In the stock market we call literature, the best anthologies pay hefty dividends. It's hard to imagine Faulkner's ascendancy as Nobel Prize winner and "American Shakespeare" without the catalyst of Malcolm Cowley's Portable Faulkner—as William Styron recalled, the introduction to the collection, issued in 1945, "opened up Faulkner's world for me when I was a very young man struggling to read a difficult writer who was then out of print, little known and less understood." Few writers have been blessed with as beneficent an intervention as Cowley's, which, luckily for Faulkner, occurred just as Americans were beginning to get curious about modernism's intriguing formal innovations. And The Portable Faulkner remains the gold standard for single-author anthologies because, as Styron's remark indicates, an audience's willingness to grapple with the complexities of a difficult writer isn't enough; the work needs to be "opened up," to be made accessible and intelligible without diminishing the allure of its mysteries, and that is precisely what Cowley achieved in his collection.
Among contemporary writers, perhaps no one deserves a retrospective anthology at midcareer as much as William T. Vollmann, whose staggering rate of production has made it all but impossible to keep up with him—just blink and it seems he has brought out yet another doorstop. Since his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon, appeared in 1987, he has completed four outsize installments of his magnificent Seven Dreams project, a "symbolic history" related through novels that stretch back in time to the first Norse incursions into Greenland and Newfoundland, and portray the clashes of European colonizers and their descendants with indigenous North Americans. He has also published The Atlas, a collage of dispatches from some of the world's riskiest locales; An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World, a memoir of sorts recounting his 1982 trip in search of mujahideen at war with the Soviets; Europe Central, just out this spring, a collection of fictionalized portraits that explore the lives of intriguing
and often morally ambiguous figures who lived under the twin totalitarian evils
of Stalinism and Nazism, with emphasis on the war years; and five books, set in the present, that have emerged from his abiding fascination with prostitutes, mostly, along with a supporting cast of urban-underbelly types. Alternately hard-edged and lyrical, lurid and incandescent, Vollmann's visions of contemporary life—especially in Whores for Gloria and the monumental Royal Family, in which he's forged a phantasmagorical urban realism to chronicle San Francisco's lower depths—are shot through with brutality, yearning, and fever-dreams that fuse squalor and transcendence.
As extensive as this listing of works is, it falls well short of encompassing the full cyclone of Vollmann's creativity, which also includes poems, reviews, occasional pieces, and even numerous "book objects," which feature his own artwork along with contributions by collaborators such as photographer and friend Ken Miller. At the core of his oeuvre, though, is what he himself describes as his life's work, some twenty years in the making, the seven-volume, 3,352-page treatise Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, first published by McSweeney's in 2003 and reissued in a single-volume abridgment last year by Ecco Press. Toiling in a sweatshop of his own devising, clocking up to sixteen hours a day at his desk, the forty-five-year-old Vollmann has exacted a considerable toll on his body at a relatively young age. In his 1998 essay "Writing," considering his "swollen and aching fingers," he tells how "sometimes the ache oozes up to my shoulders, sometimes only to my wrists; once or twice I've felt it in my back. Poor posture, they say, or ‘repetitive stress injury,' or possibly carpal tunnel. . . . Writing is bad for me physically, without a doubt, but what would I do if I stopped?"
Whatever the personal cost, Vollmann's graphomania foregrounds what it means to be prolific in an age when most people will devote only so much of their leisure time to reading. Perhaps there are some sort of tacit guidelines regarding output that "serious" writers are expected to follow, because Vollmann's productivity has been, at best, a mixed blessing for his career. The truly prolific author, as distinct from the merely respectably productive one, is either a genre writer or a relic. From our distant vantage, the exhausting labors of a writer such as Trollope are merely an instance of his era's diligence and discipline (those Victorians and their steady habits!); the hypercaffeinated energies of Balzac, too, seem of a piece with the transformative currents that coursed through the nineteenth century. But these days writers reap greater rewards if they publish less frequently. Those who write on a grand scale can shape an entire career around a few magisterial efforts, usually spaced a decade or so apart, with well-placed excerpts offered as teasing previews of the masterpiece in the making. This of course is the Joycean model, and it's rather shrewd. Had Joyce published eight or nine massive novels in the seventeen-year interim between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, would we regard either of those books, or Joyce himself, in quite the same way?
