes who are rounded up, caged, and shipped in. The hidden inner workings of the emporium include a Lobotomy Factory and a disposal room (for virtualettes whose customers’ fantasies go too far).

Vollmann’s brief satire here is worthy of Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh: He savagely pinpoints how the media, business, technology, and politics pander to and exploit a willing American public (“They all stuck together like dogs fornicating in epoxy”). What is harder to swallow is the novel’s implication that the old-fashioned, organic kind of prostitution is morally superior to these new, processed forms. Symbolically the Feminine Circus stands in opposition to the Queen of the Whores’ circle, which Brady’s Boys try to eradicate or capture. While one can allow that the Queen watches over and cares for her girls like an old-fashioned madam, and that she is some sort of voodoo priestess, it is harder to believe in her supposedly supernatural powers or her Jesus-like religious aura that is constantly hinted about (she finally disappears without a trace, record, or social security number). It is likewise hard to believe, in...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)