Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Southeast Review

The Southeast Review has kindly accepted my review of Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, to appear in their upcoming print issue.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exploring Vollmann’s Labyrinth

There can be a mesmerizing appeal to novels in which something is slightly off. Frankly, this could be from the mind of the author, but it's never easy to pin down. This sounds like it could be a disastrous attraction, but the “off” sense seems to come out of the writing process more than from any plan the author might have had (although, who knows--it could as well be an affectation), and rather than detract from the art of it, this quality usually makes  the novel a more powerful and compelling read. So often, the best writing is rarely picked dry bones perfect; what is better, to my reading, is the bold idiosyncrasy of the writer’s mind revealed in the prose.
A cult-ish and high literary writer generally overlooked by the establishment, and an unclassifiable counterpoint to all of the squeaky clean novelists--whom usually fail to live up to their hype--is William T. Vollmann.
Vollmann is poly-literary: essays, manifestoes, calculi, and novels that he subtitles enigmatically “dreams” that wildly blur the line between fiction and reality. Vollmann riddles text with the footnotes and epigraphs of a lifetimes’ reading, which helps deny convenient demarcations. Notorious for his prodigality, and with a remarkable willingness for excess, I recall him in an interview talking about how he’s nearly destroyed his own hands with carpel tunel from his marathon writing labors.
In The Rifles, Vollmann imagines himself as a member of a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage that met its tragic end over one hundred and fifty years ago. Vollmann writes as William the Blind, Captain Subzero, Wm. Franklin, et al. Vollmann portrays living a parallel existence in two time periods as he delivers history, critiques of the rampant blood thirsty hunting culture introduced by the repeating rifle, and personal asides, including an inadvisable affair with a partially deaf mute Inuit woman. 
In one of the gripping chapters of The Rifles is a perfunctory survival tale that shouldn’t be. This is when Vollmann went to the defunct weather station at Isachsen on Ellef Ringnes Island near the North Pole with plainly insufficient cold weather gear and tried to replicate the experience of those in that failed Northwest Passage expedition. Why Vollmann would have needlessly subjected himself to an almost suicidal series of decisions that delivers a kind of campfire tale with shaggy dog proportions seems like nothing less than the writer trying to prove himself to himself first, and the interested reader, second. It’s as if he wanted to experience his characters’ ill-fated turns. Vollmann strives, at all times, to make a virtue of fallibility, with a survivalist’s indomitable resourcefulness.
The narrative seems to grow organically and out of its own imperative, and doesn’t feel hemmed and hewed by needless story boarding or scene peddling. A Vollmann narrative can feel less like a development than a conflagration, an uncontrolled burn. In a less confident writer this can come off as stultifying and mannered, and at its worst, arbitrary. But Vollmann trusts his logorrhea, perhaps, an obsessive pursuit of specific, charged detail.
Often defying logic in terms of straight ahead narrative, his novels are mythmaking in their self-references and staggering in their encyclopedic breadth. Some of his thousand pages plus tomes with their dense pages often makes them prohibitive to casual reading, but for the welcome they offer once you are fully engaged with it.
Vollmann the artist illustrates his texts with distinctive pen and ink sketches that reveal a skilled and highly idiosyncratic translation of the world that map, diagram and render talismanic and symbolic self-portraits.
Vollmann’s crackling sentences are of an honest writer seemingly without peer, seeing a world he has as much chosen as made, through an idealistic lens he wishes to translate faithfully. Vollmann makes his poetry incidental, and he’s not self-conscious about it, as in this passage from The Rifles: “He had to wear his headlamp, and it gleamed cheerlessly ahead, reflecting his own black shape in the glass of dead exit signs so that some monster was always coming toward him.”
Once venturing into the Vollmann labyrinth, it is, to me, a very comforting place. He makes no apologies for his investigations and presents himself as the steadfast hero in his formidable travels. His approach is that the “world is my world (and you are welcome to come along)", with frequent ill-advised border crossings, side trips and harrowing misadventures.
The apparent faith Vollmann puts in his fellow beings reveals a rare and magnanimous character, burdened by avid appreciation for the underappreciated of humanity. Though he is presenting what at times seems to be a persona, as a writer he doesn’t seem any less reliable because of it. Vollmann makes no excuses for his predilections, and out-quirks his contemporaries who have got to be thinking: any self-respecting writer would avoid such a profile or risk being labeled a narcissist. To quote Vollmann in the collection of writings, Expelled from Eden: “It is not so hard to be honest, merely a little embarrassing.” Vollmann is often brave, foolish, bawdy and a touch unsettling, but I never question his sincerity. He’s a writer I am grateful to, and read with as much awe as deliberation. But his writing style, inspiring in its risks, often reminds me of the virtue in being passionate, and in particular, how as a writer of vital things one should grasp how big a waste of time it is to worry about what anyone thinks of you. How as a writer of vital things one should trust in their inspirations, however unusual.