By amassing such a vast bibliography in less than two decades, Vollmann has probably denied himself the readership he might otherwise have enjoyed. I'm not suggesting that he's laboring in obscurity. He's been showered with attention to a degree that other writers must envy, having been the subject of profile pieces in Esquire and the New York Times Magazine, as well as publications abroad. Most of his books have been brought out by a major trade publisher. He can count on a fanatically committed cult following: "Boys at least as intelligent as I ship off copies of my books to be autographed," he wrote in the 1993 essay "Honesty." "Girls regularly send naked photos." And though it hasn't been unanimous, there has been ample praise from critics, as admirers have studded his reputation with superlatives from the beginning. But as judgments superlatives are often superficial, even when they're true. The recognition that Vollmann has received has had a curiously static quality, focusing on his ambition and preternatural talent, qualities that say as much about his potential as his actual achievement. Early on he was repeatedly likened to Thomas Pynchon, a pairing that was perhaps inevitable given the forbidding ambition and daunting intelligence of both writers. Vollmann's methods and aims, however, were initially quite distinct from Pynchon's and have diverged even further over time. Such comparisons were concerned primarily with ranking Vollmann among his contemporaries, serving as a kind of default reaction—if he's really so good, he must be like Pynchon—which catapulted him into an elite clique of American writers while masking the bewilderment at what exactly to make of such an idiosyncratic wunderkind.
By now Vollmann is no longer the youthful prodigy he once was, and as his books have issued steadily forth they've been duly noted, sometimes applauded, sometimes disparaged as bloated, muddled, or as examples of "postmodern" excess—a lazy shibboleth of the smug reviewer. But, on the whole, the work lacks the primacy among American readers that it deserves. A new Vollmann book isn't greeted as an "event" the way recent novels by DeLillo and Roth, and even David Foster Wallace, have been. In light of their remarkable reach and virtuosity, Vollmann's historical novels in particular seem undervalued. Set within landscapes possessed of sublime enchantment and power, his Seven Dreams books depict the saga of European settlement in North America as an outrageous dynamic of violence and transformation. As Vollmann probes the fundamentals of life on this continent during the last millennium, he unsettles reductive notions of identity and history, us and them. These novels—four of the projected seven have so far been published: The Ice-Shirt (1990), Fathers and Crows (1992), The Rifles (1993), and Argall (2001)—are a morality play of aggressors and victims, but have been stripped of any facile moralizing on Vollmann's part. The logic of conquest is laid bare relentlessly, along with the recurring fears and paranoia of the colonizers; and the victims, of whom there are many, are given a reality that far surpasses mere victimhood. There has been no dearth of books (to say nothing of movies) about the struggle for and in the New World, but no one has tackled the subject with the dazzling fusion of erudition and imaginative intensity displayed in Seven Dreams, and no writer has depicted this clash of civilizations with quite the sense of epic sadness that pervades Vollmann's novels.
How, then, to get a handle on a writer as various and formidable as Vollmann? Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader, edited by two of his most fervent fans, the critic Larry McCaffery and the novelist Michael Hemmingson, shrinks his sprawling body of work down to a digestible abstract. Weighing in at about half the size of the average Vollmann book, their Reader is a useful and often surprising introductory sampling for anyone looking to grasp hold of Vollmann's heady, hard-to-pigeonhole achievement. It won't, however, do for his career what Cowley's Portable Faulkner did for Faulkner's. Given the reading public's diminished appetite for iconoclastic writers, it's probably unreasonable to expect it to. The editors' palpable excitement about Vollmann is salutary because it counters one strand of adverse criticism, which is that his books are too cerebral and cold, or simply too mannered, to connect with readers. McCaffery and Hemmingson's awestruck worship resembles the fierce loyalty that certain indie-rock bands elicit from their followers. But infatuation can take you only so far. The Reader's editing, it must be said, is
at times irksomely clumsy. The headnotes can be surprisingly slack (for instance, a few lines beneath the title of a piece dated in large type "Oct 30, 2001," we're told "it should also be noted that this review appeared eighteen months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq"). And there are puzzling editorial inconsistencies. In his introduction, McCaffery notes that in The Ice-Shirt, as in the other Seven Dreams novels, "Vollmann embeds his narrative within a broader framework that includes numerous illustrations and maps, glossaries, a chronology, and an elaborate series of source notes and footnotes. . . . The Ice-Shirt is not ‘merely' a novel, but a new sort of book entirely—a ‘textual assemblage' that . . . makes The Ice-Shirt and the other Dreams perhaps the most unique reading experience since Nabokov's Pale Fire." This is a fair assessment. Why, then, do the editors not include the line drawings and notes that accompany the extracts in the original novels? Reading "The Hermaphrodite," excerpted from The Ice-Shirt, I miss Vollmann's stark, haunting illustration "Younger Brother Alone on the Ice" and the loosely drawn intricacy of the leaves in "Arctic Heather, Slab-Land," an image that all but explodes on the page amid the description of a punishing Arctic spring at last relenting ("Presently summer came. Pink and yellow flowers sprang up"—and there, in midsentence, Vollmann inserts his drawing). The source notes, too, seem essential because of how seriously Vollmann takes his research. Marathon bouts of reading have channeled what he's called his "appropriately filtered and disciplined" imagination to bring forth works "whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth." As such the notes are vital, and they contain revealing glosses. For "Subzero's Debt, 1991," the account of Vollmann's near-fatal Arctic research trip, excerpted from The Rifles, I wish the editors had included the note with his wonderfully deadpan reflections on his sleeping bag's failure to protect him from the cold. On the equipment malfunction that almost cost him his life, Vollmann writes: "I very much like this sleeping bag in the abstract. It may well do its job in moderately cold temperatures. However, for extreme temperatures I cannot recommend it." The editorial apparatus of Expelled from Eden takes up a good fifth of the anthology's pages; couldn't the editors have made space for these notes and illustrations? McCaffery himself, after all, points out that these components are crucial parts of Vollmann's gesamtkunstwerk.
Vollmann's journalism has been featured in an unlikely assortment of publications—not just the more literary glossies (the New Yorker and Esquire) but also Gear, Spin, and Outside. His pieces have, however, frequently been mangled by editors. "As a professional author," Vollmann writes in Argall, "I am often shocked by the magazine versions of writings which appear under my name." A fair portion of his journalistic writing is included in Expelled from Eden, and unfortunately, here too there is editorial incoherence. McCaffery takes pride in the Reader's restoration of deleted passages, as in "The Stench of Corpses," Vollmann's sly 2001 mock-review of Argall, which originally contained a sentence predicting "our obliteration of Iraq in 2003" and the "absolutely essential police measures taken in Palestine in 2004" that was cut by the Los Angeles Times. Regarding "the compromises he feels he has had to make as a journalist," McCaffery cites Vollmann's belief "that he can live with such compromises only so long as he insists on retaining ‘the right to republish everything the way it should be in a book someday.'" Despite that the editors were given access to Vollmann's papers, several pieces in the Reader insist on reverting to their periodical sources. Vollmann tells us that his essay "Melville's Magic Mountain," in Civilization magazine, was drastically cut and reordered, and yet the redacted text is the one printed in Expelled from Eden; his essay on the Taliban was published in the New Yorker after enduring some forty edits, but it is this account, not the version included in Rising Up and Rising Down, that has found its way into the Reader. Having stressed Vollmann's sometimes unsuccessful efforts to publish his work as he intends it, the Reader's editors might have provided an explanation as to why they sometimes opted for the magazine versions. Such editorial fumbling doesn't nullify the Reader's virtues, but because Vollmann has repeatedly been asked by his publishers to compromise (as with The Royal Family, for which he took a substantial cut in royalties to keep the book at its original length), these issues matter more in his work than they do for other writers.
