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.

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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.

DL: I first encountered Vollmann thanks to a Los Angeles rock band called Nature, who released a self-titled album of bizarre proggy industrial rock  in 1995 on Zoo Records, and then promptly disappeared. In the CD booklet there was the quote “So fear repetition not; there remain many seas of blood and cream to be traversed,” which is from the “advertisement” at the opening of Butterfly Stories. I was intrigued and wanted to know more: I had made a habit of discovering writers via rock musicians, and I was also exploring the underground, counterculture literature of angst (Octave Mirbeau, Hubert Selby, Sylvia Plath, James Havoc, Mark Amerika, etc). When I chanced on the book – a remainder copy of the US edition (with its garish purple Ken Miller cover photograph of three Asian girls) in a discount bookstore in London where I was living – I found its depiction of loneliness and despair uniquely powerful and compelling. I had read plenty of bleak and miserable books by then, but none quite like this; none that seemed to go about the business of self-destruction in such a vital and gleeful way.

I then moved on to Whores for Gloria, The Royal Family, and The Atlas, and kept going. Around the same time I also came across Michel Houellebecq, who writes about alienation and desire in different yet comparable ways.

Biblioklept: Houellebecq is also similar to Vollmann in the sense that they are both controversial authors. Both strike me as writers who might be talked about more than actually read.

CKC: I absolutely agree that Michel Houellebecq and Vollmann have a lot in common in terms of the fact that they are controversial. I have read most of Houellebecq’s books, but not all of them, so I am less of an authority here than I am on Vollmann. MH does strike me as less competent as a stylist in French than Vollmann is in English. That point aside, I would argue that there is much of value in MH’s works and also that there is a lot that warrants a reading of these two authors in tandem. In some ways, I think that Plateforme [Platform] is MH’s most Vollmannian book: it deals with a setting, events, and character types familiar from works like Butterfly Stories. What I think it lacks is the sort of ongoing and explicit self-critique that WTV usually offers. Too, my reading is that MH’s point of view tends to be only that of opposition, while one of the things I find most valuable in WTV’s works is his shuttling between satire and a much more constructive and celebratory stance: he not only moves beyond some initial perspective to a critique of it, but reaches beyond that critique as well. I cannot see MH writing, to mention just a few instances, the final sections of The Royal Family; some of the tales in Last Stories and Other Stories, which find beyond death some sort of value; or the moments of more sympathetic attitudes to Gerstein in Europe Central.

I think that Daniel would vote for Les Particules élémentaires [The Elementary Particles], but I’d say La Possibilité d’une île [The Possibility of an Island] is MH’s best. However bleak those final pages of that latter book are in terms of the success of humanity, they do seem to offer something that is beautiful in its own dismal way. And, it is that going beyond the acceptance of total failure, or—to state it better—in the exploration of the beauty of failure, that Vollmann excels, and from which I think MH too often retreats. What WTV gives us is, at its best, and in rough terms, a recovery of the sacred in the profane. Perhaps my favorite passage of WTV’s comes in the final pages of Fathers and Crows, and sees Kateri Tekakwitha walking among modern urban prostitutes. It is a unification of elements that have been divided for so many years for so many poorly conceived reasons, but it is also a vision of a certain kind of redemption. And it is heartbreakingly beautiful, as well. The only things I can think of that even come close to this in contemporary fiction are the best moments of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the works of László Krasznahorkai.

As for MH and WTV being read less than they are discussed: I would guess this is true of most serious authors. How many people have read more than a few pages of Finnegans Wake (or, for that matter, Dante’s Commedia) but still remark on it? Also, I think MH is read much more in France than WTV is in his native country. One reason I was so excited when I first got in touch with Daniel is that he was pretty much the first person I met who had really read WTV—but I do not have the impression that something equivalent would have been the case if I were reading MH in France. I got an email earlier today from an acquaintance who keeps in something like regular contact with WTV, and he tells me that WTV has agreed to offer comment to some French media outlets about the Charlie Hebdo events. One of my hopes is that some of those comments at least touch upon MH’s work, as his connection to what has happened in Paris has been well-advertised, and I have to imagine WTV is considering this.

DL: It is interesting that Chris raises the issue of satire in WTV. I have a back and forth with one of my advisors about whether Houellebecq is a satirist or a tragedian at heart: he argues the former, I the latter. Vollmann certainly has a strong satirical voice, which he often employs strategically to punch upwards at power. For example the portrayals of power brokers in You Bright And Risen Angels, or the hypocritical businessmen in or The Royal Family and its chapter “An Essay on Bail.” Humor and comedy are a constant presence in Vollmann’s works and he adopts grotesque, absurd, or abject humor, as a defense against the violence of life. I do feel however that it is the sincere, even tragic voice in Vollmann that tends to transcend the satirical one, even if satire helps it get there; that Vollmann’s vision of life is predominantly a tragic one, though laughing in the face of tragedy is probably our best bet. When there is irony in his writing, I find that it is often tragic irony: perhaps this is one element in his writing that irks seekers of comic irony. I keep coming back to that N+1 piece and wondering why “sincerity” should be such a literary crime.

