“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max
The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”
He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”
From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Read the rest of the excerpt.
Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)
I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”
Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.
Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—”Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.
Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:
I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.
Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in ”a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.
I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.
This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.
Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace
Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.
The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:
Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.
I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:
He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.
William Gaddis on Hipsters: “An Ill-dressed, Underfed, Overdrunken Group of Squatters with Minds So Highly Developed That They Were Excused from Good Manners”
Love this passage from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Mocking “hipsterism” has been around forever (or at least 50 years):
And by now they were at the door of the Viareggio, a small Italian bar of nepotistic honesty before it was discovered by exotics. Neighborhood folk still came, in small vanquished numbers and mostly in the afternoon, before the two small dining rooms and the bar were taken over by the educated classes, an ill-dressed, underfed, overdrunken group of squatters with minds so highly developed that they were excused from good manners, tastes so refined in one direction that they were excused for having none in any other, emotions so cultivated that the only aberration was normality, all afloat here on sodden pools of depravity calculated only to manifest the pricelessness of what they were throwing away, the three sexes in two colors, a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size.
I go to the bookstore once a week, whether I need books or not, which I really don’t. This week, I picked up a book I’ve already read, Lowry’s late-modernist classic Under the Volcano, simply because I hate the cover of the version I have (a bland movie tie-in). Anyway, I’ve been prowling for a version that includes an introduction by William Vollmann, but I saw this midcentury paperback with a nice minimal vibe and had to snap it up (also, it was a dollar, and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”):
I’m not a huge Paul Auster fan, but I do like artist David Mazzucchelli’s work (especially his novel Asterios Polyp), so when I saw a crisp used copy of the graphic novelization of City of Glass (with an intro by Art Spiegelman), I had to snap it up:
A splash page of a stark empty room which I’m sure is meaningful in some way:
Also, couldn’t help pick up a used copy of Gaddis’s late novel Carpenter’s Gothic, even though I know there’s no way I’ll get to it anytime soon.
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith
Really slowed down on this one, mostly because the spring semester hath begun, wreaking all sorts of destabilizing tasks on me. Momentum and reading habits will inevitably return. Anyway, Smith’s book is more or less a litany of famous meetings and infamous moments with lots and lots of descriptions of talismanic objects. The scene where she meets Allen Ginsberg is pretty cool. Smith presents herself as earnest, passionate, but also somehow at odds (or at least outs) with the whole Chelsea Hotel scene.
2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol 1, Hayao Miyazaki
Completed the first volume of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking manga and started the second. The art is well crafted and distinct, but often extremely busy and even frenetic. It sometimes feels squashed in the panels, like it needs room to breathe. I can’t help but compare it to the film that followed, which is visually richer and more expansive. The film, in a sense, helps me to fill out the scope signaled in Miyazki’s inky illustrations.
The story in the manga so far differs subtly but significantly from the film; without adding spoilers (I think fans of the film will enjoy the book), the political dimension of the plot is heightened and gender roles are explored with greater concern. Nausicaä’s initial rashness is also presented with greater intensity (read: violent consequences). More to come.
3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann
Chapter 3 of Imperial, “The Water of Life,” is some of the best gonzo journalism I’ve ever read. Vollmann (along with an improbably game ex-Marine/hotel clerk) takes a raft—a cheap rubber dinghy, really—down the infamous New River, purportedly one of the most polluted waterways in North America. This river is filled with dead birds, dead fish, probably dead humans, lots and lots of garbage, industrial runoff, and lots and lots of human shit.
Of course, Vollmann can find beauty and strangeness and ugliness all at once:
The chapter does everything one wants from the book, and if you’re at all intrigued, there’s a version in the excellent Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is a good starting point for his work.
The next chapter, “Sublineations: Lovescapes,” is this awful emo exploration of a bad breakup and the following heartbreak Volls feels after. It was torturous to get through, the sort of thing that screams for an editor. It also underscores how deeply deeply deeply personal the book is to him, though. More to come.
4. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)
Well goddam if I didn’t finally finish it. As I’ve lamented elsewhere in these e-pages, Martin’s fourth and fifth books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I hate that name, by the way: Game of Thrones (without the indefinite article) is way cooler sounding) are bloated, sagging, overfilled beasts sorely in need of an enema. Still, Dragons picks up in its final third, and ends with some shockers that, if I remember them 12 years from now when he finally finishes the next one, I may want to read it. Roy Dotrice = a very gifted reader. A great audiobook (still, I can’t believe this one topped so many year end lists).
