An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, newish 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 in a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. A few days after the first part of the interview posted, Lukes and Coffman hosted a book launch party in NYC for WTV: ACC; the pics in this interview are from that event (check out the Facebook page for more, including Jonathan Franzen reading from his piece on Vollmann).

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Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the formal elements of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. The collection seems to balance essays of a more academic flavor with memoir-vignettes, personal accounts, and riffs.

Christopher K. Coffman: We decided early on to intersperse among the academic essays pieces by non-scholars, or by scholars writing in a non-scholarly mode. The goal here was at least two-fold. We wanted to offer something a bit more accessible to WTV readers who were not in academia (although I think the average WTV fan can follow scholarly arguments as well as many of us in academia can). Also, we realized that some people with a privileged view on WTV’s work–such as those of WTV’s book designers who contributed (Bolte and Speaker Austin)–could add something of interest and great value to audiences in and out of academia, and we wanted to make space for that. I would have to look back through the e-mail log to be sure, but I think Daniel first came up with the idea of soliciting shorter pieces from non-scholars, and that I then conceived the structural component. I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s In Our Time, and the contrapuntal play between the stories and the very short inter-chapters in that book served for me as a paradigm of what Daniel and I have tried to do in this regard. Of course, as soon as we brought up the example of Hemingway, we recalled that WTV does something similar in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, so he beat us to the punch even there. At any rate, my hope is that our readers find in the short chapterlets material that serves as a response to or as an extension of ideas presented in the more properly scholarly readings that surround those shorter pieces.

The second question of arrangement was the placement of essays and interchapters, and we here grouped according to subject matter as well as we could, without merely replicating what McCaffery and Hemmingson had done for Expelled from Eden. We also, obviously, made space for both Larry and Michael as the authors of the Preface and Afterword. Our intention there, insofar as I can speak for both of us, is to make it clear that we are trying to situate our contribution to scholarship on WTV in relation to the work that Larry and Michael have already done. Finally, I wrote the Introduction not only because one of us had to, but also because Daniel was spoken for in the sense that he already had material that formed the basis for the really great chapter that he contributed. Also, I found the chance to frame the book’s material via an introduction that dealt with WTV’s place in the landscape of post-1945 American fiction appealing. That said, while the introduction bears my byline, my ongoing conversation with Daniel during the past few years shaped my thinking about WTV as much as any original ideas of my own, so he deserves a lot of credit for the introduction as well.

Daniel Lukes: I’ve been going back over the timeline to see if Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s edited volume The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, which also features some shorter pieces, was an influence on that, but it looks like we took our approach independently. Though I will say their book did serve as a model in some ways of what ours could be. Dealing with the “non-scholarly” pieces has been for me one of the most exciting parts of putting this book together (the distinction between “scholarlies” and “non-scholarlies” itself being one of the various amusing frameworks that Chris and I have been carrying around throughout the process). From the beginning I thought it would be very helpful to have some of Vollmann’s literary peers chime in: you just don’t hear too much from them about him. So we reached out to writers we thought might be Vollmann readers: some just weren’t (I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy reads Vollmann: the letter I mailed to a presumed representative of his returned unopened). Some were Vollmann fans/friends, but couldn’t make it for another reason; when Jonathan Franzen came through and expressed his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to contribute a piece, I felt some relief. And James Franco was a pleasure to work with. That said I think the primary value of the non-scholarlies is in the insights they offer into Vollmann’s world and writing practices, from those who have worked closely with him, in particular Carla Bolte, Mary Austin Speaker, and Mariya Gusev’s excellent and vivid pieces.

One of the reader reports remarked that our volume (I just accidentally typed “Vollmann”) seems to mimic his approach in its all-over-the-placeness. I do think this is on some level intentional. Vollmann plays with and outside the rules, and we certainly intended this book to be a lot more than merely a collection of essays, in order to attempt to do justice to that. We’re psyched that we got Larry McCaffery – the first major Vollmann critic – to pen a preface; and are sad that Michael Hemmingson’s afterword will I assume be his last word on Vollmann. With Hemmingson’s early death, Vollmann studies loses a hugely valuable voice. His support and encouragement of the book cannot go understated. There’s a ton of people we didn’t get or *almost* got for the book – we’ll have to save trying again with them for volume II, if it ever happens.