In what ways do you feel that readers who actively dislike Vollmann are justified in their critiques? What do you dislike about Vollmann’s writing and why? I sometimes feel that people responding to WTV are responding more to a caricature than his actual writing. But then again, what do you think it is in WTV’s work in particular that invites that?

Biblioklept: What I dislike about Vollmann’s writing is a fairly common critique: There’s too much. Take an early section of Imperial, where there’s this shift from this amazing journalistic adventure story into a lengthy introspective piece on Our Hero’s love life. At the same time, Too Much is why Vollmann is such a fascinating writer. He jettisons much of what’s unbearable about the postmodern tradition—there’s no navel-gazing over genre, persona, performance, truth and lie, etc.—just a desire to access big-ell Life—and life is Too Much. There’s no dithering. There’s this great moment in Laurent Binet’s postmodern fiction HHhH where the narrator-persona raves about how he wished that he’d written Europe Central because it does what his own book likely can’t. Binet’s narrator describes the first eight page chapter as “endless” and “magical.” I think those words mediate what’s electric about Vollmann’s prose.

DL: Binet also seems to suggest that Europe Central does not sustain that tone, and I disagree with that. I read the book one long gloomy week or so in March 2005 and was thoroughly absorbed. Incidentally, we were in talks with Binet about him contributing something, but it didn’t work out.

CKC: I can’t say I mind the fact that there is a lot of WTV to digest. It seems to me that to let this bother one as a reader or as a critic is like getting upset, to pick an author to whom I’m fairly indifferent, because there is a lot of writing by Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t get annoyed by the volume of her output, but I also don’t read it all. I guess my attitude is basically that there are more than enough books to keep me busy, and I’d rather spend more time celebrating what I like than attacking what I don’t, unless the latter is particularly unavoidable and egregious. I very much think WTV is working in the tradition of maximalism and the encyclopedic novel. I understand that these sorts of writings are not to everyone’s taste, and if that is true one can always turn to a writer like Raymond Carver. I prefer a world that has both of these kinds of authors, and others besides. Furthermore, I would argue that the bagginess of WTV’s books is part of their appeal: as your remarks indicate, the sometimes seemingly obtrusive inclusiveness is his method. His approach is inductive, as is evident most clearly in Rising Up and Rising Down. To include less information, to explore fewer case studies or to say less about the author’s perspective, is to deny the world and life some measure of its complexity.

Of course some problems come with this approach to writing. WTV does have a few sentences that are real clunkers, and I sometimes find myself thinking “well, he could have structured this part of this book more tightly ….” But I would not want to trade the glorious diversity his work offers for some more unified or graceful effort. Too, there are many, many amazing sentences and some brilliant solutions to formal challenges that far outweigh the moments when things don’t quite come together. I would point to a lot of what goes on in the Seven Dreams for the best examples of where his approach best serves his subject matter.

But, to get to Daniel’s question: I definitely think most objections to WTV’s work are driven by misinformation and too casual readings. That said, it is also the case that some objections to his writings are justified. I still can’t work myself over to a full appreciation for his presentation of a lot of the women in his novels. I see how sympathetic and even holy his female characters are, and he makes empathy the key element of his moral vision, but there is still a blind spot there that I can’t quite work through. At the same time, I admire enough about his work that I am willing to stay with it even when it gives me pause. And I think those people who critique his efforts–whether those critiques are sound or not–are responding to a similar provocation that is, in part, intentional. He won’t put down his gun just because you want him to; he won’t stop visiting prostitutes just because it makes me unsure of some piece that features such activities; and, he won’t shy away from portraying the marginalized as potentially guilty, rather than entirely vindicated in all of their actions by virtue only of their victimhood.

Biblioklept: I think Christopher’s just summed up a lot of what repels—and attracts—readers to Vollmann. I get a lot of emails and other interactions from readers of this blog who want to know a good starting point for Vollmann—-the sheer volume of output can be daunting. Any thoughts on a good gateway text for interested readers?

CKC: Should a gateway text be an author’s most typical book, or his most accessible? I think that Europe Central is WTV’s most accessible fiction, but I’ve also seen commentators bemoaning its length and complexity, so maybe I’m a bad judge of this. I teach “Red Hands” to my undergraduates, and they seem to appreciate it well enough. Some fans–including Wallace and Franzen–who ran into WTV’s work early in his career were apparently really won over by The Rainbow StoriesWhores for Gloria and The Rifles strike me as the most condensed of his books, and I think The Rifles also offers the best combination of careful structure, typically Vollmannic subject matter and aims, and high metafictive play. I guess, as with any author, the most excellent introductory WTV text depends more on the reader than the writer. I came to WTV after steeping myself in things by authors like Barth, Pynchon, and Burroughs, and WTV’s relatively accessible for readers comfortable with the work of figures like that. On the other hand, I don’t know that someone who spends all of her or his time with less ambitious fiction will ever become a reader of WTV. I imagine most readers are somewhere in between the extremes mentioned in the preceding sentences, and that’s why I’d recommend Europe Central: it doesn’t have the possibly-objectionable subject matter that something like Butterfly Stories offers, and neither is it as imposing conceptually as are some of the Dreams. Yet, it will satisfy readers looking for an ambitious and daring novel. You can shelve it alongside Littell and Binet.

