Saturday, August 2, 2014

Haunted ("Last Stories and Other Stories" by William T. Vollmann)

In his forward to Last Stories and Other Stories, William Vollmann announces that this will be his last book:  "Any subsequent productions bearing my name," he writes, "will have been composed by a ghost." Taken literally, this is patently and laughably false. Vollmann is, after all, one of the most prolific writers working today, and the one or two books he publishes every year--novels, nonfiction, travelogues, short fiction, histories, photography, reportage--are always voluminous in breadth and depth. For example, his "thoughts" on violence were published in 2003 as a seven-volume treatise entitled Rising Up and Rising Down, which ran for more than 3,300 pages and contained more than 8,000 footnotes. (The 2005 "abridged" version, which Vollmann readily admits doing "for the money," is over 700 pages long.) His novel Europe Central, which won Vollmann the National Book Award, is more than 800 pages, and his book about Imperial County in California is around 1,200 pages. And all three of these works were published within six years of one another, along with three other books. And that is why the idea that Vollmann would have a "last" book--that he would, at age 55, retire from writing--is humorous.

Taken figuratively, we see that Vollmann is committing an act of recognition. Each story in his collection concerns itself with ghosts, though they are far from the demonic, Amityville-style ones with which we are familiar. Instead, Vollmann's ghosts are Dickensian in nature:  they exist in the human world with ease rather than as objects of fascination and fear; they speak to the living, hold them, touch them, have sex with them and even cry with them; they can rise from the grave, only to die again, this time more permanently; and we are haunted by them in the same way we are haunted by a painful memory or regret. The either-or background of ghosts stories--either you are one of the living or one of the deceased--is ignored here for its simplistic accommodation of our own discomfort with death, and many of Vollmann's ghosts take on a third state of being that is neither alive or dead. For instance, in "The Two Kings of Zinogava," one of the collection's better stories, we follow an innocent man as he is trapped in a Dumasian nightmare:  imprisoned on an island surrounded by sharks, and with a half-dozen men who rape him nightly, he slowly loses his innocence and compassion--personified here by a mute Indian who is also a fellow cellmate--until his soullessness enables him to achieve retribution against all those he despises, a campaign that is led by Satan himself. (These events also read like the extended delusions of someone whose sanity has become compromised and exists now solely in a fantasy world, which would also make him a ghost.) In another, the 70-page "Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," a rounded piece of glass gives the titular character unending fortune, including the ability to know if something--or someone--is about to harm him, but costs him the trust and love of his family, who grow more envious of his heirloom, as well as the independence of his intelligent and worthy daughter, who passes the rest of her life as yet another repressed old woman. In both, the isolation--of prison and abuse, of wealth and invincibility--leads the protagonists to become ghosts in their own lifetimes, until they disappear into themselves and become something less than human. They become, for lack of a better term, the walking dead--a paradox redefined.

In each instance, to be a part of this third state of being--this limbo between life and death, between being and not being--is to live in a purgatory spun from the hands of men rather than the will of gods. It is an existence spawned from misery, unfulfilled dreams, regrets, war, revenge, compromise, mourning, and a slew of other causes that are inherently human and, by their very nature, unnatural. The ghosts of two lovers exist as such because they were shot and killed on a bridge that offered them an escape from the ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo. The ghost of a man's high-school sweetheart wants him to keep visiting her grave because the night is lonely and he holds the key to who she once was; in return, she offers him the comfort he will soon need when the tumor creeping towards his brain finally kills him. An immigrant couple is willingly escorted to Hell because they're blinded by the empty promises of "hope," a gem that their guide unceremoniously turns into a dark and cold stone. The ghosts of Vollmann's stories, much like the ghosts of Victorian literature--those of Dickens' Christmas Carol or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights--exist with one foot in the human world they have yet to depart, their reasons connected to the frail and complicated nature of people. And by saying that he himself has become a ghost, Vollmann is far from being morbid or provocative; instead, he is confessing to a revelation about what it means to be human--that he is a damaged person, prone to missteps and transgressions, and as such he is like the characters of his stories, forever unworthy of salvation while also burdened by the skin in which he lives and the mind that defines him.

After all, it Vollmann's his mind--referred to in one profile as "dangerously uncorrupted"--that has defined him for decades. Known as much for this prodigious output as his eccentric (by our standards) lifestyle, Vollmann is one of the most difficult writers--and people--to characterize in words, an almost comical irony for someone who finds it so seemingly easy to characterize the people around him. He does not own a television, use the Internet, have credit cards or a checking account, utilize a cell phone, or drive. He travels to warzones as if they are amusement parks and was suspected of being the Unabomber by the FBI. (His FBI file is over 700 pages long, three-fourths of which he isn't allowed to see.) He has admitted to smoking crack and professes a love of the Second Amendment; in fact, one of his first dust-jacket photographs was of him holding a gun to his head, his face devoid of emotion. In an author-talk posted on YouTube, he invited all those assembled to join him afterwards at a nearby bar for drinks, and he enjoys painting the anatomy of naked women--artwork he relishes but rarely sells. His studio, an abandoned Mexican restaurant in Sacramento, is protected with razor wire, and he inexplicably owns a parking lot. In this way he seems to be a man from another era, much like the characters in his stories. (The only modern convenience throughout his newest book's 680-page entirety is a "mobile phone," which appears just as quickly as it disappears. Otherwise, the pages are populated by old ships and horse-drawn wagons.) He is one of the most unpolluted writers we have, and his mind is able to understand our place in the world as no one else can, and it's this truth that Vollmann's stories hope to convey:  that we are not perfect, that we live for objects and grand ideas rather than one another, and that death is not as final or as definite as we believe--or fear, or want--it to be.

That's not to say that these stories are an easy read. In fact, as is the case with almost all of his work, much of what is contained herein is so allusive that if often becomes impenetrable. Vollmann's fiction exists in a Borgesian library where books grow into one another like forrest roots and the most obscure works of philosophy and poetry--not to mention mythology, artwork, folk literature, history, and psychology--can be accessed and referenced with the same ease as a worn-down idiom or cliched metaphor. In reading Vollmann, you marvel not only at the scope of his interests but his ability to retain what he has studied and apply it to otherwise ill-fitting mediums. (His twenty pages of notes and footnotes at the end provide little assistance. In one, he ends a notation on the sex-based killing of fox spirits by stating, "As for me, I am a virgin"; in another, he completely rewrites the opening paragraph of his longest story so that we can understand it from a more modern perspective.) He is a curator of human history, one written not about grand events or important figures but of the faults and failings of our predecessors, laid as they are in graves beneath our feet, left to rot in the dirt while simultaneously standing among us as we toil away at the same problems they faced, only centuries later and no closer to a resolution.

*I am indebted to Tom Bissell's profile of William Vollmann for much of the biographical information presented here. As a side-note, Bissell is himself a phenomenal writer, and his essay collection Magic Hours--about those who create and subvert art--was my favorite book of 2012.