Nevertheless, the Reader's editorial flaws are quite overshadowed by the breadth of its overview. The editors have chosen well from each of Vollmann's books, and their selection should help readers decide which of those books they want to read in their entirety. The anthology's most welcome achievement is its gathering of disparate autobiographical material, culled from obscure as well as readily available sources. Expelled from Eden adopts a nearly irresistible orientation that emphasizes Vollmann's life and personality. Although not restricted to his personal writings, the Reader serves as surrogate autobiography, a patchwork of memoir, adventure stories, straight-talking essays, and book reviews that shed light on his core beliefs, and even a few manifestos drawn from professional correspondence, such as "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-hearted Un-deleter—and Potential Nobel Prize Winner," a 1998 letter to his editor at Viking, Paul Slovak. Also included are several compelling curiosities, such as a fond, almost folksy, reminiscence of his time at Deep Springs College, and a list from 1990 of contemporary books he admires. Contemporary Vollmann takes to mean "from the last two hundred years," and he includes some unexpected titles drawn from his omnivorous reading: Tadeusz Konwicki's Dreambook for Our Time; works by Pär Lagerkvist and Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy; science fiction (Philip K. Dick but also James Blish and Walter M. Miller); and quite a bit of Japanese fiction (especially Kawabata and Mishima but also the Christian novelist Shusaku Endo).
Such entertaining miscellanea ornament the edges of Vollmann's larger-than-life persona. Set beside the lives of his contemporaries ensconced in the unobjectionably attractive stability of writing-program appointments, his biography has long seemed the stuff of legend. Trouble is, it's not always clear which legend. Viewed from one angle, he is a haunted melancholic, pursued like a figure out of Poe by the implacable demons of childhood hurt. This is no metaphor. The accidental drowning of his six-year-old sister in 1968 was the source of nearly unendurable feelings of guilt and grief. "I was supposed to be watching her and I didn't," he recalled in an interview with Madison Smartt Bell for the Paris Review. "I always felt guilty about it and my parents kind of blamed me for it a little bit, too, I think. . . . I had nightmares practically every night—of her skeleton chasing me and punishing me and stuff like this—pretty much through high school." Or, as he described the experience wrenchingly in "Under the Grass":
Immensely long skinny leaves of fear (spider lily, crinum asiaticum) grew around my throat every night like thick sad trees over a lava hole where the sea comes sadly in. You rushed as a yellow skeleton into every dream. If I screamed myself awake, you waited until the long skinny leaves of sleep choked me back to you again. You came clacking and scuttling like a yellow spider until I screamed crimson tears. A package arrived from the post office of dreams and you skittered out to punish me.
* * *
It's almost unseemly to regard the artistry of this recollection in isolation from its raw content as memory. But so much of Vollmann the artist is revealed here. There is his sense of terrifying mutability—those "long skinny leaves" manifesting themselves as fear and sleep, just as his sister assumes the forms of skeleton and spider; his coupling of the dreamlike and the specific in the care he takes to identify the nightmare's leaves by their botanical name, crinum asiaticum; and his ability to jolt the reader with an unlikely and incongruous metaphor, as in the midst of primal nature-imagery there appears a parcel, an object of the mundane world, encasing its terrible punishment.
After this sort of childhood trauma, one might expect a heightened sense of inwardness, a retreat into the safety and richness of books, especially in a boy as bright and withdrawn as Vollmann was, even before his sister's fatal accident. As a kid he was "trapped in books," he recalled. "In the end the books won. I had simply spent too much time inside them." His reading grew to encyclopedic proportions. He is as widely read as any novelist. Rarely have writers of historical fiction embarked on the sort of research that Vollmann devoted to Seven Dreams and Europe Central. Research requires immersion in a separate world; but Vollmann takes this absorption in scholarship one step further. Much of what impels him to write is an urge to create something as vast and multifaceted as the universe, to establish in his books a parallel realm, one attuned to his obsessions, mapping out his philosophy of history.