From the WTV: ACC Book Launch party: Bottom L-R: Bryan Santin, Miles Liebtag, Chris Coffman; Top: L-R: Jon Franzen, Mariya Gusev, Françoise Palleau-Papin, Heather Corcoran, Jordan Rothacker, Georg Bauer, Daniel Lukes
From the WTV: ACC Book Launch party: Bottom L-R: Bryan Santin, Miles Liebtag, Chris Coffman; Top: L-R: Jon Franzen, Mariya Gusev, Françoise Palleau-Papin, Heather Corcoran, Jordan Rothacker, Georg Bauer, Daniel Lukes

Biblioklept: Based on Vollmann’s prolific output, there’ll likely be a need for a second volume. I’d love to know McCarthy’s take on The Rifles or Imperial, which seem to me some kind of kin to Blood Meridian. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard his thoughts on a contemporary author. What about Vollmann? Did you contact him about A Critical Companion?

DL: We have been in contact with Vollmann at several points. Initially we invited him to contribute a piece to the book: he declined, but expressed support for the project. Then when it came to the extremely laborious process of securing permissions, he was very generous in allowing us to quote from works he retains the copyright to, even going so far as offering to waive his part of the fee in cases where the copyright was jointly held. We have invited him to our events, but he has declined on that front also. I think it’s fair to say that his position toward our work has been one of respectful distance.

CKC: Yes, as Daniel explains, we have been in touch with Vollmann a bit. While we obviously would have liked to have a piece by him in the book, I suspect his decision not to contribute probably allowed some of our authors to be more objective. No one had to worry about questions like “how will this less-than-glowing statement about WTV look when it is sitting next to a piece by WTV?” As a side note, this reminds me of something else that did not happen: I had hoped we’d get some proposals for chapters that advanced really antagonistic readings–essays that would devote most of themselves to taking issue with or aim at some fault in the books–but nothing of that sort came to us. Still, I think a chapter or two of that sort would have been valuable, and if there ever is a Volume 2, I’d love to see something like that in there. Making space for dissenting opinion is almost always a salutary effort.

Biblioklept: Vollmann’s latest, Last Stories and Other Stories has gotten some fairly antagonistic reviews. (At NPR, Julia Keller called it “pretentious and flabby and self-indulgent,” for example). Thoughts on the new tome?

CKC: I appreciate some of the criticisms regarding Last Stories and Other Stories, but most of the reviews I read were simply odd. I here mean “odd” in the sense that the reviewers seemed to me to be confused, and confused in a way that led them to the writing of reviews that almost explicitly asked the impermissible question: “now what is it that my readers are going to want me to say about a book like this?” The NYT’s second review of the book, by Kate Bernheimer, is a notable exception. This piece was one of the smartest I have ever read on Vollmann by anyone, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants a concise and incisive overview of what is best in his writing. It was also the one review I read that seemed to recognize that the sometimes suffocating nature of the book’s style (at the level of the sentence) and certain claustrophobic aspects of the book’s narrative structures are kind of relevant to a book that is about topics like death, entombment, and the seductiveness of the thanotic.