To shift gears and head off-road into the nonfiction: I suppose some readers might want to start with WTV’s essays. I was surprised–when we were getting proposals for our book, and as I later talked with WTV readers who aren’t contributors to the book–just how many people are won over by Poor People. It strikes me as a worthwhile book in numerous ways, but something about how it is stitched together doesn’t sit right with me (I feel this way about Riding toward Everywhere and Kissing the Mask also). We’d have to go way off-track for me to get into the specifics of my reservations about these volumes, but I would point out that I don’t have this troubled reading of all of the nonfiction–Imperial and Rising Up and Rising Down are especially fulfilling according to my criteria. Too, the work of some of our contributors, and I’d especially mention here Chandler’s chapter, went a good way to winning me over to accepting some formal elements of books like Poor People that I’d resisted before we started this project. I’ll end this rambling non-answer with an example of someone who comes close to reading WTV but holds back in the end: my wife, who is really knowledgeable about and widely read in the essay as a genre (she’s working on a book about Didion), is a fan of WTV pieces like “Let’s Get Lost.” But, she has practically no interest in most of his novels and short stories.

DL: I would say don’t start with Kissing The Mask, unless you have a specific interest in Noh theater. I came away a bit disappointed with that book: it felt to me too much like a collection of notes or drafts that could have done with further shaping and revision, though I did enjoy its extremely comparative flights between eras, locations, and genres

I find Poor People and Riding Toward Everywhere, published within less than two years of each other, to be two very focused, readable, accessible books which go deeper into two of Vollmann’s key preoccupations. Either book could serve as a good introduction.

I would say start with The Atlas: I like to think of it as a “remix album/b-sides collection” of his early-middle period. It’s a good way to enjoy Vollmann in bite-size chunks and flashes, to get a sense of what he’s about and how his writing works and enchants. Also it contains “Lunch” which is one my all-time favorite Vollmann pieces.

CKC: Daniel’s complaint about Kissing the Mask is pretty much my own about that book (as well as one or two others). That is, that it could use additional “shaping.” I cannot help but note that we are here voicing the sort of charge that is leveled regularly at WTV’s works: that they need a better editorial hand. This is actually a useful extension of some points I was trying to make earlier. While WTV’s method and vision demand a hyper-inclusive encyclopedism, this quality brings with it a dangerous corollary: at some point too many too disparate things may be in the box, and the sides of the container will collapse. He walks that narrow line between excessive inclusion and careful selection with great daring. This is why I am always interested to see how he has structured his texts. The musical motifs of Europe Central help in this regard; the mutability central to Seven Dreams allows him to get away with a lot; and the geographic / palindromic structure of The Atlas is pretty rigid in its way. When the formal logic of the whole is less developed or clear, some readers will intuitively balk–and this portion of readers will sometimes include, apparently, even those among the audience who are otherwise fans. Some people have less tolerance for deformation than do others, and WTV readers tend to need a lot of such tolerance. When he succeeds, as I would argue he usually does, the result can be a tour de force. When he fails, it can be a real mess. Yet, this is also part of what I mean when I say that WTV has won me over enough that I am not going to get off the train just because it made a few unadvertised stops. I am curious to see how he handles the challenge of the next book, and part of that challenge will (of course) always be a matter of form. So one litmus test for potential WTV-readers is just how far one thinks the walls of the box can be strained before it starts crumbling. I like to see them pushed to the point where the joints are just starting to crack, and I think a lot can be learned by studying a text that goes beyond that, as well. Beyond all of these assertions, I would remind myself that the seeming failure of formal coherence can be a great way to imply other sorts of failures–in aspects of the subject matter, for instance. So, I always have to wonder if my objection to the failure of coherence that I perceive in, say Riding toward Everywhere, is not instead my having overlooked WTV’s use of formal incoherence as a means to indict the political and economic terms that are undermining certain other sorts of values dealt with in the text (freedom of physical movement, the dream of American self-determination, &c.). For this reason, too, I tend to be pretty accepting of formal decisions evident in WTV’s works for which I do not (yet) quite understand the rationale.

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

  1. Excellent interview — I look forward to part two. The first Vollmann I read also was The Ice Shirt. Perhaps it’s the ideal gateway drug.

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