But that, of course, is less than half the story. Rather than turn away from the world, Vollmann has ventured out to embrace it. A reporter in the tradition of Orwell, Stephen Crane, and Hemingway, he travels to war zones, interviews terrorists, sails hazardous rivers teeming with toxins (as told in "The Water of Life," the Reader's excerpt from a work in progress about California's Imperial Valley). He feeds a bottomless appetite for risk by questing after firsthand experience where one's very survival is at stake. He rescued a child from a Thai brothel by kidnapping her; he nearly froze to death in the Arctic; he lived through a mine exploding beneath his jeep in Bosnia (two other passengers, including a friend he'd known for nineteen years, weren't so lucky). He courts danger, but is never ostentatiously reckless. He is no testosterone-fueled "cowboy," addicted to kicks. An attentive observer, he is an even better listener, often writing as a sort of ethnographer of the outcast, an oral historian of despised, abused, or otherwise marginal populations: Greenland and Canadian Inuit, skinheads, yakuza foot soldiers, and above all the girls, transvestites, and women in "the life," the variegated and deeply respected array of prostitutes that inspired the novels Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Royal Family. He craves understanding through contact, seeking out encounters that provide the grounding for his ethics, scorning all judgments that are based on moral abstractions without the corroboration of experience. In "Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing During Wartime," a lecture given in November 2002, he advised writers, "Whatever you write about, let your subjects teach you in their own way, and show them that you have learned it and respect it. Let them be round characters always." He went on to make a disarmingly straightforward suggestion, but one that in the present atmosphere comes across as nearly utopian: "In these times, any one of you who feels inclined to risk a little and learn a lot should travel to an Islamic country to make friends and to learn, not to teach. . . . You should get to know them well enough to understand why what they believe is plausible to them, and you should explain their views to other Americans as sympathetically and as accurately as you can."
For all his audacious travels, Vollmann's feats never come across as exhibitionistic. Acutely aware of human vulnerability, he seems incapable of swagger. He never attempts to hide his physical awkwardness. As a reporter confronting degradation and atrocity, his forthright, unidealized self-presentation is alien to the school of writer-adventurers to which he belongs. We know from his fiction that he can write in any register, delighting in baroque metaphors and elaborate prose fantasias, so the account of his 1992 visit to besieged Sarajevo in The Atlas is all the more powerful for its plainspoken restraint:
I wasn't afraid of being shot there anymore. I feared only getting my stomach blown open. In general, of course, I remained just as afraid. A week later, when I was standing outside one of the apartment buildings near the front, waiting for my friend Sami to buy vodka, I felt a sharp impact on the crown of my head. Reaching up to explore the wound, I felt wetness. I took a deep breath. I brought my hand down in front of my eyes, preparing myself to see blood. But the liquid was transparent. Eventually I realized that the projectile was merely a peach pit dropped from a fifteenth-floor window.
There's a long tradition of writers, Hemingway and Faulkner among them, who have exaggerated war wounds or fabricated them altogether. But in this passage, or even more so when he discusses the mine exploding beneath his jeep in Bosnia, there is no self-aggrandizement on Vollmann's part. Neither is there the suggestion that as war correspondent he's some sort of heroic witness, nor even the subtle egotism of someone who takes pride in surviving a brush with death. He grieves for the friend killed in the explosion but recognizes, as he told one interviewer, "It was just an average sort of war murder." There may be something protective about his detachment, but even so, he is not striking a pose; his treks to the outposts of extremity—not just war zones and remote Arctic islands but also those right in our midst, such as the crack hotels of American cities—only confirm what he already knows, that death and suffering are everywhere, so often meaningless and so rarely redemptive. "Political death, cancer death," he writes in Rising Up and Rising Down, "it's all the same."
