William T. Vollmann, who burst onto the crowded late twentieth century literary scene and showed that there was still something new to say, spent the first five years of his life in Santa Monica, California. Beginning in 1964, his family made a series of moves: first to Hanover, New Hampshire, where his father taught business at Dartmouth College, then to Rhode Island, and finally to Indiana, where Vollmann attended high school. At age nine, while living in New Hampshire, Vollmann experienced a tragedy that informed his subsequent life: His six-year-old sister drowned in a pond after he had been told to watch her. Vollmann blamed himself and his daydreaming for her death, mockingly dubbing himself William the Blind when he began to write the novels of his epic Seven Dreams series; two tragic women protagonists of this work are named Born Swimming and Born Underwater. His painful early lessons about the need to try to save others, to expiate one’s guilt, and to be unflinchingly observant, all echo throughout his writing.
Vollmann was accepted into the college program of Deep Springs (located in Death Valley, as he sardonically observed), which emphasized service to others and self-reliance; he completed the program with a senior year at Cornell University, from which he graduated with honors. He followed this with graduate studies in comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1982, still burning with a desire to save others and influenced by T. E. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, Vollmann went to Afghanistan to fight for the mujahideen. He described this well-intentioned but quixotic foray with rich irony, years later, in his travel memoir, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World. In 2000, he returned to Afghanistan, both literally and in print, with a lengthy and vivid piece of reportage about the then-ruling Taliban, “Across the Divide,” published in The New Yorker on May 15, 2000.
Vollmann worked as a computer programmer in the mid-1980’s. His experience in California’s Silicon Valley resulted in his first published novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, for which he received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 1988. The plot is a satirical allegory of the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, in which democracy triumphant turns into the next oppressive regime. The characters are witty caricatures, playing their roles in a vast, complex computer game realized in the form of a novel. A major subplot involves the history of electricity.
In his next major work, The Rainbow Stories, a collection of stories that form an episodic...
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