But, you asked for my take on the book. I sympathize with complaints that it feels less unified than it may. My understanding is that WTV has long kept notebooks with brief notes for projects, and that he periodically goes through them searching for inspiration. My speculation is that what we have in this book is a result of WTV’s realization on a recent look back through the notebooks that he had a number of ghost-story ideas, and that they would together make for an interesting collection. Some of this material is likely quite old, and may have seen earlier, aborted, realizations. I suspect, for instance, that “The Banquet of Death” had been visited before as a one act play–it is basically a piece of juvenilia–that is archived at OSU. I have not had a chance to check on this yet, but hope to get there this summer to confirm my suspicion. Some reviewers have read the opening stories as the heart of the book, and they are an essential addition to WTV’s work. Sarajevo and his experiences there are such key parts of the history of his writing that the retrospective examination of the desire for redemption, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the burden of guilt offered in these stories is important reading. Let me conclude with three additional points. In the first place, the global scope of this book recommends it; it is in that sense of a piece with Rising Up and Rising Down, Poor People, and The Atlas. Secondly, the volume’s fascinating and disturbing mix of desire and death is not only typical territory for Vollmann, it is at the root of almost all worthwhile literature from Aeschylus to Yeats. Finally, it is a book that demands a slow read, and that is an achievement to applaud. I have not yet put my finger on how it does this, but the Trieste and Bohemia stories in particular resist the reader who wants to rush. I remember meeting with Françoise Palleau-Papin last summer when I was about 100 pages into a first read of the text. She had not started it yet, and I told her I was totally absorbed by it, but that, in spite of giving it a lot of time, found my usual “page-per-minute” rate was way below usual. I am not a fast reader anyway, but reading Last Stories and Other Stories was for me like running in a slow-motion dream. Anyway, Françoise emailed me about a month later and reported the same experience. This phenomenon reinforces the strange and haunting nature of the text, in a fashion entirely appropriate for a book with stories as unnerving as is “The Trench Ghost.”

“Franzen’s complaining about all the photo-taking”

Biblioklept: Daniel, in your essay in the collection, “Strange Hungers,” you say that Vollmann’s “straight-up ‘sincere’ voice . . . has replaced the shifting protagonists and flowing, drunken liquidity of his 1990s fictions [offering] less room for dialectical maneuver.” You’re specifically discussing a shift in Vollmann’s treatment of gender from earlier stuff like Butterfly Stories to newer books like Kissing the Mask, but I think that the shift to a “straight-up ‘sincere’ voice” inheres throughout his themes. To what extent though is Vollmann performing “sincerity”?

DL: I do sense that WTV has over the last decade or so privileged a certain sincerity, often curtailing or sidelining the more extravagant, aesthetic, or literary elements of his writing in favor of clarity, the desire to be heard and understood. To me it feels as if the act of bringing attention to social issues (highlighting injustice, systemic oppression and violence, the everyday violence of global capitalist life), has become even more central to his work. Okla Elliott touches on this theme in his WTVCC essay: the move, not only in Vollmann, but in continental philosophers such as Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek, toward clarity, and away from the dangers of hermetic or esoteric obscurantism. I’m thinking, for example of The Rainbow Stories’ overt formalism, or The Royal Family’s strongly symbolic approach: in works such as these Vollmann seeks to make the harsh lives of the disenfranchised into something aesthetically transcendent or at least pleasing. Whereas in more recent works, such as Poor People, or his Harper’s article “Homeless in Sacramento,” he appears to tackle similar topics in a much more direct and less aesthetically-mediated way.

CKC: I concur that WTV is increasingly making a more straightforward (by which I guess we mean a less obviously artificial or sophisticated) kind of sincerity evident in his works.

That said, my sense is that this is less a matter of having intentionally changed course than it is a matter of having learnt how to do better (and / or more confidently) something he has been working at across his career. I particularly have in mind as a nagging example here An Afghanistan Picture Show. The Young Man in that memoir learns that his desire for engagement and heartfelt good intentions are pretty worthless, that he is not fit enough in the right ways to help to resolve the problem. So, he ends up presenting a story about what did not work. It is a good case of that space for masculine failure in WTV’s books about which Daniel has written: this character is not a total disgrace, but he is just as surely no Achilles. It is also, I think, something of a Kunstlerroman, in the sense that we see this authorial-character coming to a point where his words are all that he has to share. He may have failed in terms of his intentions, but he has a tale to tell of that failure, and it is an instructive one. In other words, WTV comes out of his Afghanistan experience having learned in one sense what it is his writing can do: not solve problems, but share them, and illuminate others who are ignorant in the same ways he was about the complexities of the difficulties we are facing as a culture, and as a species, in the arenas of war, desire, violence, art, and so forth. To the extent that the seemingly nihilistic diminishment of self has disappeared from WTV’s works, I would argue that it has done so because he has gone some way to surpassing the problem–he can more easily become a transparent eyeball now, an hombre invisible, a recording angel. This does not exclude the insertion of some authorial commentary, but it is a less self-preoccupied and aggressively self-critical commentary than is that directed at the Young Man, or than that devoted to Bug in YBRA and the Journalist in Butterfly Stories.

