William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Book acquired, 12.27.2014)

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William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is new from University of Delaware Press and editors Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes. Their blurb:

The essays in this collection make a case for regarding William T. Vollmann as the most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US. His oeuvre includes not only outstanding work in numerous literary genres, but also global reportage, ethical treatises, paintings, photographs, and many other productions. His reputation as a daring traveler and his fascination with life on the margins have earned him an extra-literary renown unequaled in our time. Perhaps most importantly, his work is exceptional in relation to the literary moment. Vollmann is a member of a group of authors who are responding to the skeptical ironies of postmodernism with a reinvigoration of fiction’s affective possibilities and moral sensibilities, but he stands out even among this cohort for his prioritization of moral engagement, historical awareness, and geopolitical scope. Included in this book in addition to twelve scholarly critical essays are reflections on Vollmann by many of his peers, confidantes, and collaborators, including Jonathan Franzen, James Franco, and Michael Glawogger. With a preface by Larry McCaffery and an afterword by Michael Hemmingson, this book offers readings of most of Vollmann’s works, includes the first critical engagements with several key titles, and introduces a range of voices from international Vollmann scholarship.

The book (it’s beautiful, by the way) intersperses the more “academic” essays that comprise its bulk with shorter riffs, memoirs, and vignettes about Vollmann, or reading Vollmann (I wish Franzen would’ve devoted a few more lines in his piece “A Friendship” to describing the time he got to shoot Vollmann’s Tec 9, but it’s still a fascinating little piece). I read a few of these (Franco refers to our author as “Volhman” and then ends his “essay” with this parenthetical aside: “(Shit, I went back online, and I see that there is no ‘h’ in his name. Sorry, Billy.”)

I haven’t gotten into any of the the critical essays yet, but a scan over the book’s index and bibliography indicates a serious work of scholarship, while a cursory scan of a few of the more intriguing titles (“‘Strange Hungers’: William T. Vollmann’s Literary Performances of Abject Masculinity”; “The Ethics of the Archive and the William T. Vollmann Collection”; “Imperial Photography”) suggests a unified work with a tone decidedly divorced from stale academic language. More to come.

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