I have tried hard, so very hard, to appreciate William Vollmann, a wildly original postmodernist obsessed with history and human aggression who is considered a great intellect by several people I respect. I’ve eagerly bought his thick, intimidating books, and I have put in solid time trying to read them. I will not try anymore.
William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It’s all an endurance act. Can a skinny kid with pimples and glasses really write a seven volume chronicle of the settlement of North America, follow it with a 3,300 page history of human violence and then toss out an 800 page rumination on the Eastern Front in World War II? Yes, he can. But if you take the “wow” factor away from William Vollmann, does his work stand up? I’m really not sure.
Europe Central recently won the National Book Award, and so there I go trotting off to the bookstore yet again. Maybe this will finally be the William Vollmann book I can read all the way to the end, the one that my body won’t reject like a badly transplanted organ. And here I go bringing it home and opening it to page one:
A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named
the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates, I hereby … zzZZZZZZ … the critical situation … a crushing blow.
At this point I am starting to realize that I may be finished with this 811-page book very soon — not finished in the sense of completion but finished in the sense of permanent separation. Because, seriously, if it’s going to be 811 pages of this kind of stuff, then I am now as finished with the book as I am ever going to be.
But, okay, I keep hearing that Vollmann is a genius, and I really don’t want to give up. I peruse the book jacket, which informs me that Europe Central resembles Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I can’t help noticing that a) War and Peace had a first paragraph that made sense, and b) War and Peace was shorter. But I’m a hell of a sport, so I’m going back in, one more time. Here’s the first sentence of Chapter Two:
You won’t get to watch it happen, they don’t allow windows in the office, so you may feel a trifle dull at times, since on the steel desk, deep within arm’s length, hunches that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world.
Can I suggest an alternate phrasing, Mr. Vollmann? Try it like this:
A telephone is on a desk.
If he would try it my way more often, he might sometimes manage to bring a book in under 400 pages. But would that spoil the fun for the small legions of self-punishing William Vollmann readers, who wear their harsh fates proudly, the way albino monks wear their bleeding sulpices? Certainly there is a sense of solemn duty when reading Vollmann, a conviction that in carrying out this task we are somehow suffering for mankind’s sins. Take a close look at the all-too-telling back cover blurb for The Royal Family (which clocks in at 774 pages, a veritable short story):
Vollmann’s books tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation and sardonic wit … If you consider yourself at all conversant with contemporary American fiction, you must acquaint yourself with Vollmann’s work and stay with him.
Note the imperative here. I must acquaint myself with Vollmann’s work. Why? To prove I can take it? Because if I don’t I’m a wussy Ann Beattie reader? Fuck that! I don’t must anything.
In fact, I think it’s presumptuous of William Vollmann to assume that I — a father of three kids with a demanding day job and a litblog to tend — have the time to read all of this unpruned verbiage, even if I want to. How can anybody find the time? Who the hell is Vollmann’s target audience, other than night watchmen, marooned shipwreck survivors and Ed Champion? I really cannot imagine.
In June 2000, after visiting Afghanistan to observe the effects of Taliban rule, William Vollmann wrote an influential New Yorker article that’s probably been read more widely than anything else he’s written. I admire him for taking the initiative to visit this remote country, and for having the instinct to know that events in this region would become increasingly relevant around the world.
His article was highly informative and thankfully readable, but I discovered something surprising: when William Vollmann writes a straight story, he’s really not that different from any other talented writer. Given his reputation as a rampant individualist and an unflinching observer of human nature, I’d somehow anticipated that he’d leave Afghanistan with a radical conclusion of some kind. Instead, he just gave us a competent and newsworthy piece.
Take away the “wow” factor, and what’s left of William Vollmann? Just another good, smart writer, that’s what. I think I’d like him better without the “wow” factor.
Tomorrow is two-for-one day here at the Overrated Writers Project, and then I’d like to hear about some of your overrated writers on Friday. Check back in the morning for our final two. Hint: one likes to play cowboy, and the other is my homeboy (but it won’t help his case).