The Myth of The Vollmann

  • Europe Central: 832 pages
  • Imperial: 1344 pages
  • The Royal Family: 800 pages
  • Rising Up and Rising Down: 3352 pages

I still hesitate to believe that William T. Vollmann actually exists. Has anyone ever read one of his super-long books? Can we prove that somewhere around page 700 of Imperial that the text doesn’t just become

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for the next 600 pages? How can we prove this if no one has actually read it? Can we prove that somewhere someone actually read Imperial (and I mean all of it)? What about that seven-volume first edition of Rising Up and Rising Down? Sure we all know about it, but has anyone actually SEEN the thing? I don’t even mean OWN it, certainly not that, none of you OWN the first edition of RURD. Oh heavens no, but have any of you seen it in person, to verify for me its actual existence?

It’s sort of like those kids who had pet monkeys when you were in elementary school, always someone’s cousin, or their neighbor’s friend from another school; sometimes the story was accompanied by a thumbprint-smudged Polaroid of the creature, clutching lovingly to some human torso. But did you ever actually see it? No never. Not once. And anyone who says they did is part of the conspiracy. Sure, maybe somewhere in Mexico someone has a monkey for a pet, but not here, no way, and certainly not your cousin. And look, I agree that it’s a weird thing to lie about, but that’s part of what makes good liars good, it’s some sort of weird emotional long-con that you are complicit in by listening to them.

Why would someone lie about writing a 3000 page book about violence? I have no idea. And why the hell would the same guy write 800 pages about Shostakovich and the Russians during World War Two? You got me. It’s a brilliant scheme in a way. If Vollmann is lying about something, then he has avoided attention by writing books so long and esoteric that NO ONE can prove or disprove their legitimacy.

Of course, whatever game he’s playing at, it isn’t money.

I contacted Mr. Bob Amazon (the guy who started Amazon.com) and he confirmed my suspicion that literally no human has ever purchased a copy of either Imperial or The Royal Family. When asked if physical copies of these books were actually housed in an Amazon facility somewhere, just in case someone ever actually did buy one he hung up on me.

So, I’m thinking this thing goes deep, deeper than any of us ever imagined. Obviously Dave Eggers is involved somehow, either as the mastermind behind the whole thing, or just another pawn like the rest of us. I emailed Mr. Heartbreaking Jerk himself, asking if even he of all people can claim to have actually read all of Rising Up and Rising Down, and in return I received an auto-reply, something about the volume of emails he receives blah blah blah—the point is I think I scared him, and now I know I’m on the right trail . . .

The funny thing with all of this is that I’m pretty sure there is no hoax going on. I have no reason to think William T. Vollmann is anything but a real guy, a weirdo dude who writes epically long books that no one reads. But if you read about his life at all it sounds more made up than any of the recently famous literary hoaxes. Maybe only that old asshole with his holocaust apples can really claim to have a bigger imagination, because neither James Frey nor JT Leroy can hold a candle to this (straight from Wikipedia):

In his youth, Vollmann’s younger sister drowned while under his supervision, a tragedy for which he felt responsible. This experience, according to him, influences much of his work.

What? Really? So he’s literature’s own Batman, The Dark Knight . . . or, wait for it: Vollman!

And I’m not even going to get into all the crack smoking with prostitutes and moving to Afghanistan in the 1980s. But I will talk briefly about his “hobby” of aimlessly train-hopping, which he apparently chronicled in Riding Toward Everywhere (a book whose existence I can confirm, as I bought it as a gift for a friend). Honestly though, that’s his hobby?

“So Mr. Vollmann, when you’re not hanging out with prostitutes in Cambodia, smoking crack, dodging bullets in Bosnia, spending 20 years writing a 3000 page book about violence, running around in the desert with a rebel army, or any of your other notable pursuits . . . what do you do for fun? How does William T. Vollmann relax?”

“Oh you know, I hop trains and just go where they take me.”

What? How do we know that Vollmann’s entire “career” isn’t the longest viral marketing campaign ever for a Wes Anderson movie that’s coming out ten years from now?

I’m not really heading towards anything conclusive or coherent here. I have no big point and the answer to all of my questions is that I should just devote the next few years of my life to actually reading these books instead of doubting their existence. But that would take 1) time and 2) money. Maybe I should turn it into some kind of art project and get funding on Kickstarter or something. Or maybe I could get review copies somehow.

Actually I just looked on Amazon and I see that Imperial is no longer the $40 book it once was. A new copy in paperback will run just $3.23 and with that free prime shipping I could be reading this thing by Friday.

So I just did it,  it is on its way, but we all know I’m not going to actually read it, right? It’s gonna go on the shelf next to Europe Central and the abridged copy of RURD and it will damn well stay there until, I don’t know, I become the omega man or something and I literally have nothing else to do and no one to talk to and no pointless articles to write and nothing to do with my boredom besides consume 1300 pages about border-crossing by a guy who looks like a serial killer.

22 thoughts on “The Myth of The Vollmann

  1. I can confirm that Europe Central, The Rainbow Stories, and You Bright and Risen Angels all exist (I own them but have finished none of them; came pretty close to finishing the last many years ago). I briefly owned a copy of the sequence about indigenous Americans but sold it back to the used bookstore from which I bought it. Vollmann’s been a frequent byline in Harper’s over the last year. He’s a puzzling guy, and not somebody I can imagine wanting to know. Seems kind of creepy. As for the Anderson adaptation of a Vollmann life, I imagine Owen Wilson’s temperament to be more in line with Vollmann’s, but Luke with an extra hundred pounds or so looks more the part. I guess there’s always Bill Murray.

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  2. So, this post made go buy Imperial…I’ve read a few excerpts of it, including the one in Expelled from Eden, which I know I keep pimping on this site, but it’s a great introduction to The Vollmann, I think. I’ve read almost all of the Vollmann reader, all of Butterfly Stories, The Rifles, and The Ice-Shirt; most of Angels, almost none of Europe Central.

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  3. I did actually read Butterfly Stories and really enjoyed it a lot. Brooks and Nicholas are lying though, I need pictures of the books next to a current newspaper before I’ll believe this nonsense.

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  4. I had RURD…move that sucker a couple of times, and discover how much you can get for it at reputable used/rare booksellers…and selling it was a no-brainer. Read enough to see it’s brilliance, completeness, and utter depression inducing relentlessness.

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  5. What’s so fascinating to me about Vollman and the life he has lead is that he obviously wants to be punished for what happened to his sister, but the world just won’t accomodate him. As a matter of fact, for all his troubles, he’ll probably, at some point, be awarded the Nobel Prize.

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  6. So was anyone else moved to purchase Imperial after learning how cheap it currently is? I like the idea that this column has already sold two copies, immediately disproving my theory that no one has ever bought that book.

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  7. I haven’t read Imperial or Argall, but I have read the 7 volumes of RURD and The Royal Family. Argall is 800 pages (give or take) written in Elizabethan English, FFS! What an amazing brain that man has!

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  8. I have no idea why soneone would spend so much time complainig about someone unless they were afraid he might be much more talented than they are.

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