5. JR, William Gaddis (tandem reading with audiobook read by Nick Sullivan)
Big thanks to Dwight at A Common Reader for suggesting the audiobook of JR read by Sullivan. I’m a few hours in; I’ve also been rereading bits immediately when I get home (I listen mostly in the car or on walks), retracing the lines that I’ve mentally underlined. Sullivan is a gifted voice actor who brings the many, many voices of JR to vivid life (that line seems hackneyed but it is in no way insincere. If I weren’t riffing I’d revise. If I weren’t riffing I’d edit parenthetical excuses. I’m gonna drink more red zin now). I’m reminded in some ways of RTE’s full-cast unabridged recording—performance really—of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d read Ulysses twice before, but I feel like the full-cast production was an equally definitive version to the one in my head. Like Ulysses—especially the Sirens episode—JR is extremely aural; it’s mostly dialogue.
I’ve laughed out loud several times so far—had no idea the book would be this funny. Also, reading/hearing it, I can’t help but see how profoundly David Foster Wallace was influenced by Gaddis here: the bizarre corporate-speak, the disjunctive rhythms, the absurd humor, the satire on modernity, the ironic-earnest axis—even the passages of naturalistic description.
On deck: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Open City by Teju Cole, Smut by Alan Bennett and more more more.
Earlier this week, Biblioklept correspondent A King at Night suggested on this blog that William T. Vollmann, “literature’s own Batman,” may not be entirely real. While Mr. At Night’s post was perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, he did hip us to extremely cheap new copies of Vollmann’s 2009 California opus, Imperial. I bought one, of course, knowing that my chances of actually reading it in full were, uh, slim. It showed up today.
I read the first 25 pages, a little over 2% of the book (not counting Vollmann’s endnotes and bibliography). I read the book in the bathtub, drinking a beer (those of you who fear (or find repulsive the prospect of) visualizing my stubby little birthday-suited body besoaped and besudded, I suggest that that role may be played by Geena Davis, circa early nineties, although, obviously, you can pick whomever you like to imagine reading Imperial in a bathtub). I was cognizant of the fact that I was taking a bath—a luxury of sorts—while reading a book that deals in large part about who controls water. I also managed to get the book wet with both blood and water. I don’t know where the blood came from.
The first few pages thrust us right into typical Vollmann territory, with our protagonist paying a cokehead to guide him through the back alleys of Mexicali (Vollmann takes time to note the “street-whores,” of course). Alternately, Vollmann attends the nocturnal activities of the weary Border Patrol, who regularly catch and release Mexicans heading for the Northside (America).
There’s a great little moment, very early in this first chapter, when Vollmann ponders the Sisyphean task of the men who patrol the border:
. . . I almost pitied the futility of his occupation, as I suspect he did mine (the main purpose of my essays being to line birdcages), but then I fortunately persuaded myself that all vocations and callings are equally futile.
This seems like the prototypical Vollmann moment: earnestness bound in supple irony, self-deprecation glossing the intense pride in work that the contemporary world will be happy to (even sometimes boastfully) ignore.
I enjoyed the first pages of this massive book tremendously. Vollmann’s voluminous scope and strange background often eclipse his powers as a proseslinger, and Imperial, so far, is lucid, clean, sharp, and funny.
So I’ll go for it. I’ll read it. I’ll finish it before this time (id est, late Dec.) next year.
- 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.
William T. Vollmann’s essay “American Writing Today” was published over 20 years ago in Conjunctions, but it’s still relevant today (I read it in the indispensable Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, but you can read the entire essay online). Concerned with the solipsism and insularity of contemporary American writing, Vollmann tells us: ”I now propose to set forth our responsibility, and some rules for reform. This first requires that I set right all the woes of the world.” The second sentence’s naked irony punctures the seriousness of the project proposed by the first sentence; this is classic Vollmann—earnest, ironic, and self-effacing at all times. Here are Vollmann’s rules, which are somehow both tongue-in-cheek and totally sincere at the same time:
1. We should never write without feeling.
2. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other. Not the vacuum so often between Self and Other. Not the unworthiness of Other. Not the Other as a negation or eclipse of Self. Not even about the Other exclusive of Self, because that is but a trickster-egoist’s way of worshiping Self secretly. We must treat Self and Other as equal partners. (Of course I am suggesting nothing new. I do not mean to suggest anything new. Health is. more important than novelty.)