I would also point out that–in comparison to the nonfiction–the fiction preserves a greater degree of the dialectical movement that Daniel sees in the earlier work in general. I was actually curious to see what the next fictions after Europe Central would look like in terms of this quality, and my reading of Last Stories and Other Stories–particularly the Sarajevo and Mostar stories–is that the authorial figure in those tales can pretty easily be read in positive relation to the Young Man of An Afghanistan Picture Show. Too, these stories have plenty of the gritty abjection of which we became so expectant from reading the prostitute trilogy and the stories of the 1990s.

So, to get back to the original question: is this a sincerity that is being “performed”? My reading is that it always has been a performed sincerity, but that it is now being performed by a more mature writer.

I have a question or two on this front, if either of you would like to offer a perspective for me: is Dolores a furtherance of the impulse to self-destruction? To be more specific: is she a realization of this impulse in the realm of gender, or a way to circumvent the total loss of the self, or something else?

DL: Chris’s distinction between how Vollmann operates in his fiction vs his nonfiction is a good point. This prompts me to the following question I don’t really have an answer for: why does Vollmann dedicate much of his activity over the last decade to nonfiction, and what might his recent return to fiction signify? I recall how he says – in conversation with Karl Taro Greenfeld (quoted by Georg Bauer in his WTVCC chapter): “When Im writing a work of fiction the sentence is most important. What I want is to create the most beautiful prose that I can. And when Im writing a work of nonfiction I want to learn as much as I can about a particular reality.” So it would seem that his fiction is primarily driven by aesthetic considerations, and his nonfiction follows a quest for knowledge: one which often appears to be underpinned by some ethical purpose.

An interesting counterpoint to the earnest Young Man of An Afghanistan Picture Show might be the Zombie in The Rainbow Stories’ section “The Blue Yonder”: my reading of this figure is that Vollmann uses it to perform a kind of expiation of feelings of guilt at his literary exploitation of poor and unfortunate people. If you’ll forgive the recycling, this is from my dissertation:

An early character, The Zombie, in ‘The Blue Yonder: A Tale of Cleanliness’ in The Rainbow Stories accurately embodies Vollmann’s ambivalence and guilt about being a recording presence among the dispossessed, who takes from them more than he can possibly give back. The Zombie, scathingly dubbed a “A Nice Fellow,” is an authorial outgrowth, a homicidal component of the authorial consciousness (which is split into The Zombie and The Other); a Mr. “Hyde who feeds his desire by murdering homeless people by pouring Drano down their throats, and who is described with Lovecraftian abjection. Befriending the homeless, who lie blinking in the sunlight of the Golden Gate Park, or the frail and elderly who totter about their old people’s home, The Zombie bumps them off one by one, before killing himself.

“There’s undoubtedly a sadistic undercurrent in my work, just as there is in almost anyone who chooses violent subjects,” says Vollmann speaking to Larry McCaffery in “Moth to the Flame”: “What I wanted to do though, was get inside the Zombie’s head as well as the victim’s head. The Zombie obviously enjoys killing people in horrible ways and so if I’m doing my job, that enjoyment has to appear in the writing. In that sense, the enjoyment of violence is definitely in the work. Whether or not that enjoyment is actually within me is something I don’t know how to answer” (98-9). [1] McCaffery, Larry. “Moth to the Flame” (1991). In Hemmingson, William T. Vollmann. 98

I personally feel it’s this tension – between self-destructive and socially-engaged tendencies, this wavering, this conflict between doing the wrong and right things, that has produced some of his most riveting work: Larry McCaffery covers this duality well in his introduction to Expelled from Eden – “Adam Raised a Cain.”

