William T. Vollmann Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."