The ascension of william vollmann
William T. Vollmann has always risked everything, carrying on a major literary career heedless of death or dismemberment. On a magazine assignment in Bosnia in the ’90s, he was in a car that hit a land mine near Mostar. His fixer and driver died gruesomely, but Vollmann survived, lying injured on the floorboard. Around the same time, he turned an assignment to write about the Khmer Rouge (for this magazine) into a much more harrowing tale of whoring his way across Asia, looking depravity square in the mirror. He has written about freight-hopping and giant homeless encampments and (again for this magazine) a bracing confessional on what it’s like to be ugly.
That’s not even to mention the massive historical novels he hemorrhaged on the settlement of the New World; the seven-volume, 3,300-page essay on violence; or his most recent novel, the giant Europe Central, which won the National Book Award, perhaps based on sheer poundage alone.
And now we have this: Last Stories and Other Stories
(Viking, $36), his latest. In an author’s note, Vollmann says this collection of ghost stories will be his final work. If that’s true, it’s a fitting farewell, because although it may be unfair to reduce a 700-page book to a pith, these stories are the conjurings of a very crazy man. This is not meant as an insult. To call them works of madness is just to state the obvious. They were written by William Vollmann, whose crazy credentials we have just briefly admired.
Set all around the world, in many of the places Vollmann’s journalism and curiosity have taken him, the stories assume the exoticism of their locales and read as though translated from Vollmann’s native tongue. Witness the opening line of one astonishing story, “The Faithful Wife”: “If you have never loved with such a luminous fidelity as to await a dead lady at a crossroads at midnight, then the question of why it is that Romania produces fewer
vampires now than in old times must seem insoluble to you.” There and throughout, it is Vollmann’s obsession with death lore and rituals and the decayed embraces of dead lovers that makes these stories transporting, bizarrely
beautiful, occasionally hard work, and always difficult to recover from. They call to mind no living writers, summoning instead Calvino, Márquez, Kafka, and Jeffrey Dahmer. They are unlike anything I have ever read. They are unlike anything anyone else could write.
But then it has always seemed that Vollmann is a writer not of this time or place. So mysterious are his motivations, so sweeping are his interests, so prodigious is his production, so vastly different is the thing he does from the thing everyone else does that he may actually be a visitor from another dimension come to report comprehensively back to his home planet. In earth years, he is only 54. Which is why this couldn’t possibly be it for him. To work as he has is to be driven by mania. You don’t get to choose when it starts. You don’t get to decide when it ends.
By Mark Warren