William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.
If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?
Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.
One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.
Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?
Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.
What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.
As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Read More
I was hoping to save up a little energy to write a bit about the stories I’ve read in Matt Sumell’s debut collection Making Nice…but I don’t seem to have it. There’s a macho swagger here that will repel a lot of folks but hell I’m a barbarian and I dig what he’s doing, even if it’s been done by a few (many) other folks before (there’s that Carver/Johnson/Lipsyte axis, yes)—it’s funny and savage stuff. Read More
Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread is new in hardback from publisher Random House. Their blurb:
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon. . .” This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.
Brimming with all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.
A. What a cover on Evan Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, don’t you agree?
B. From the back cover:
C. That’s all there is. Well, okay, there’s an ISBN too. But no blurbs, no other text.
D. “Something always going on—” is the first line of Flee. It’s also an apt description of Dara’s formal technique, a constantly-shifting series of dialogues, monologues, overlapping, cross-cutting, diverging—always out there ahead of the reader. That dash there—that dash is the simple summative signal of it all, a little typographic pole that simultaneously connects and interrupts.
E. The most obvious point of comparison for Dara’s technique (besides his amazing debut novel The Lost Scrapbook) is William Gaddis’s stuff, particularly J R—the verbal dazzle, the few stray lines of poetic stage-setting in lieu of traditional exposition—the throw-the-reader-in-the-deep-end stuff. David Foster Wallace frequently attempted the same rhetorical mode, most successfully in §19 of The Pale King. (It’s entirely likely that The Lost Scrapbook could have had the same following that Infinite Jest achieved had Dara done anything to promote the book. But here I think of Gaddis in his Paris Review interview: “I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this ‘life and personality and views’ you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid”).
F. The point of contrast though is Dara’s abrupt transition, sometimes it seems mid-sentence, from one speaker to the next. Just as we feel (nearly) comfortable with who this particular narrator might be, another voice interjects, or rather continues, or re-trajects the discourse—as in the second chapter of Flee (“38,842″), where a college student driving home in snowy weather to pick up a book by Paul Krugman gives over to a number of speakers all describing the closing of the local university, Pitkinson (this closing’s being the presumable, like, plot of Flee so far I suppose)—faculty and staff and townies and residents—until a grad student takes over to report the speech of one Professor Gray, himself bearing witness to the downfall of the school (Ghost Sociology is the issue)—and then of course the chapter gives over to more rumor, more speculation. “Something always going on—.”
G. So I’ve read the first three chapters (“38,839,” “38,842,” “36,551”). But wait: The next chapter (“35,717″–do the titles reflect the dwindling population of the town (Anderburg)?)—but wait the next chapter, I see by scanning, offers some new, perhaps, rhetorical gesture—a section in a different font? Chunkier paragraphs?
I have to go see about this. (More to come).
Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’s novel.
“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:
Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.
The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:
Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.
The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine. Read More