Is William T. Vollmann really the name of an author? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I’m convinced that more than one person is behind these books. The Vollmann oeuvre is like the Kennedy assassination—you can't pin it on a single suspect. There’s too much going on here for such a simplistic explanation. Somebody sniff around that grassy knolll behind the Vollmann residence. I’m certain you’ll find a bevvy of conspirators toiling away on ghostwritten manuscripts.
Do you know what the name Vollmann means? It translate roughly as "man of many people." That a clue, my friends. By the way, I note that Vollmann claims to have studied at Cornell—the same place that Thomas Pynchon attended. Then he went to Berkeley, the same year as the first Unabomber explosion in that city (the FBI took note of that 'coincidence'). Then Vollmann went to Afghanistan, at the same time that Osama Bin Laden showed up there. Finally he moved to Sacramento, and was spotted there when the Terminator took over the governor’s mansion.
Let those who have eyes, see.
But you don’t need to hire a private investigator to figure out that an individual named William T. Vollmann didn’t write all those books. You just need to take a look at them. No single person could serve up so much verbiage. Take a look at his 'essay' Rising Up and Rising Down, which fills seven volumes and more than three thousand pages. It came out at the same time that "Vollmann" was publishing his Seven Dream series, which is even longer! And in his spare time, he was serving up 800 page books the way the pimply boy at Baskin Robbins scoops out ice cream cones on a hot summer day.
If you still hold on to the 'lone gunman' hypothesis, take a look at the books themselves. Then ask yourself: which author is the real William T. Vollmann? Is it the war correspondent who dispassionately reports on global conflicts? Is it the louche and bohemian author who hangs out in the San Francisco Tenderloin? Is it the cultivated admirer of Japanese Noh theater, or the student of Norse culture, or the observer of US border politics, or the author of travel literature?
And what about Vollmann’s recent reinvention as a horror writer? Yes, you heard what I said: a horror writer. And in typical Vollmann fashion, he tosses off a 700-page collection of stories almost as an appetizer to his high-profile novel, The Dying Grass—almost 1,400 pages!—that was released a few months later. In the forest-killing world of Mr. Vollmann, a 700-page book is what they call, in New Orleans, a lagniappe, a little something extra for the fans.
But the same multiple personality disorder that permeates Vollmann’s other books reappears in this collection of terrifying tales. Here we find a Czech ghost story, a Japanese ghost story, a Mexican ghost story, an Italian ghost story, and a host of other narratives, each infused with local color, regional history and colloquial phraseology. Could we perhaps have purchased a UNESCO anthology of ghost stories? These couldn't all be written by the same author, could they?
The ghosts are as changeable as the settings in this volume. In the context of a Vollmann story, ghosts rarely get around to haunting. They have so many other things to do. They offer advice. They give gifts. They ruminate nostalgically on former times. They even can serve as a trusted friend or love interest. ("I strode forward to embrace her, hooking my thumbs most conveniently on her cold ribs while her talons settled on upon my collarbones…") In Vollmann’s ghosts stories, the spirits might collect photographs, and lament the replacement of silver nitrate film with digital images. Or they might ask you to bring them moonflowers, and wait patiently by their graveside for you to show up with a bouquet. Or they might ramble on about the afterlife. ("I have good days and bad days. Being dead isn’t all that great, but it isn’t terrible….")
But there are some Vollmann trademarks that persist even as everything else in the tale is different. The most characteristic ingredient in this author’s prose is the extravagant simile. You can find one on almost every page, and Vollmann seems to amuse himself by reaching for the most convoluted and forced comparisons he can muster. A character's "heart was as tobacco-stained as a Mexicana's hand." Or: "to enter one of those archways is almost to shelter in a mummy’s armpit." He describes a woman as "tender as sautéed snowpea shoots in a careful Chinese restaurant."
Or how about this textbook example of a mixed metaphor married to a bizarre simile? "Yukiko's dark little mouth was a plum in the newfallen snow of her face, and her eyelashes were as rich as caterpillars." The reader senses that Vollmann is very proud of these convoluted pronouncements—this particular one opens one of the most carefully researched stories in the book. But such passages can be worse than self- indulgent; often they are simply clumsy.
In some instances, a simile hasn't even reached the finish line before another one arises to interrupt it: "The lobby resembled the wide- waisted skirts of a fifteenth-century German cruet, brass or bronze, polished almost to gold, like a creek bottom when the sun strikes right."
These defeat the purposes of literary comparisons. When Wordsworth tells us that he "wandered lonely as a cloud," the simile adds depth to our appreciation of his loneliness. But the effect is the exact opposite in this passage from Vollmann’s story “Goodbye”—here the layering on of bizarre comparisons draws the reader out of the story, and instead of enhancing its realism reinforces its artificiality:
If you have ever drunk in the humid sunshine of Kamakura in early spring, which is flavored, as is a fresh bun by its raisins, by pigtailed girls in white blouses and vermilion kimonos, you will understand me when I say that moments and instants can remain as distinct as the studs on a verdigrised bronze bell even in that languid ocean haze, when life and death resemble the square white sleeves of two shrine dancers slowly intersecting.
Did you follow the logic there? No, of course not. Vollmann is trying to describe "humid sunshine" but merely calls attention to his refusal to do so. If this were an occasional lapse by the "Vollmann committee," we would forgive it. But these failed similes are the trademark of the Vollmann style. You can’t escape them. As soon as you have left one behind, another rises up, looming in the headlights.
These quirks are all the more irritating, because Vollmann’s stories have moments of greatness. The Vollmann collective has at least one author of exquisite skill on its staff. "The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," a novella included in this volume presents a compelling mixture of horror, historical fiction and magical realism. A Serbian immigrant living in Trieste during the early 18th century enjoys an amazing run of luck, but it’s due to something he keeps hidden in a jar. This is the most perfectly realized story in the book, and it’s hardly a coincidence that it also the most successful at conveying a sense of horror.
The reader often senses that Vollmann would rather write historical non- fiction rather than narrative fiction. In Last Stories and Other Stories he follows his typical modus operandi of attaching “scholarly” footnotes to the tales—and the citations waver between actual scholarship and postmodern parody of academic documentation. Most of the stories in this collection are embroidered with research, which sometimes distracts the reader, but when Vollmann puts aside the supernatural trappings and tries his hand at "straight" historical fiction, he shows great skill at it. His lengthy story "June Eighteenth" is another one of the gems in this collection, although it adopts a different tone than the ghost stories that dominate Last Stories and Other Stories. It recounts the final days of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, and presents vivid character sketches of the main protagonists in that historical drama, as well as offer meditations on colonialism, culture clash and the vagaries of fate. One senses that Vollmann has approached this subject with more passion and enthusiasm than he has brought to bear on most of the other tales in this volume.
With some judicious editing, this book might have been a masterpiece. There’s a brilliant 500-page volume hidden in this larger book. Alas, at almost 700 pages, Last Stories and Other Stories feels bloated and meandering. I suggest that the Vollmann team consider downsizing. The co-op has a couple top-notch authors in its collective, but the other half- dozen writers contributing to this massive out-put ought to find another place to sell their extended similes. Best of all, I envision a single William Vollmann, more restrained and less verbose, focused on quality and not on quantity. If he ever shows up, that fellow could be a very important novelist.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.
Publication Date: April 2, 2016
The Horror Stories of William T. Vollmann
A Look at Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia