An Unnecessary Defense of William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
by Jordan A. Rothacker
Despite all the sensational attention William T. Vollmann gets for writing about prostitutes or smoking crack (which often neglects his reasons for doing so and his other work with and on the poor, homeless, and other marginalized groups), or the warranted attention involving his run-ins with the FBI, what is often neglected, sadly, is Vollmann’s prose and the aesthetic value of his literature.
His most recent book, the 704 paged, Last Stories and Other Stories, is his first fictional works since 2005’s National Book Award winning, Europe Central. Often called a novel (in the vein of Danilo Kis’s, A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, which the book is dedicated to), Europe Central is thirty-seven stories that come together with a wide and masterful vision of World War II focusing on the two opposing totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This new book, Last Stories and Other Stories, is certainly more of a short story collection. If there is any theme that groups or connects them it is the most ancient and important of human themes, death, and more specifically, death in regards to love, the thing that makes death’s opposite worth anything at all.
I’ll admit; I’m a fan. I gobble up everything Vollmann writes and have since I first discovered him in 1999 with a bargain bin copy of The Atlas, still one of my all time favorite books. What I realized that first night reading The Atlas was that I was in the presence of literary, artistic, genius. Here was a Steinbeck, a Dostoevsky, a Melville, a Plutarch for my own time and I could read interviews with him and go to readings to experience him in person. This was a true and shockingly brilliant voice able to tackle many subjects and literary modes. Astute, eloquent, and always going for both the heart and jugular. I’ve done a lot of proselytizing the good news in regards to Vollmann’s writing for fifteen years and have had to try many different tactics to get people interested. Friends have read him, some after enough eye-rolling at my enthusiasm, and some have even come to love his work. The easiest defense I can ever give for my love of Vollmann’s work is that he is just really, really good. When Vollmann won the National Book Award in 2005 it was hard not to have a “told you so” attitude, and one day when he gets the Nobel maybe I’ll rest my advocacy a little bit.
After some poor reviews of this newest work of fiction (one reviewer I won’t name called his prose “boring,” but maybe that reviewer is a jaded fifteen year old), the good reviews have come rolling in and I’ve found myself wondering what more I can add. On the level of “what more could you want from literature,” Last Stories and Other Stories should seem like an easy sell. It’s a long book; but that’s okay, it’s short stories and people read long books like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones all the time. In some stories it involves ghosts, vampires, and/or supernatural erotica; alright, that actually sounds like it would make it more commercially viable today. The stories take place in locations as far-flung as Stavanger and Lillehammer, Norway; Vera Cruz, Mexico; Sarajevo, Mostar, and Trieste of the Balkan region; Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and ancient Palestine. The time periods for the stories are pretty wide in their range too with each writing style following suit to distinct location, theme, time, and folk tradition evoked.
Writers working like this are rare today, especially in this country. As the prose shifts through each story and setting, what remains consistent is Vollmann getting back in touch with his roots and some of his earliest influences, namely the Comte de Lautreamont (born Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1870). Lautreamont was influenced by Baudelaire, was an unbeknownst-to-either contemporary of Rimbaud, and himself influenced the Dadaists and the Surrealists. From Lautreamont to Vollmann goes the love of the long, gorgeously bursting, sentence of corkscrews and bubbles of color and cutting descriptions; along with an over-indulgence in darkness, often to conquer that darkness through mocking and excess. In stories about death, ghosts, vampires, and hallucinatory shape-shifting scenarios, Vollmann gets to flex those literary muscles and pump all his mid-life wisdom and knowledge through his youthful exuberance for in-your-face pyrotechnic prose. In stories set in 19th century Norway, the sentences might not be as long or bristly as those in the graveyards of contemporary Tokyo, but they are no less haunting or striking. His short sentences can be just as dark and brutal, as they evoke the Norse sagas and Eddas. It could be said that this collection brings together the best of young and old Vollmann.
The book is dedicated to Vollmann’s father who passed away in 2009, a life event that led Vollmann to write an essay in Harper’s Magazine about end of life rights (“A Good Death,” Nov. 2010). Being about life and death, there is an aspect to the book that is not only supernatural but also religious. The stories in Last Stories are meditations and reflections on death, what it takes away, and where that leaves us, the mourners, those left behind, pumped through the filters of a wild imagination with the world and its history at its fingertips. That is often how the greatest mythologies, legends, and sacred texts were composed.
This is not new territory for Vollmann, he recreates myths of European conqueror and Native American Nations in his Seven Dreams series of novels. His 1991 story collection, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, featured, “Grave of Lost Stories,” both about and in the gothic style of Edgar Allan Poe. 1996’s The Atlas retold the Battle of Masada in a biblical style in “The Hill of Gold,” took readers to the Heavenly Spheres in “Fortune Tellers,” and creeped-out every reader in “Incantations of the Murderer,” with its contemporary urban gothic flavor. What is new here for the Vollmann fan or idle reader is one big thick book, a world in a text, getting to delve deeply and unflinchingly into this dark, dark territory. I dream of a next generation of goth kids growing up on this book, because, back to my original point, it is gorgeous.
The first story in the collection, “Escape,” is a retelling of the “Romeo and Juliet” story of Sarajevo in 90s wartime. Nothing supernatural happens—except romantic love, which has its own atheists and agnostics—and the story is more akin to poetic war-correspondence than fiction; and yet at the close of those ten pages I was at tears. The shortest story, “The Answer,” is only six sentences (seventy words) and can still haunt its reader. The longest story, a ninety-page novella, “When We Were Seventeen,” is dense in heart-wrenching descriptions of nature and human interaction. Some of the stories make one feel what it would be like to actually live in a Grimm or Andersen fairy tale. It could be said that the writing is “difficult” or “challenging” but I would prefer not to talk down to a reader. The stories can provide escape, but like all great literature, they should also teach you something, even if it’s just to be a better reader. You might not know the painter Leonor Fini, but her surrealist work illustrates the covers of the book and she is a historical fiction character in the story, “Cat Goddess,” one of my favorites. Those who have run into me while out in the world reading this book have often been encouraged to read another favorite of mine, the story, “Defiance,” a mere three pages. “Defiance” starts off retelling the story of Abraham and Isaac—a life, death, and love story important in the three biggest “western” religions—until Vollmann gives it a turn that might make even D.H. Lawrence blush. My friend, Joey Carter, a brilliant PhD candidate in philosophy—after being forced/encouraged by me to read the story in a coffeeshop one evening—described its message as “sacrifice as training for love.” I quickly related this critique to Vollmann and it sparked an hour-long phone conversation about Abraham and Kierkegaard and the true meaning of faith and belief and love.
Poe, Lautreamont, Norse sagas, Japanese Hentai, surrealism, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, and the dark chaos of war are all influences and points of departure for Vollmann to direct and fire his own true voice like a weapon at death. With enough words in enough cultural voices maybe Vollmann will win; or die trying. It’s possible that this book just needs more word of mouth exposure, so I guess that’s what I’m doing here. Maybe this will be the book to make Vollmann a household name; people do like to be creeped-out and titillated from beyond the grave. You should read this book, it’s beautiful, and like the creeping vines of the story “Widow’s Weeds,” it will touch you everywhere.