3. We should portray important human problems.
4. We should seek for solutions to those problems. Whether or not we find them, the seeking will deepen the portrait.
5. We should know our subject, treating it with the respect with which Self must treat Other. We should know it in all senses, until our eyes are bleary from seeing it, our ears ring from listening to it, our muscles ache from embracing it, our gonads are raw from making love to it. (If this sounds pompous, it is perhaps because I wear thick spectacles.)
6. We should believe that truth exists.
7. We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves.
William Vollmann writes about John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (excerpted from Imperial via Expelled from Eden)—
The book of his which I admire the most is East of Eden. For a decade now the character of Kate, whom some critics find unconvincing has haunted my head; she’s horrific, she’s pathetic, she’s steady and successful and lonely; she is perfectly what she is. The retelling of the Cain and Abel story is brilliant, the landscape descriptions lovely and lush, the plotting as careful and convincing as the best of George Eliot. And of course there’s a message, a flaw, personified by a Chinese servant who tells us, sometimes at great length, what to think. But Lee has never annoyed me. He speechifies intelligently, at times wittily, and sometimes compassionately. Do I care that nobody I’ve ever met talks like that? He is sincere because Steinbeck is sincere. And this is what I love about Steinbeck most of all, his sincerity.
In a 1990 interview between William T. Vollmann and one of his editors Larry McCaffery. An excerpt from the interview appears as a list in the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite books (seriously, let’s have another volume—this is clearly the optimum Vollmann delivery system). I’ve kept Expelled from Eden’s list format because, hey, let’s face it, we like lists—
LM: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?
WV: By “contemporary” I assume you mean “from the last two hundred years.”
1./2./3. Right now it seems like I’ve learned a lot from Mishima, Kawabata, and Tolstoy;
4. Hawthorne may be the best;
5. Then Faulkner;
6. Hemingway is usually a wonderful read, especially Islands in the Stream and For Whom the Bell Tolls—that is to say, the grandly suicidal narratives;
7. Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Dreambook for Our Time is beautiful;
8. I also love everything I’ve read by Mir Lagerkvist;
9. Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter;
10. Multatuli’s Max Havalaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company;
11. Kundera’s Laughable Loves;
12. Andrea Freud Lowenstein’s This Place (which deserves more recognition than it has received);
13. Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (which I had the wonderful experience of finding and reading a few months after completing my own book about Greenlanders, The Ice-Shirt).
14. Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men;
15. Farley Mowat’s The People of the Deer;
16. The first three books of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy (how could I have forgotten that?);
17. Random bits of Proust, Zola’sL’Assommoir;
18. Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai;
19.The first two books of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy;
20. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land;
21. Poe’s stories about love;
22. Everything by Malraux (especially his Anti-Memoirs);
23. Nabokov’s Glory and Transparent Things and Ada;
24. Melville’s Pierre;
25. Thomas Bernhard’s Correction;
26. David Lindsay’s Voyage to Acturus;
27. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly;
28. A few of Boll’s short novels (Wo warst du, Adam? and The Train Was on Time);
29. Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel;
30. Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things;
31. Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz;
32. James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy (which is just plane fun);
33. The first three volumes of Lawrence Durrell’sAlexandria Quartet, and I don’t know what all.
There’s lots more. I am sorry not to be able to put down less contemporary things such as Tale of Genji, which is one of my all-time favorites.
“List of Social Changes that Would Assist the Flourishing of Literary Beauty” by William T. Vollmann. Originally published in his essay, “Something to Die For” (Review of Contemporary Fiction) but excised here from Expelled from Eden, the Vollmann reader I’m finding addictive—-
1. Abolish television, because it has no reverence for time.
2. Abolish the automobile, because it has no reverence for space.
3. Make citizenship contingent upon literacy in every sense. Thus, politicians who do not write every word of their own speeches should be thrown out of office in disgrace. Writers who require editors to make their books “good” should be depublished.
