An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)

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.

IMG_5107

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. Continue reading

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

IMG_3050.JPG

Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.

On the iPad:

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq

My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentorsjust sucking down venom.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

I might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.

The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni

Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

Good lord.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa

What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño

Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews

Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).

(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov

The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.

An authentically modern country (Michel Houellebecq)

At no moment in human history does growing old seem to have been a pleasure cruise; but, in the years preceding the disappearance of the species, it had manifestly become atrocious to the point where the level of voluntary deaths, prudishly renamed departures by the public-health bodies, was nearing 100 percent, and the average age of departure, estimated at sixty across the entire globe, was falling toward fifty in the most developed countries.

This figure was the result of a long evolution, scarcely begun at the time of Daniel1, when the average age at death was much higher, and suicide by old people was still infrequent. The now-ugly, deteriorated bodies of the elderly were, however, already the object of unanimous disgust, and it was undoubtedly the heat wave of summer 2003, which was particularly deadly in France, that provoked the first consciousness of the phenomenon. “The Death March of the Elderly” was the headline in Libération on the day after the first figures became known—more than ten thousand people, in the space of two weeks, had died in the country; some had died alone in their apartments, others in the hospital or in retirement homes, but all had essentially died because of a lack of care. In the weeks that followed, that same newspaper published a series of atrocious reports, illustrated with photos that were reminiscent of concentration camps, relating the agony of old people crammed into communal rooms, naked on their beds, in diapers, moaning all day without anyone coming to rehydrate them or even to give them a glass of water; describing the rounds made by nurses unable to contact the families who were on vacation, regularly gathering up the corpses to make space for new arrivals. “Scenes unworthy of a modern country,” wrote the journalist, without realizing that they were in fact the proof that France was becoming a modern country, that only an authentically modern country was capable of treating old people purely as rubbish, and that such contempt for one’s ancestors would have been inconceivable in Africa, or in a traditional Asian country.

From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.

What I could no longer stand was laughter (Michel Houellebecq)

My attraction to film as a medium—i.e., a dead medium, as opposed to what they pompously called at the time a living spectacle—had undoubtedly been the first sign in me of a disinterest in, even a disgust for, the general public—and probably for mankind in general. I was working at that time on my sketches with a small video camera, fixed on a tripod and linked to a monitor on which I could control in real time my intonations, funny expressions, and gestures. I had always had a simple principle: if I burst out laughing at a given moment, it was this moment that had a good chance of making the audience laugh as well. Little by little, as I watched the cassettes, I became aware that I was suffering from a deeper and deeper malaise, sometimes bordering on nausea. Two weeks before the premiere, the reason for this malaise became clear to me: what I found more and more unbearable wasn’t even my face, nor was it the repetitive and predictable nature of certain standard impersonations that I was obliged to do: what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity. If man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centeredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.

The three-week run was a permanent calvary; for the first time, I truly experienced those notorious, atrocious tears of the clown; for the first time, I truly understood mankind. I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire sheet of Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces those, hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.

From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.

A Clip from The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is always performing Michel Houellebecq.

A Riff on What I Read (And Didn’t Read) in 2012

20121218-132128.jpg

I didn’t really read that many new books—by which I mean books published in 2012—this year.

The highlight of the new books I did read was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the moving story of the lives of several people (and a bee!) who live in the titular building (and other places. And other buildings. Look, it’s difficult to describe). Building Stories is a strange loop, a collection of 14+ elements (the big box it comes in is part of the puzzle) that allows the reader to reconstruct the narratives in different layers.

I also really dug the second installment of Charles Burns’s trilogy, The Hive; Burns and Ware are two of the most talented American writers working right now, suggesting that some of the most exciting stuff happening in American literature is happening in comic books.

Speaking of second installments in ongoing trilogies, I also listened to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which I liked, and read Lars Iyer’s Dogma and liked it as well—sort of like Beavis & Butthead Do America by way of Samuel Beckett.

I read Dogma at the beach the same week I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory, an uneven but engaging novel about art; the novel eventuually shifts into a strange murder procedural before exploring a fascinating vision of what a post-consumer future might look like. I dig Houellebecq and look forward to whatever he’ll spring on us next.

Another strange book I liked very much was Phi by Giulio Tononi, an exploration of consciousness written as a kind of Dante’s Inferno of the brain. A beautiful and perhaps overlooked book of 2012.

Indie presses in general tend to get overlooked—not in the sense that their books don’t have a community of readers, but in that their books don’t always reach the wider audience they deserve. I liked new books this year by Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby), Matt Mullins (Three Ways of the Saw), and Jared Yates Sexton (An End to All Things). These books are all very different in style and content, but all marked by precise, unpretentious writing. Good stuff.

Like I said though, I didn’t read that many books published in 2012—even when I intended to. Like George Szirtes’s English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, for instance. I was right in the middle of something when I got my review copy, and by the time I started it the hype surrounding it was almost unbearable—the sort of palate-clouding noise (to mix and misuse metaphors) that deafens a fair reading. (To be clear: I blame myself. I could easily refrain from Twitter and quit following lit news online). By the time Hari Kunzru documented the hype in a mean-spirited (but hilarious) article forThe Guardian, I knew I’d have to set Satantango aside for a bit. It’s worth noting here that Hari Kunzru’s own novel Gods without Men had been lingering in my to read stack for some time at that point, but his Satantango article managed to get it shelved. Still, I’m interested in reading it—maybe sometime late next year.

