William T. Vollmann, Profiled at Newsweek, Suggests “We’re a culture of prostitutes”

Newsweek has published a profile/interview of William T. Vollmann by Alexander Nazaryan. It’s a vivid, engaging read. The first two paragraphs of the profile:

If William T. Vollmann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature – as many speculate he will – he knows exactly what he will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. “It will be fun to give some to prostitutes,” he says, sitting on his futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

He is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollmann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse – especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. His so-called prostitution trilogy – Whores for GloriaButterfly Stories, and The Royal Family – is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machismo of Raymond Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donald Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollmann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. He approached the prostitute like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Whores for Gloria, “The unpleasantnesses of her profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the prostitute must conduct it.”

Read the rest of it.

Butterfly Stories — William T. Vollmann

In his 1994 novel Butterfly Stories, William T. Vollmann explores the intense cost of unrelenting idealism. Butterfly Stories is a tragic-comic bildungsroman centered around the life of a protagonist who is almost certainly a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Vollmann. He’s never named in the text; few of the characters are. Instead, he goes by various appellations: the butterfly boy, the boy who wanted to be a journalist, the journalist, the husband. These names square with the protagonist’s painful idealism. He’s a professional alien, a traveler who reports on all the beautiful ugly poor places we Quiet (Ugly) Americans forget about (or never know of in the first place). The main set piece in Butterfly Stories takes place in Thailand and Cambodia:

Once upon a time a journalist and a photographer set out to whore their way across Asia. They got a New York magazine to pay for it. They each armed themselves with a tube of coll soft K-Y jelly and a box of Trojans. The photographer, who knew such essential Thai phrases as: very beautiful!, how much?, thank you and I’m gonna knock you around! (topsa-lopsa-lei), preferred the extra-strength lubricated, while the journalist selected the non-lubricated with special receptacle end. The journalist never tried the photographer’s condoms because he didn’t even use his own as much as (to be honest) he should have; but the photographer, who tried both, decided that the journalist had really made the right decision from a standpoint of friction and hence sensation; so that is the real moral of this story, and those who don’t want anything but morals need read no further.

I’ve quoted the passage at length because I think it delineates a good deal of Vollmann’s program very quickly: whoring-as-gonzo-journalism, a foreshadowing of the sexual grotesquerie to come, blackly ironic humor, and an uncomfortable gap between protagonist and narrator. It’s that gap between the narrator’s ironic detachment and the journalist’s earnest search for meaning–and love–in a world of violence and prostitution that made the book rewarding for me. However, I suspect many will not enjoy (perhaps even hate) this disconnect. The journalist falls in love with several prostitutes throughout the course of the novel, fixating on a Cambodian girl named Vanna in particular. His obsession with Vanna overcomes him, surpasses any rational course of action, and leads him to divorce his wife back in San Francisco in the hopes of marrying a girl he, over time, can no longer even visualize. In short, idealism tortures the protagonist; he’s in love with the idea of love. Late in the novel, he thinks (his thinking framed by the narrator, of course):

Better not to try anything than to be wicked! — That’s how most people acted, and they were probably right, dying their lumpish lives without collecting more than their share of the general blame; but he’d do whatever he was called to do . . .

And later, hallucinating in one of his STD-fueled fevers, he remembers the bully that tormented him back when he was the butterfly boy: “I’m not afraid of you anymore . . . Because I have someone whose life means more to me than mine.” The protagonist’s unrelentingly romanticized view of self-sacrifice is ultimately a defense mechanism against the world’s (equally unrelenting) Darwinian violence.

Vollmann’s milieu of disease-infested, war-torn, economically depressed lands dramatizes this conflict. The violence of the Khmer Rouge, the depravity of prostitution, and the specter of AIDS underpin the novel, and are never mere props for Vollmann, who places his protagonist in a paradoxically privileged vantage point from which to observe, investigate–or ignore–the atrocities of poverty.  The book succeeds because of the tension between the narrator’s judgmental, ironic perspective and the protagonist’s big-hearted but ultimately facile dream of a self-sacrificing love. The narrator sees–and lets us see–the ironic selfishness of the protagonist’s dream to save the world, one prostitute at a time.