Only it isn't, quite. Political death is a lot more interesting for a writer, or at least for one like Vollmann, who has devoted so much thought and energy to understanding violence. His latest book, Europe Central, is in part a meditation on political death as practiced—perfected, one might say—under Soviet communism and German fascism. Here Vollmann presents a panorama of wartime devastation, including lengthy and vividly rendered scenes of the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad, but he is also keen to trace more shadowy, less spectacular evidence of state violence, such as the sinister, ubiquitous "Black Marias," in which those suspected of subversion by the Stalinist authorities were hauled off to meet their fate. Europe Central is Vollmann's latest foray into imaginative history, and as is evident from more than fifty pages of notes, it was as rigorously researched as the Seven Dreams books. But just as some of the most powerful poetic translations eschew a literal rendering of their source texts, here the lives of historical figures—among them Shostakovich, Tsvetaeva, the filmmaker Roman Karmen, the German field marshal Friedrich Paulus, and Hitler himself, called "the sleepwalker"—are freely adapted for his fictional aims.
Death hovers over nearly all the stories in Europe Central, but the collection of overlapping tales is ultimately more concerned with survival, sometimes in the most basic physical sense but more often as a category of morality. Vollmann tells us that "the goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous, and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision." In many cases these "moments of decision" lead only to further quandaries. He is especially intrigued by what might be called the problem of moral endurance, how a person living under a corrupt and menacing political order can retain some measure of moral dignity—or, as in the case of the draconian judge Hilde Benjamin (Walter's sister-in-law, profiled in "The Red Guillotine"), can indulge a taste for monstrous acts. Looming largest in Europe Central is the figure of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose career was compromised but not corrupted by Stalin's propagandistic, frequently capricious and absurd demands. The drama of his struggles with the Soviet authorities is spread over several chapters, threaded together by the story of his longing for the dark-haired beauty Elena Konstantinovskaya (a lifelong desire, mostly unrequited apart from an affair they had in the '30s). Some have condemned the composer for alleged complicity with Stalinism, a charge Vollmann dismisses as naive fantasy. Had the composer been "a member of some fairytale anti-Soviet Resistance," Vollmann writes, he surely would have been executed. "When I think of Shostakovich," he reflects, making a characteristically nuanced, generous, and informed evaluation,
For some American readers, the world war at the heart of Europe Central will seem unduly circumscribed. Because the combat scenes depict fighting between the Germans and the Russians—the eastern front sieges, the fall of Berlin—Americans are at most a marginal presence. And even as Europe Central rolls forward into the first years of the cold war, where it ends, the book's focus remains fixed on partitioned Germany and the Soviet Union. The lone story in which an American plays a significant role is "A Pianist from Kilgore," based on Van Cliburn's 1958 visit to Moscow and his winning the International Tchaikovsky Prize. It's easy to picture a sequel made up of cold war portraits, in which Americans would by necessity figure more prominently. By coincidence, I finished Europe Central on the day that diplomat George Kennan died, and reading the obituaries, I couldn't help but wonder how Kennan's life—his prescience in the '40s about the Soviet Union's demise, his role as the prime architect of the United States' cold war foreign policy, his uneasy sense late in life that his counsel had "inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff"—would be transformed and clarified in one of Vollmann's biographical fictions. Perhaps the highest praise for Europe Central is that its epic tales of war and moral deliberation lead to this sort of speculation. How might Vollmann approach a new set of "moral actors" in a different political climate? The same could be said of Seven Dreams. How might he recast in fiction other sorts of encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples—in Brazil, say, or Africa?
I imagine a person consumed by fear and regret, a person who . . . did what little he could to uphold the good—in this case, freedom of artistic creation, and the mitigation of other people's emergencies. He became progressively more beaten down, and certainly experienced difficulty saying no—a character trait which may well have kept him alive in the Stalinist years. In spite of the fact that he joined the Party near the end, to me he is a great hero—a tragic hero, naturally.
Because of Vollmann's unshakable addiction to writing—recall those swollen fingers and his blunt self-evaluation ("what would I do if I stopped?")—Expelled from Eden is likely to be little more than a footnote to his still-evolving career. The Portable Faulkner took shape as a definitive retrospective in part because Faulkner's best books were already behind him in 1945; Yoknapatawpha County had been thoroughly mapped and explored. Vollmann's Yoknapatawpha County encompasses nothing less than the world itself. A mere two decades into his career, he promises fresh and startling vistas in the years to come.
James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and writes frequently for Bookforum.