Overrated Writers, Part Three: William Vollmann

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).

16 Responses

  1. Reel Me In”Maybe this will
    Reel Me In

    “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.”

    This is great stuff! Ha! I’ve never desired to read this guy BECAUSE of the very fact that I’m supposed to. Now I definitely won’t. Thanks for saving me from wasting oodles of free time, Levi.

    Anytime someone says I HAVE to read a certain author because he’s such a genius, I run the other way. Maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction, but I prefer to find new authors in a more organic way, like reading the first sentence or paragraph and getting hooked immediately.

  2. Not so fast . . .Now, see, I
    Not so fast . . .

    Now, see, I like the telephone/octopus metaphor! It makes me think of the nerve center of Nazi menace, creep-spreading like tentacles across Europe . . . even though I’m not sure if that’s what it means, but it sounds good to me. You can’t just say, “A telephone is on a desk” for God’s sake, man. Where is your flair?

    Whether or not I could sustain my good spirits through 800 pages of this baroque approach is another story . . . to me, a book or a poem better be super-good if it is going to be super-long. It will come as no surprise that I haven’t actually read anything by Vollman, but I may print out that black phone description and hang it on the wall as a broadside.

    You are probably too young to remember when communication devices were hardwired with acrid, flaccid tar cord. Telephones were squat, sinister, and heavy as lead.

  3. VollmanYou’ve managed to

    You’ve managed to articulate a response to Vollman that I could only intuit, that is, I’d rather be the night manager at 7-11 than plow through Europe Central.

  4. VollmanI have to agree with

    I have to agree with Billectric’s response. I haven’t read Vollman yet but that octopus metaphor makes me want to.

  5. a ringing octopusNow, I
    a ringing octopus

    Now, I haven’t read anything by William Vollman, because I think my position on books that are long is pretty clear. (For the uninitated, my position on books that are long is, quite simply, “GET TO THE POINT.”) But Levi, I do have to disagree with you on the whole “A telephone is on a desk” thing. Not because I find Vollman’s pontificating to be oh, so brilliant (in fact — and maybe this is sacrilege — it’s pretty fucking painful), but that telephone/octopus thing is rather clever. I can picture it so clearly in my head, and it’s a really good metaphor. It’s just ruined by all the damned curlicues. While I have no problem with verbal showmanship and the occasional bits of grandstanding, when I try to picture pages and pages of the excerpts you highlighted, I feel an aneurysm coming on. And 811 pages of anything means that somebody was scared to do the job of an editor.

    So really, I guess this was just my contrarian way of agreeing with you after all.

  6. On VollmanI, too, bought a
    On Vollman

    I, too, bought a Vollman book a few years ago. I think I got to page 3 before tossing it. Who *are* these people? I’m a guy who loves Beckett and Joyce; challenging prose is fine with me — but it has to mean something.

    And did you read the NYT list of 25 best american fiction of the past 25 years? It should have been called, Books that Suck. Whether you’re writing a Sledge Hammer mystery or Malone Dies, the one thing you *have* to be is interesting.

  7. not impressed by vollmann’s
    not impressed by vollmann’s reading

    I saw Vollmann read at the National Book Awards and had the same reaction. In other words, I zoned out after the first few sentences he read. Somehow this performance turned me off from checking out the book.

  8. Okay, then, Bill:”A telephone
    Okay, then, Bill:

    “A telephone is on a desk, looking like an octopus.”

    Ten words and a comma.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only one
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes that metaphor! Jamelah, I’ve always said you were wise.

    You know what would be cool? A real phone that looks like an octopus. And it really works. Or, you flip a hidden switch and it squirts ink in people’s faces when they try to use it.

  10. Oh, I did want to say that I
    Oh, I did want to say that I really like your statement, “Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature.” That is a good, clear, and amusing summary of your position.

  11. Warren, you are correct. We
    Warren, you are correct. We have yet to ascertain the effects of cell phone microwaves on the brain.

    But I must tell you that, during the Big War, there was something corporeal about an operative sending 20,000 volts through a call box. The man in the trench coat slumps to the ground while piano music wafts indifferently through the Tangier nightclub . . .

    Not that any of that has to do with Vollman.

    The black octopus telephone
    Has taken on a life of its own.

  12. My Analysis On Your AnalysisI
    My Analysis On Your Analysis

    I guess I’ll be polite. Many of you admit to having never read Vollmann, those of you who have read Vollmann are quite vague as to how much Vollman you have read. All I get out of this is that you guys either a) love giving high fives to the guy who runs this site, b) don’t much care for lengthy writing, or c) both. Whatever the case, none of you make any compelling/interesting observations on Vollman’s work, which is why your collective criticisms come off as laughable.

    Anyways, since you guys hate long stuff, I’d reccomend checking out that William T. Vollmann Reader/Collection that is out there, it has a nice hodgepodge of stuff. Perhaps if you check it out you can then backup your criticisms with something more legitimate than, “IT’S ALL SO LONG!”

    Hell, maybe you’ll even find something you like.

  13. konochingo is
    konochingo is correct.

    Vollmann is probably the greatest writer of our generation. There isn’t any reason to start Europe Central at the beginning or even read it all the way through to appreciate it, as it’s a collection of short stories that are paired together. The Atlas and The Rainbow Stories are good places to start as well.

    Vollmann’s journalism is hacked to pieces by his editors at whatever magazine is running them. They can only afford to use so much space. In a lot of cases, the real versions can be found in Rising Up and Rising Down and others.

  14. I enjoyed Levi Asher’s
    I enjoyed Levi Asher’s comments. Still, the guy doesn’t care to be challeged. Major writers are noted for their excess. Think of Faulkner. Good ole William F could have made his works more accessible. He could have written one dimensional books on the South. He could have been another good writer, another James Lee Burke as opposed to a great writer. The great ones demand we delve into their excess. What about Joyce? Or Beckett. Vollman writes big books. He’s one of the few super ambitious writers out there. Thank God. He doesn’t write safe, middle brow books. More power to William Vollmann

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