As for Dolores, I am not sure I see self-destruction there, but perhaps a Deleuzian becoming-woman: another way of putting himself in the place of the other. A way to decenter himself and his experience of life as a man and understand male privilege. As he tells Tom Bissell: “Until I started doing the cross-dressing, I had no idea of what it was like to go out into the night and be afraid. That is what a huge portion of the human race has to go through, and I really get it now.” I wish I had been able to go to the reading with Genesis P-Orridge in San Francisco in February 2015, another artist who has in recent years experimented with performances of femininity. Both Dolores and Kissing the Mask focus on issues of technicality in different realms (theater, photography), perhaps as analogy for the performance of femininity, and then gender at large. Feminist and queer theory have been discussing gender as performance for a while now – in particular we may think of the work of Judith Butler. It’s fascinating to see Vollmann arrive at similar conclusions via different, and practical rather than theoretical routes.

CKC: Daniel, I think your reading of WTV’s transvestitism in relation to Deleuze’s concept of becoming-other is really accurate. As far as the differences between fiction and nonfiction, I think as well of his comments in the BookSlut interview about how he finds fiction harder to write than nonfiction. The point is repeated in the Mother Jones interview, too. Perhaps most importantly, I think the distinction is pretty moot in the case of a lot of his texts. The Seven Dreams, especially, do not really observe the generic boundaries.

That said, as for your question about what to make of the seeming return to fiction: my guess is that we see a few different things going on here. It may be that the National Book Award garnered by Europe Central gave WTV some leverage he did not have before, leverage that he could use to undertake (i.e., fund) some of his planned nonfiction projects. I am thinking especially of Imperial and the Japan books (Kissing the Mask & Into the Forbidden Zone). He got some magazine articles out that work before those books were complete, but the effort obviously also required a ton of additional time and energy–and money–that was not immediately going to translate into a paycheck. So, what we now have is in this sense less a return to fiction than a return to a normal balance between fiction and nonfiction, a return that is now possible because that some of his nonfiction projects have been seen through to completion. I wonder if a second element to consider is the phenomenon of a post-award delay. I have in mind those authors who win a major award (this seems to happen with some Nobelists) and then experience a kind of writer’s block, leading to no other books or books of an inferior quality only after a long delay. Of course Vollmann’s too steadily productive to be entirely stymied by something like an award, but perhaps the nonfiction was for him, in part, a way to catch his breath in the wake of the National Book Award.

Last Stories and Other Stories and the forthcoming Dying Grass are therefore, in my eyes, a catching up on fictional output now that some of the nonfiction is wrapped up. Too, this appearance of “catching up” is probably also the work of publishers trying to keep up, regardless of where WTV is with his various projects. I am hopeful that the release of this year’s novel will return WTV readers to the sort of balance between fictional and nonfictional volumes that we were led to expect in the early 2000’s. For instance, the rumored nonfiction book on energy (the coal mine and oil industry research, the Fukushima projects) will, I am guessing, overlap with The Cloud-Shirt in some way, sort of in the manner of Riding toward Everywhere and The Royal Family. Actually, I think we are already seeing that dialogue between fiction and nonfiction again. I have in mind the Japanese stories in Last Stories and Other Stories–they tread some of the same ground as Kissing the Mask.

Biblioklept: Pretty much everything I know about the Dolores project is via interviews—the long Bissell profile and the VICE interview with Heather Corcoran in particular—and reviews (the New Yorker piece by Stephen Burt seems especially perceptive)—so I’m reticent to comment on WTV’s performance of femininity at length. Burt’s critique of the Dolores performance is instructive, perhaps. He says that “Vollmann’s cross-dressing…is not an expression of deep identity”—a claim that (likely unintentionally) reinforces Butler’s (and other postmodernists’) viewpoints that there is no “deep identity”—only performance.

