A recent Newsweek profile of WT Vollmann
November 8, 2013 12:52 PM   Subscribe

"A curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating."

This brief piece provides a survey of Vollmann's oeuvre, of his controversial beliefs and practices, and the assessment (in one professor's words) that "he is good, scary good, possibly the greatest living American writer, and I mean this with no hyperbole."
posted by mr. digits (22 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Somebody suggest a good book of his for starters. I'm not concerned with accessibility, just one that is crucial.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Rainbow Stories is a pretty good jumping on point, and the individual pieces therein are short enough that you can decide whether or not you have any interest in reading more of him.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:51 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

For fiction, I'd recommend starting with You Bright and Risen Angels or The Royal Family. For nonfiction, I really enjoyed Riding Toward Everywhere and Poor People.
posted by mattbucher at 1:54 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'd recommend The Rifles -- Of the Seven Dreams series, it's the book I found most deeply involving, and the first ten pages or so should be enough to let you know if you want to keep reading Vollmann.
posted by newmoistness at 2:10 PM on November 8, 2013

I saw him give a reading a long time ago, from You Bright and Risen Angels possibly. It was gripping and I have followed his writing ever since. Like the article says, though, a lot of his longer works could use some serious cutting. His writing is superb, but it's like he can't bear to throw out a single sentence, and sometimes the whole of it suffers for keeping all of the parts.

The Harper's article mentioned in this piece about his FBI surveillance is also definitely worth reading.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:49 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Vollmann will never win the Nobel. Maybe in his lifetime there will be another 30 Nobel's handed out. Of those maybe 20 to novelists. Of those maybe 2 to an American (at current anemic rates). Vollmann is not that high on American literature, though who knows, they gave it to John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck.
posted by stbalbach at 2:49 PM on November 8, 2013

What they recommended. Plus, Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories for his prostitution prose. He's a tremendously prolific, tremendously difficult and tremendously complicated writer who deserves a Nobel, but will probably never get it. Also, I saw him read once and for some reason (shaggy hair and oversize glasses, I imagine) was mistaken for him by one of the bookstore staff. When he signed my book after, he also drew a sort of picture of me above his signature.
posted by old_growler at 3:11 PM on November 8, 2013

Interesting to note that the same author published a piece in Salon, Why American novelists don't deserve the Nobel Prize, only two years ago. It's true that Vollmann can hardly be described as insular, however, which after a brief perusal appears to be the cornerstone of his assertion.
posted by mr. digits at 3:36 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Riding Toward Everywhere reads like Jack Kerouac and John McPhee had a lovechild on an outbound train.
I am currently reading The Ice-Shirt, it's excellent, but not necessarily for the uninitiated.
thanks for the post.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:52 PM on November 8, 2013

Seven Dreams "grandly revises American and North American history and economics. The revision, which takes the breadth of the continent for its inspiration, reminds us of the smallness, and the pettiness, of the national venture that began in 1776. It's a salutary reminder."

sounds intriguing! (i haven't been able to get thru the baroque cycle yet tho ;)
posted by kliuless at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2013

I recommend the single-volume edition of Rising Up and Rising Down. Remarkable. Vollmann is a national treasure and absolutely deserves to be placed at the top of living American writers. I mean, Franzen? Eggers? Oof.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:41 PM on November 8, 2013

Argall is ridiculously good and horrifyingly sad once you get past its weird period style, which sadly sunk it for most people.
posted by monocyte at 4:53 PM on November 8, 2013

Me three Argall. The "weird period style" only affects the sections about the weird period; it's awesome.

Dull fisclosure: favorite author, late childhood acquaintance. His dad was a colleague of my dad. Read everything, have most of it still.
posted by mwhybark at 5:38 PM on November 8, 2013

Agreed that Poor People is a great starting point for his non-fiction and Rainbow Stories for his fiction. Might also add The Atlas as a great example of both (I don't know if it's all true or not). I love Vollmann and completely disagree with the assertion that his writing needs any editing whatsoever. Then again, I read the unabridged 7-book Rising Up and Rising Down, so I'm not just a casual Vollmann fan.
posted by SafetyPirate at 6:41 PM on November 8, 2013

I find his work tedious. As much as I feel I should like his writing, I find his constant protestations (in his work) of his purity of heart completely maddening. There is a big difference between actually being pure and showing it, and declaring it over and over again. I feel, when reading his work, that I am reading a term paper or some really weird attempt to show off. His writing puts me on edge, and especially with the weirdly moralistic, humorless persona of his that is so central to many of his works, I find it impossible to enjoy.
posted by jayder at 6:48 PM on November 8, 2013

well, as they say, flag it and move on, which I suppose translates to just don't read him. Given that you characterize the work with regard to "the weirdly moralistic, humorless persona that is so central to many of his works," it seems to me you have already taken this advice to heart, and I laud you for it.

re The Atlas, it's written as a fugue, the axial point of the work being the essay in which he recounts his sibling's death. He rarely refers to this event in writing, although it is noted in his recent un-Unabomber essay.

That event, I can independently testify, really happened.
posted by mwhybark at 9:55 PM on November 8, 2013

Given that you characterize the work with regard to "the weirdly moralistic, humorless persona that is so central to many of his works," it seems to me you have already taken this advice to heart, and I laud you for it.

Not sure what you mean by this. You concede that the persona is central to some of his works but not his more recent ones?
posted by jayder at 10:22 PM on November 8, 2013

I started out with You Bright and Risen Angels, but had to back off about a third of the way in. Just too dense and disjointed.
I'd recommend The Ice Shirt, which has were-bears, Norse gods battling North American gods, dollops reminiscent of Kristin Lavransdatter, and is also part travelogue of modern Iceland.
posted by brappi at 3:46 AM on November 9, 2013

You concede that the persona is central to some of his works but not his more recent ones?

no, that it does not exist in the works I have read. I read much of his written persona as self-satire, which would require humor. Additionally, it seems to me that he bends over backwards to avoid expressing moral judgement in much of his material, something which sometimes reads very oddly to me but which certainly is not moralistic.
posted by mwhybark at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2013

I don't read much fiction, so I never read any of his.

But when Rising Up, Rising Down was released, I splurged on the set. I got through some of the first couple books and then stopped reading and never went back. Then the books and casing were fairly sturdy and just about the right height that my roomie's falling down table we decided to, yes, prop up with the books. Other things happened in the process. I think it's still being propped up with some of the books. Needless to say, they aren't in particularly good condition anymore, and I kinda am slapping myself in the face for such stupidity.

That is one goddamned expensive table prop. :\
posted by symbioid at 11:15 AM on November 9, 2013

One time in the early 1990s an amazingly improbable sequence of events resulted in poor dead Scottish writer Iain Banks rifling through my paperbacks. SF was all mixed up with "lit". I was surprised when he picked out Whores for Gloria, saying it was great. I was doubly pleased when took less than a minute to find and read out what he said was one of the most evocative scenes, one he said was "perfect": In the windowpanes of bars all around the blue neon Budweiser signs, reflections made cool jungles in which blurs pursued blurs.
posted by meehawl at 4:17 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

i remember vollmann saying in an interview that he doesn't let anyone edit his work, because (paraphrasing here) a writer should be able to edit his own work. quite.
posted by waxbanks at 6:25 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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