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The world’s hottest unknown author

William Vollman to give first public reading in Boston

A rendering of the elusive William T. Vollmann

William Pierce, Managing Editor of the AGNI, posted this story about William Vollmann’s work on his arts blog at WBUR.org.

Novelist William Vollmann’s first public reading in Boston, will be held this Thursday, April 6, at Boston University’s School of Management auditorium, room 105, 595 Commonwealth Avenue, Green Line “B,” Blandford Street T stop.

I’ve had a long time to consider why people don’t know William T. Vollmann, the author of You Bright and Risen Angels, Whores for Gloria, the Seven Dreams novels, and now Europe Central. Many do know him, of course—and not just because of last year’s National Book Award. By all accounts, Vollmann has a broad underground readership, a cult following comparable, though the work is very different, to David Foster Wallace’s. But when I went to a masters program after years away from other readers, I found that few on campus had encountered him. Again, at a national writers’ conference in Baltimore in 2003, when the novelist Madison Smartt Bell asked a roomful how many knew the name William Vollmann, only two people raised their hands—though he’s not just one of the best, but also, I’d say, the most prolific literary author in America, discounting Joyce Carol Oates’s long head start.

 

A few possible reasons, shot out quickly and at random. His novels, most of them, are terribly long. He dedicates Fathers and Crows “to all Canadians” and “against all dogmatists,” leaving his own politics in the American red-blue sense hidden from view—or too complex to fit on anyone’s spectrum (Vollmann admires and owns guns, yet his Seven Dreams are a nuanced working-out of the tragedies of ignorance and violence). His narratives are episodic, Biblical in their collapsing of time, giving us histories rather than lives—Bible-like, Icelandic Saga-like repetitions and recognitions rather than the post- Shakespeare “foregrounding” (one life, one mind at a time) that Harold Bloom champions. Yet when Vollmann finds a handhold, gripping a tuft of time-and-place and staring at it as his other arm begins its outward search, he laughs, cries, skewers, and lovingly recreates—in short, empathizes, deeply and constantly. He is, after all, a writer of the modern era, post-Shakespeare and, more to the point, post-Quixote.

 

The irreverence of the title page of Fathers and Crows, Volume Two of the Seven Dreams books, might give some readers cause to doubt, avoid, fear (is he one of us? is he making fun of slaughter?), and maybe here and there, I’m guessing now, among those very dogmatists, revile him:

SEVEN DREAMS
 About our Continent
 in the days of
 the Saints
 Raising from their GLASS COFFINS
 the *BLACK-GOWNS*
 Who Plucked the Blossoms of
 Souls
 (Fearing Never a Thorn);
 Who
 Prayed Blood
 to
 SANCTIFY THE BONES OF CATAMOUNTS;
 Who Foreswore
 Rum, Women and Lead,
 Who were
 *So Astounded*
 at the Unfathomable Extinctions of
 Savages;
 Who
 *Made More Miracles than They Saw!*
 As Compounded and Confounded From
 Diverse Relations
 by William T. Vollmann
 (Known in This World as
 “WILLIAM THE BLIND”)

 

The Seven Dreams books decry—or do they only descry?—the European violence that pushed aside those who came before, but Vollmann recognizes, and acknowledges and depicts, the wider human violence that birthed it.

In moral focus and complexity, he is our present-day Hawthorne or Melville. In comedy—for instance, with novels like The Ice-Shirt—he is our ever-digressing, never-digressing Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy. But William T. Vollmann—and this is absolutely central to him—is 100 percent earnest. As a cultural phenomenon, his writing reverberates against those—like Wallace again—known for the bottomlessness, the infinite regression, of their ironies. His scenes and gestures can be sly and, sure, ironic, but his larger project is dead-serious, grounded in the matter-of-factness of an observing mind. I doubt anyone could accuse Vollmann of playing toward trends, but it may be that, post-9/11, he is the one who captures the deeper zeitgeist.

Click here to read William Pierce’s blog entry in its entirety on WBUR.org.