What I think Vollmann might be most interested in, ultimately (or maybe if I’m really sincere I’d write, What I’m most interested in, ultimately) is the aesthetics of the project—the arrangement, the photography, the presentation, etc. I like that the Greenfeld interview Daniel mentions perhaps confirm that Vollmann wrangles ethics through aesthetics and not ideology.

WTV photographed by Ken Miller
WTV photographed by Ken Miller

CKC: The Burt review of The Book of Dolores is interesting. I was a bit bothered by his implication that WTV has not considered the works of figures like Kate Bornstein. WTV has indeed read Bornstein, as is evident from the bibliographies in Kissing the Mask. WTV’s writing on gender and transformation is worthy of more attention. One could start with the story “The Green Dress” (and the early-1990s photo by Ken Miller of WTV in such a dress) and the section “San Francisco Transvestites 1987” in The Ice-Shirt and run through the books to the cross-dressing material in Kissing the Mask, collecting along the way some really useful context for the Book of Dolores.

I would argue that, as your comments indicate, what is really going on in the Dolores book is the establishment of a parallel between cross-dressing and gender play and the technologies of aesthetic activities such as writing and photography. I spoke about this in January 2014 at an MLA convention, and Jeff Bursey’s February 2014 review of the book makes a similar point. While I do not mean to diminish the Dolores book as an exploration of gender, I find much more interesting the ways WTV finds parallels between the staging of gender and the media technologies and artistic practices used for that staging.

DL: This might seem like a frivolous question, but I’ll go ahead and ask it anyway: we’ve here and there discussed WTV in terms of other writers, but what do you think of artists in other genres comparable to him? I originally planned a dissertation chapter on the Tool singer Maynard James Keenan, who I was thinking of comparing to Vollmann on various levels: long-term visions, patience, melancholia, empathy and heartache. I recently watched Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which might be argued comparable to Vollmann on some level for its interweaving of depressive realism, symbolism, citational quality, and sexual frankness. Gaspar Noe is another filmmaker who comes to mind, who mixes gritty realism with extreme violence and drug visions, and also within heavily symbolic frameworks. Any thoughts in this direction?

Biblioklept: You know, I often think of authors in terms of other media—I’ve been reading a lot of Pynchon lately, and his work seems to implicitly (and often explicitly) attempt to break the constraint of the page and move into other media (most notably cinema and song). I would argue that Vollmann has created his own genre, is his own genre (like William Blake before him). While I can imagine some films coming close to what he’s doing, Vollmann, unlike his hero Steinbeck who was often scripting stage plays in novel form, takes his reader places that only fiction can go. At the same time though, I think that Noe is a good example of someone who attempts to break the constraints of his medium through a range of techniques, like Vollmann—and like Vollmann these techniques are not always entirely successful, even if they do fascinate.

CKC: This is a good but very tricky question, and one I have not thought about enough to answer as well as I would like. I suppose my hesitation has at least two components aside from my lack of prior consideration. Firstly, although I see all of WTV’s work in various media as occupying overlapping spaces, there is perhaps some need in responding to this question to treat his writing as provisionally separate from his work in the static visual arts such as photography, drawing, book objects, and painting. I think that some good criticism is emerging on his work in these media–not least in the essays by Juvelis and Palleau-Papin in our collection. Secondly, WTV’s work is not marked by any one characteristic, but a convergence of several significant ambitions, and not many artists of other stripes are interested in exactly the same mix. We have mentioned already many of these points: formal innovation, historical consciousness (both social and artistic), global scope, moral engagement, and a daring with regard to subject matter that tends toward an interest in the abject. So, I suppose I am qualifying my response to the question by saying that I am speaking just of his fiction, and that I think we would be foolish to expect a perfect parallel in any artist working in another medium.