Just under 300 pages and larded with the author’s spidery black-ink sketches, Butterfly Stories is one of Vollmann’s shorter and more digestible (if that word may be used) volumes. It is bleakly funny, often depressing, and filled with erudite asides on Nobel prizewinners, transvestites, and the benefits of whiskey. And benadryl. Can’t forget the benadryl. Vollmann has an astounding gift for crafting concrete sentences that burst into blistering abstraction, but he can also drift rather aimlessly at times. Does he have an editor? What other literary writer can put out a book of at least 500 pages every year? Butterfly Stories may be a good start for those interested in Vollmann but daunted by his prolific output. It will also repel many readers with its grotesque depictions of sex, which recall Henry Miller and the best of Charles Bukowksi. I liked it very much. Recommended.

In Brief: Beach’s Epistles, Vollmann’s Mummy Sex, and Eggers’s Wild Things

Sylvia Beach was the nexus point for Modernist and ex-pat literature for much of the first half of the twentieth century, running the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare & Company until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. She was the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, she translated Paul Valéry into English, and was close friends to a good many great writers, including William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Ernest Hemingway. In The Letters of Sylvia Beach, editor Keri Walsh compiles many of Beach’s letters from 1901 to just before her death in 1962. Framed by a concise biographical introduction and a useful glossary of correspondents, Letters reveals private insights into a fascinating literary period. There’s a sweetness to Beach’s letters, whether she’s inviting the Fitzgeralds to come to a dinner party or asking Richard Wright (“Dick”) how much he thinks a fair price for a record player is. The Letters of Sylvia Beach is out now from Columbia UP.

I’m a couple of chapters into William T. Vollmann’s 1993 novel Butterfly Stories, one of his (three? four? Dude’s prolific) books about prostitution. The bullied butterfly grows up to be a boy who wants to be a journalist and then a journalist/inept sex tourist in southeast Asia. Good stuff. Here’s a mordantly elegant passage:

Once he began to combine cutting his wrists and half-asphyxiating himself he believed that he’d found the ideal. Afterwards he’d dream of mummy sex with the gentle girl, by which he meant her body being suspended ropelessly above him, then slowly drifting down; when her knee touched his leg he jerked and then went limp there; her hands reached his hands, which died; her breasts rolled softly upon his heart which fibrillated and stopped; finally she lay on top of him, quite docile and still soft . . . He knew that the others didn’t like mummy sex, but that was because they didn’t understand it; they thought that it must be cold; they thought that she must paint her mouth with something to make it look black and smell horrible and soften like something rotten . . . He wanted to open her up until the pelvis snapped like breaking a wishbone. Would that be mummy sex?

Here’s a one-star review of the book from Amazon: “This book is a sordid collection of junk. I picked it out at random from a library shelf and did not enjoy/like/sympathize with even one thing about it. Don’t waste your time.” Guy didn’t like the mummy sex, I guess.

Been working through my reader’s copy of Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things, new in trade paperback from Vintage. I’m having a hard time envisioning a kind of review of the book that escapes the context of the book; that it’s a novelization of a movie script of a Maurice Sendak book of maybe a few dozen words. I loved that book growing up, so no reason that it should be adapted into a feature film, but hoped for the best due to Eggers’s involvement and the fact that the incomparable Spike Jonze was at the rudder. Or helm. Or whatever naval metaphor you wish. Anyway, I absolutely hated the movie–it was mostly melancholy and downright depressing at times. Whereas Sendak’s book channels the joys of transgressive energy while reiterating the need for stable familial order, Jonze’s movie was all sorrow and loss, the hangover of youth, each ecstasy overshadowed in darkness. Too much yin, not enough yang. Anyway. I’ll try to give the book its proper, fair due on its own terms without all that baggage. Full review forthcoming.