The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, December 01, 2005

All in Your Graves

Is William T. Vollmann a major writer?

This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question. He has not shaped the art of fiction, like Pynchon or Gibson, or helped to define the terms of discourse for our times, like DeLillo. But he is not easily written off.

His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, is clearly dispensable -- a student work. Its pattern is reminiscent of the great Catch-22, which climbs recklessly through an ascending spiral of farce, tinged with madness and with tragedy. Mr. Vollmann attempts a darker and more pessimistic spiral, a descent into reasonless cruelty and waste; but he succeeds only in alienating the reader from his own words. The result a story without heroes, without motivations, without causes and effects, and most damningly, without relevance to the world we see around us daily. We gaze unflinchingly and unmoved on Mr. Vollmann's hideous vision.

The most worthwhile section of this novel is the brief allegory "World in a Jar", which is nearly self-contained and shares little with the rest of the novel. It may have been the nucleus around which You Bright and Risen Angels crystallized.

After this unpromising start, Mr. Vollmann seems to have improved. His "Seven Dreams", on the history of the European settlement of North America, are obsessively researched attempts to capture the alien thoughts and experiences of that long-ago collision. The difficulty for the modern reader is in determining whether Mr. Vollmann's speculations are accurate.

The main exemplar of this series (and the only one I have read) is the massive Fathers and Crows. This is, to a first approximation, the story of Father Jean Brebeuf's attempts to convert the Huron to Christianity; but that novel, told from both French and Indian perspectives, is embedded in the stories of Samuel de Champlain's explorations, and of the French settlement of Acadia in Newfoundland, and of the founding of the Jesuit order, and so on.

For a unifying presence, an anti-God, Mr Vollman uses the mythical monster GOUGOU [sic]:
GOUGOU waited at the bottom as GOUGOU had always been waiting, snapping His bloody beak, insinuating His stinging tentacles through the water like a net, peering unwinking through the greenish pillars of a bell cupola rising from the back of a greenish seashell...
His writing is compellingly physical -- he spares no detail on the sufferings of scurvy, of cold and hunger, and most memorably, of the interminable tortures in which Huron and Haudenosaunee alike delighted. Certainly this brings the past to life, but in a circumscribed way.

It could be complained that Mr. Vollmann is unfairly dismissive of the Europeans, who are often depicted as ineffectual dreamers, victorious only through their firepower (and with no mention of the civilization which made that possible, and the values and constraints by which it prospered). De Poutrincourt [founder of Acadia] is certainly portrayed as a buffoon, de Champlain nearly so.

But it cannot be said that Mr. Vollmann favors the natives. As narrator, he passes no judgement on the events he depicts; but his stark portrayal of unremitting savagery, worse than anything to which beasts might aspire, fills the reader with relief and joy at the death of that culture. Whether this response is historically accurate, only those who have achieved an expertise comparable to Mr. Vollmann's can tell.

C. S. Lewis's Screwtape advises that a "patient",
... if properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
This lopsided sort of reality has to date been Mr. Vollmann's crippling weakness, keeping him earthbound. Perhaps he has improved: Europe Central [twenty blessed percent lighter than Fathers and Crows] has won the National Book Award. Unfortunately, the judges may simply limp on the same side as Mr. Vollmann, so I suppose I am 800 pages away from knowing.

[Extended after first posting. HT: Tyler Cowen.]