That having been said: I agree with Daniel that Von Trier is a really good comparison. His films do have many qualities reminiscent of WTV’s works. I am thinking off the top of my head of Dogville, Epidemic, and Europa, which display a good historical consciousness; The Idiots, The Boss of It All, and The Five Obstructions, which are formally and / or technically provocative; Medea, which demonstrates a sensitivity to national artistic heritage; and Breaking the Waves, which has a heavy dose of gritty abjection. I am a huge fan of a lot of Von Trier’s films, especially Antichrist, and I also was really pleased with Nymphomaniac. I always think of Michael Haneke as a peer of Von Trier, and I could see arguments for films like The Piano Teacher or The White Ribbon as treading some of the same ground as Vollmann does, but I do not think some of his other movies, material like Funny Games or Benny’s Video, are very much in the realm of WTV. In terms of other filmmakers: Glawogger should of course be mentioned, and I think one could make a case for some of Bela Tarr’s films, especially insofar as Eastern European literature has been such an influence on Vollmann. Actually, Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders might be interesting to re-watch with some of the Trieste and Bohemia stories from Last Stories and Other Stories in mind. Some Asian directors explore the sort of obsessive and visionary realms of desire familiar from the prostitute trilogy, the short stories, and The Atlas. I am thinking of things like Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Ki-Duk Kim’s The Isle. I wonder if anyone has ever made a film out of Kawabata’s Snow Country.

Outside of film, things are trickier, in part because we move away from the realm of narrative. As far as music goes, I think a lot of rock bands could qualify. I think the Rothacker piece from our book is pretty accurate, in that a lot of punk rock–especially the more politically intelligent stuff–is a good point for comparison. Fathers and Crows always reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s book Beautiful Losers, and I can see some of Cohen’s songs–both those of masochistic yearning and the more political ones, like his version of “The Partisan,” as related to some of what goes on in WTV. Patti Smith is pretty similar too, which I think of both because Edwin mentions Blake, in whom she is also interested, and because she has a WTV-like social consciousness, and a WTV-like debt to foreign sources and visual artists (Godard, Mapplethorpe, Bulgakov, &c.). Beyond that, I would say that we need some good criticism on musical connections I am under-qualified to write about, like WTV and Shostakovich. I found the material on Puccini and WTV in Daniel’s essay enlightening. I know the opera, but I am close to a total novice musically, and thus do not think as well as I would like about connections like that.

I guess I would end this response by saying that we should also recall WTV’s remark that he thinks of his literary contemporaries as stretching back at least to Hawthorne. When I ponder the static visual arts in relation to Vollmann’s fiction (again, I am bracketing his own work in these media), I would argue we very much need to adopt a similarly expansive sense of what the contemporary means. I can imagine some good arguments for Symbolist and post-impressionist influences on WTV: Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, and Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau. Some more recent artists are also on something of the same page. Francis Bacon, for instance, or Martin Puryear’s latest sculptures (like “C.F.A.O,” which I think shares with WTV a debt to Agee and Evans), or maybe something like the work of Diego Rivera. We should mention Kathe Kollwitz, too. It is somewhat unfortunate that there are not more interdisciplinary academic journals interested in publishing material about connections like these, as they certainly are thought-provoking and under-treated.

DL: Another artist that comes to mind who one might productively compare with Vollmann is graphic novelist Chris Ware. His work is historically and socially grounded, with plenty of thick description and rich, carefully rendered detail, and also it is technically innovative, experimental, and challenging: encyclopedic and maximalist in form and content. Ware plays around with genre, voice, and discourse, introducing into his narratives such elements as fake and satirical advertisements, witty digressions, and defamiliarizing jumps between different genres and styles. His work seeks to create a world or universe through a strong and distinctive style, and as Edwin insightfully mentioned regarding William Blake, its own genre, even. Ware’s stories are based in a fundamentally tragic and sorrowful view of life, with themes of isolation, loneliness, and inability to communicate. The paradoxical disjunction between this often narrow emotional tone and the playfulness of his formal expression is the central node that holds together Ware’s narrative universe with such strength. I would say that Ware’s work is more introverted, or more interested in introversion, and dwells more on hopelessness, with less of Vollmann’s typical outward reach toward people and openness to the variety and spectrum of life. The age difference of a decade or so between them could also be a factor there.