4. Teach reverence for all beauty, including that of the word.
“The Stench of Corpses” is a self-review by William T. Vollmann of the poorly-received and rarely read book Argall, one of his “Seven Dreams” series (still incomplete). The piece originally ran in the October 7, 2001 edition of The Los Angeles Times, but I read it in Expelled from Eden, a Vollmann reader that I am very much enjoying. There’s an immediate post-9/11 vibe running through Vollmann’s scathing review of Vollmann, culminating in his declaration that Argall is “positively un-American.”
“The Stench of Corpses”
A hundred years after William T. Vollmann was killed in a gun cleaning accident, I, William the Blind, received a commission to review the long novel “Argall,” which marks the midpoint of his uncompleted “Seven Dreams” series. According to Dombey’s “Easily Digested Biographies of Minor Authors,” which I just happen to have right here inside my reading pod, it was always Vollmann’s hope that the “Seven Dreams,” which were second in ambition only to his still-unpublished essay on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” would “somehow, uh, mean something to people a hundred years from now.”
This desire is best understood as a form of wish compensation. Vollmann lived what can only be called a pathetic life. Isolated within and stubbornly estranged from millennial American society, he consoled himself with a sophomorically romantic belief that art, if protected in time capsules, can outlast Dark Ages. Let’s temporarily ignore the fact that Vollmann’s so-called art was never worth preserving, being infested by individualism, moral relativism and sexual depravity. More to the point, since stars, elephants and gods suffer death, how could even the greatest art be “immortal”? As we all know, the Liu-Mallinger Act of 2027, which made cranial stimulation devices compulsory for all inhabitants of the Global Trans-Industrial Zone, reduced the printed word to irrelevancy at last.read more »
I like William T. Vollmann the persona probably more than I like William T. Vollmann the writer. That isn’t to say that I haven’t thought that the handful of books I’ve read by him were brilliant, strange, and engrossing—because they are—but I’ll admit that his methods, his back story, his sheer and absolute not-giving-a-fuckness is a major attraction. Voluminous Vollmann, unreadable Vollmann; smartypants Vollmann, fragile Vollmann. Vollmann, producer of travelogues, alternate histories, hagiographies for hookers; Vollmann, Ice Age chronicler; saga-slinging Vollmann. I can’t think of a writer who does more and says more and, because of his maximalist approach, will be largely unread, both for his career and for posterity—unless he concedes to edit. I think the irony is that, in wanting to give everything to his reader and wanting to preserve everything about his subjects—an act of love, compassion, empathy, what have you—in these grand, hopeless gestures, Vollmann paradoxically displays that intrinsic not-giving-a-fuckness. He needs an editor.
So, this afternoon, browsing at my favorite bookshop, a labyrinthine twisty thing, I ambled innocently past the ‘V’s of General Fiction, looking for a novel by Karel Capek in the sci-fi section, which abuts said ‘V’ aisle. Again, this was all innocence. I had no intention of picking up anything by Vollmann, despite the huge stack of his works there, used testaments to the futility of trying to read Vollmann perhaps—at least a dozen souls who said “fuck it” to Europe Central. Here are the Vollmann volumes (volmumes?) I possess—
I’ve read Butterfly Stories, The Rifles, and The Ice-Shirt; I’ve read most of 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs. I’ve read bits of The Rainbow Stories and mostly nothing of Europe Central, which migrated out of the “to read” stack a few years ago. So, yeah, I wasn’t looking for another Vollmann. But I’m too frequent a visitor at this particular labyrinthy, somewhat famous North Florida bookshop, so I noticed a “new” Vollmann in the stack, Expelled from Eden. And I started thumbing through it. Against my better judgment. 20 minutes later I was brainstorming reasons not to pick it up, but honestly, the credit in book trade I have with the store nails most economic arguments, and really, I’m thinking this is exactly what I wanted someone to do with Vollmann: edit that shit.
Larry McCaffrey and Michael Hemmingson have excised, chopped, moved around, and pulled from all over Vollmann’s massive world, putting together a book organized around Vollmann’s grand themes—travel writing; war; violence; prostitution; literature. There are lists, drawings, photographs. There is biography. I came home and read for an hour. I’m sure I’ll be sharing some citations down the road.
As a sort of bonus—and I always love to pick up a book where something is neatly tucked away—is an entire 2005 feature from The New York Review on Vollmann, focusing on Expelled from Eden and Europe Central.