There were plenty of top listed writers who put out books this year that I probably would’ve been excited to read six or seven years ago or at least feel obligated to read and write about two or three years ago. But by 2012 I just don’t care anymore. At the risk of sounding overly dismissive (not my intention), I just can’t make time for another middling Michael Chabon novel, or another bloated tome from Zadie Smith, or another empty exercise in style from Junot Diaz, or another whatever from Dave Eggers.

Most of the great new stuff I read in 2012 was really just playing catch up to 2011—I loved Teju Cole’s Open City, found Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes to be an amusing diversion, and declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella. I also read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and used it, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot as a kind of springboard to discuss lit criticism (which everyone in my particular echo chamber wanted to spar about this year) and what I want from books these days.

Two books I pretty much hated: Joshua Cody’s clever but empty memoir [sic] and Alain de Botton’s facile self-help book Religion for Atheists.

On the whole though, most of what I read in 2012 was fantastic and most of what I read in 2012 was published before 2012.

The major highlight of the year was finally reading William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R. I also read Gaddis’s posthumous novella AgapēAgape, an erudite rant that purposefully echoes the work of Thomas Bernhard, another cult writer I finally got to in 2012. His novels Correction and The Loser challenged me, made me laugh, and occasionally disturbed me.

And while I’m on Bernhard, perhaps I should squeeze in the collection I read by one of his predecessors, Robert Walser, and the poetry collection (After Nature) I read by one of his followers, W.G. Sebald. Both were excellent. And while I’m squeezing stuff in—or perhaps showing how writers lead me to read other writers—I’ll admit that I hadn’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (referenced heavily in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) until this year.

Another book that I finally got to this year that blew me away was John Williams’s lucid and sad novel Stoner. Reading Stoner, produced one of those can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-before moments, which I experienced again even more intensely with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a surreal comic masterpiece which may be the best book I read in 2012. I also finally read—and was blown away by—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (why had I not read it yet? Maybe I read it before. Not sure. In any case, if I did read it before it’s clear to me that I didn’t really read it). I took another shot at Marcel Proust but it didn’t take. Again.

Clarice Lispector received some much-deserved attention from the English-speaking world this year when New Directions released four new translations of her work. I found her novella The Hour of the Star sad, funny, and captivating. Also on the novellas-by-South-Americans: I’m working my ways through Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and they are fantastic.

I also finally got to David Markson’s so-called “note card novels,” devouring them in a quick stretch. I reviewed the last one, The Last Novel.Markson’s novels are often called “experimental,” a term I kind of hate, but perhaps serves as easy tag for many of the novels I enjoyed best this year, including Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Barry Hannah’s hilarious tragedy Hey Jack!

Hey, did you know David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Markson? The previous sentence is an extremely weak attempt to transition to Both Flesh and Not, a spotty collection from the late great writer; it showcases some brilliant moments along with undercooked material and a few throwaways probably better left uncollected. I fretted about the book on Election Night.

The posthumous book mill also kept pumping out stuff from Roberto Bolaño, including an unfinished novel called The Woes of the True Policeman that seems like a practice sketch for 2666 (I haven’t read Woes and don’t feel particularly compelled to). I did read and enjoy The Secret of Evil, a book that might not be exactly essential but nevertheless contains some pieces that further expand (and darken and complicate) the Bolañoverse. Going back to that Bolañoverse was a highlight of the year for me—rereading 2666proved to be tremendously rewarding, yielding all kinds of new grotesque insights. I also reread The Savage Detectives, and while it’s hardly my favorite by RB, I got more out of it this time.

I also revisited The Hobbit this year and somehow decided it’s a picaresque novel. Definitely a picaresque: Blood Meridian, which I reread as well. In fact, I’ve reread it at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it gets funnier and richer and more devastating with each turn. I also reread Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and tried to make sense out of it. I will reread Moby-Dick next year, although it’s not “Bartleby” that sparked the desire—chalk it up to Charles Olson’s amazing study Call Me Ishmael.

Olson’s study reminds me to bring up some of the nonfiction I enjoyed this year: Stephen Bronner’s Modernism at the Barricades, Robert Hughes’s Goya biography, the parts of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial that I read, Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids,and big chunks of William Gass’s collection Finding a Form.

Perhaps the most significant change in my reading habits this year was embracing an e-reader. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year and wound up reading from it—a lot. About half the books I read this year I read on the Kindle. I also read lots of comics on it with my daughter, including all of Jeff Smith’s Bone, much of Tintin, and all of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stuff. (I also read several hard to find volumes from Moebius via the Kindle).

And while I love my Kindle and it’s become my go-to for night reading (it’s lightweight and self-illuminating), I can’t see it replacing physical books. To return to where I started: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an innovative, sprawling delight simply would not be reproducible in electronic form. Ware’s book (if it is a book (which it is)) reminds us that the aesthetics of reading—of the actual physical process of reading—can be tremendously rewarding as a tactile, messy, sprawling experience.

Perhaps because I’ve freed myself from the anxiety of trying to write on this blog about everything that I read, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to write traditional reviews on this blog, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to cover contemporary literary fiction on this blog—perhaps because of all of this, I’ve enjoyed reading more this year than I can remember ever having enjoyed it before.

Žižek’s Lacan, Houellebecq’s Lovecraft (Books Acquired, 9.7.2012)

20120907-172419.jpg