Biblioklept: Ware is in the same strata of greatest living American writers as WTV. Shift: William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion is pretty expensive…

CKC: Yes. It was suggested that it be priced at $75, and we spent months arguing that this figure was way too high. Then we learned that it got listed at $90. The potential paperback is supposed to be around $45, but I would like to see it get down to $30. Price tags on books are a strange business at every level, at least to people who read for the reasons I do. When I was in grad school, I worked at a bookstore when I was not teaching. The guys who were ostensibly our store detectives always spent their time guarding the expensive volumes–the art monographs and computer books. I kept trying to explain that people who steal books need them to avoid going entirely insane, and that they therefore make off with things like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, and Charles Baudelaire, not GUI programming standards manuals and poor reproductions of medieval altar decorations.

DL: We do intend to go back to the press and try to get the paperback price as low as we can. They do seem pleased that the book is selling well, so I hope the book’s success so far factors positively into their decision about the price. Obviously I would like the paperback to be as cheap and widely accessible as possible. Our audience is the community of Vollmann readers, not just professional literary scholars.

Biblioklept: Predictions: Where does/can Vollmann go from here?

CKC: Vollmann will go, so far as I can tell, wherever the hell he wants. Here are some somewhat informed speculations:

1. We are getting The Dying Grass this summer, and, from what I have learned about its form, it is going to blow some minds.

2. He is researching coal mining in West Virginia, the Fukushima disaster (still), and the Mexican oil industry for a book on fossil fuels. I hope this one is amazing–it is one of the big topics he has not yet addressed. It is also, I think, a development of his concern with pernicious technologies treated in a different manner in the Dreams, as well as in parts of Poor People.

3. I suspect the mining research is also related to his intentions with regard to The Cloud-Shirt, which has obviously been in-progress for more than two decades. It will be interesting to see if the uranium-mine material that may be in The Cloud-Shirt has a fairly direct connection to WTV at Seabrook. If such autobiographical materials become part of the narrative, some really convincing support for the unity of the whole oeuvre may come to light.

4. The Poison-Shirt is at some in-progress stage.

5. I expect more developments on the Dolores front. I do not think we shall actually see publication of How You Are, but something along such lines seems likely to me.

DL: Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that Vollmann has become more of a realist over time, more engaged with the real and thus committed to literary realism. I would like to see him, at some point, move back and further into the symbolic, the speculative, the fantastic. I would love to read a science fiction novel by Vollmann. He wrote one when he was in sixth grade: I’d like to read that. 

In a 2005 interview with Andrew Ervin, discussing Europe Central, Vollmann says: “There was some material at the end of the book which I have removed and will be in a different book. There is an occasional reference in Europe Central to an imaginary Eastern European country called Turvakia. There is a memoir that was in the end of Europe Central which is written by the crown prince of Turvakia. He becomes a Nazi puppet and then he destroys a Nazi base on the moon with a death ray. It just gets weirder and weirder. He eventually comes to the United States and he manages to come into the White House and he finds out that the president is this huge black vulture or possibly eagle. It’s screaming and picking at people—it’s very surreal. I’ll save that for it’s appropriate time. Right now it’s about fifty or sixty pages. It’ll probably be a little bit longer when it’s done.”

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DL: Not that I can recall. I am guilty of spending a lot of time browsing used bookstores, and use cheap finds to direct my reading habits. For example I once found a perfectly good copy of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station for forty-eight cents in the bargain section of The Strand, which set off my Miéville reading streak. Those little “take a book, leave a book” libraries that pop up in random places can also be a great source. I recently found pristine copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.

CKC: I can only think of one, although perhaps some old friends (or enemies) can remind me of others: I kiped a book about Anton La Vey when I was a child. I suppose no additional comment about that is needed.

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)”

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