“I think it was such a fluke that I got published at all,”
July 24, 2014 6:44 AM   Subscribe

You Are Now Entering the Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann: [The New Republic] Home to goddesses, dreams, and a dangerously uncorrupted literary mind.
posted by Fizz (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Vollmann falls into a similar David Foster Wallace category for me, in that I've read more works about him than actual works written by him.
posted by Fizz at 6:53 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love his short story collections, but his long works are (as the article says) too long and too cluttered for me to dig into. He is an amazing writer, but I noticed how the article kept suggesting that his finances are marginal. I'd never really thought about it, but it makes sense that someone whose books are so long and uncompromising isn't going to sell in big numbers, no matter how much critical attention he gets, and that's going to have an economic implication.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:05 AM on July 24, 2014

I read You Bright and Risen Angels in high school and it blew my mind wide open. I've still never read anything like that rambling picaresque entomological cartoon.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 7:15 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

What is the closest comparison to this?

(Rising Up and Rising Down: Seven Volume Set, 1st Edition Hardcover – January 1, 2003, 5 Used from $499.95)
posted by bukvich at 7:23 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel kind of odd now about having selected his journalistic work on Copernicus (Uncentering the Earth) as a reading for my history of science class. I didn't actually know much about the author, other than that he was a journalist and novelist, and that the book was published by the popular press, so was appropriate for the type of class that I was running.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:22 AM on July 24, 2014

kokoryu, maybe you read Butterfly Stories?
posted by Mister_A at 8:55 AM on July 24, 2014

Vollmann's photographer friend Jock Sturges, "best known for his images of nude adolescents and their families," is often mentioned in articles about him.

Vollmann falls into a similar David Foster Wallace category for me, in that I've read more works about him than actual works written by him.

Don't see how this is possible, Vollmann himself has probably written more words than every article ever written about him!
posted by Lorin at 8:58 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I noticed how the article kept suggesting that his finances are marginal.

Probably not that marginal:
...Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife, who is a radiation oncologist...
posted by dersins at 9:03 AM on July 24, 2014

His professional finances, then. It's not that he's starving or in danger of sleeping on the street, it's that a prolific and critically acclaimed author still doesn't necessarily earn much from his work, certainly nothing in line with his reputation. It's not something we value much as a society, unfortunately.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:10 AM on July 24, 2014

This was pretty good, and perceptive in mentioning the deaths in Mostar and of Bill's sister.

Bill's father and my father were close colleagues, and Bill's father Tom (interestingly, considering the journalist's name) called me and my parents in a shattered state as we waited for the docs to officially declare my own sister's untimely death. I only met Bill once as a kid, but I can tell you that on the wall over the rec room pool table in his parents' house hung a dual portrait of the future author and his dead sister.

I devour his work and especially admire Seven Dreams, Fathers and Crows being most accessible and Argall my actual favorite.
posted by mwhybark at 9:11 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

What is the closest comparison to this [Rising Up and Rising Down]?

Blaise Cendrars' literature/memoir work (admission of near-ignorance: I've only read Sky, along those lines, and it's been a while...) includes both a personal account and literary material, though he doesn't clearly separate and arrange the two as Vollmann does in Rising.

I don't know that it's that close, and Cendrars goes literary rather than academic, but I don't know whether anyone gets closer. In a more general sense I do think Cendrars counts as a decent precedent to WTV.
posted by mr. digits at 9:18 AM on July 24, 2014

Man I read The Royal Family last year. Is the rest of his stuff like that?
posted by beefetish at 9:19 AM on July 24, 2014


I phrased that poorly. I've personally read more about him (newspaper articles, profiles, interviews, etc.) and less his books. I've only read a handful of his short-stories and attempted the odd novel which I set aside.

I was not referring to the quantity of his output. I have no doubt that his own work dwarfs anything that is written about him.
posted by Fizz at 9:36 AM on July 24, 2014

I haven't read most of Vollmann's work, and what I have read is the non-fiction. I have delved in to bits of Rising Up And Rising Down as my local library has a copy. He's an original thinker and I wish I could re-listen to an hour long interview he did on the local NPR affiliate before everything was podcasted. Most of the interview was about the nature of violence and it changed how I looked at things profoundly.
posted by readery at 9:44 AM on July 24, 2014

Willian Vollmann has a "Silurian disc-playing boombox?" I was not aware that the ancient Welsh were into CDs. Always pegged them for being vinyl purists, really.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 AM on July 24, 2014

Is the rest of his stuff like that?

That depends. If you liked it, then yes, definitely. If you didn't, then no and you should give him another try. Seriously though I think Vollmann is kinda like DeLillo in that they have, ah, trademark how is—tics, so-to-speak, that permeate so much of their output, for better or worse, it, uh, makes the first go-round the most enjoyable.
posted by Lorin at 9:55 AM on July 24, 2014

In other words, Lorin, guy sure does like prostitutes!
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:11 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lorin so of The Royal Family the writing was superb and some but not all of the abject was also superb. The narrative likewise superb. Concepts gross and superb. I was uncomfortable with how the women seemed to be relegated to objects (really interesting objects sometimes acting on one another) encountered by tormented and more fully realized male protag though. Is weird dehumanized portrayals of women one of his literary tics? Not trying to get into a fight about whether he should be writing that or not, like seriously wanting to know before I jump into another Vollman book.
posted by beefetish at 10:57 AM on July 24, 2014

There is an essay in Rising Up Rising Down vol. 6 called "Murder For Sale" about the Columbine shooting that is absolutely perfect. I don't believe it made it into the abridged edition so it would be hard to find, but I very vividly remember that piece of journalism and recommend it to everyone.
posted by Dmenet at 12:17 PM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have never heard of Vollman, but after this reading this interview, I am definitely going to try one of his books.

Thanks for the link, Fizz!

posted by mmrtnt at 1:32 PM on July 24, 2014

I stumbled across Vollmann's Europe Central earlier this year and read it without knowing anything else about him. I really can't say enough good things about it. The TNR interview focuses on other parts of his life/work, but I would encourage anyone not to overlook it. I wouldn't have thought that there was much moral depth to be plumbed in the topic of World War 2, given how much has been written about the war; but Europe Central was difficult and powerful and very worthwhile.

(I read it and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem almost back-to-back; I think I'm going to have to spend the next few years reading nothing but Star Wars novelizations and cheesy mystery novels about crime-solving cats in order to balance out the weight of those two books.)
posted by Byzantine at 2:41 PM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I enjoy his writing, but I am shy of his more prolix works. I don't enjoy, as the author of this interview must, beginning a book that i don't intend to finish. I've finished IJ and all of Pynchon, but still can't bring myself to start Europe Central, You Bright and Rising Angels, or any of the seven dreams beyond the first, which i thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe this winter I will set aside a chunk of time for one of them.
This is a nice profile, thanks for posting.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:42 PM on July 24, 2014

I kid because I love, and I absolutely loved Europe Central. Any book that incorporates music to that extent is a pleasure, being able to listen along as you read. Vollmann is up there on the list of writers whose work I'll actually purchase instead of renting from the library.
posted by Lorin at 2:48 PM on July 24, 2014

Ha. I forgot that I posted that previous post about his cross-dressing.
posted by Fizz at 4:25 PM on July 24, 2014

mmrtnt, 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 6:35 PM on July 24, 2014

A disproportionately large number of female radiation oncologists of my acquaintance are either married to, or dating, men who range from "interesting" to pretty much entirely unsuited to any kind of human cohabitation to seriously weird. It's somehow comforting to know that the pattern continues unbroken.
posted by Atrahasis at 7:16 PM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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