[(essay date summer 1993) In the following essay, Bell traces Vollmann's literary indebtedness to Edgar Allan Poe and Comte de Lautréamont while exploring the author's experimentation with metafiction.]
In the keystone novella to his first book of stories, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, David Foster Wallace voices a longing "to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you're going to die. Maybe it's called metalife. Or metafiction. Or realism. Or gfhrytytu. ... The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise, a harmless floppy-shoed costume, because metafiction is safe to read, familiar as syndication; and no victim is as delicious as the one who smiles in relief at your familiar approach."1
This idea is very interesting, and it seems to have occurred to more than one emerging writer. William Vollmann has taken it a great deal farther than Wallace has, so far. Wallace and Vollmann published their first books around the same time, but since then Vollmann has published, mathematically, 3.5 books to Wallace's 1. He bids fair to pass all the other dashing young novelists just as easily, and we are talking about quality stuff too, book for book, not to mention the staggering size of some of his more major efforts.
Nothing against David Foster Wallace, by the way. Wallace is a fine writer with an original turn of mind who has done some interesting and innovative work and will probably do more. William Vollmann, meanwhile, is the sort of phenomenon that might turn up once every couple of generations, if that often.
There hasn't been much of a personality cult around Vollmann so far, luckily for him perhaps. One day we will know as much about him as we do about Faulkner or Joyce, but for the moment it's mostly guesswork, based on a few interviews and what the books reveal or imply. I will hazard a guess that his formal education was mostly in the sciences and that his study of literature has been autodidactic. A good thing too, for the literary autodidact has a better chance to do something really original than anyone encumbered with conventional training. Maybe I'm wrong about his education. But however he managed it, Vollmann has certainly been a real innovator. And like all true innovators he is a liberator too. There is every reason to suppose that the writers who come after him will find new freedoms of their own in his work, in the same way that Faulkner found freedom in the work of Joyce.
The question remains, where is he coming from? So far he has been taken to be a lineal descendant of the metafictionists of the sixties and seventies, someone who's refining and perhaps improving their methods and approaches, but this description, while probably true for Wallace, is false for Vollmann, although some of the attention which his work has received may be owed to the current backlash against the minimalist fiction of the seventies and eighties (itself a backlash against metafiction). On close examination he does not resemble Barth or Coover at all and his resemblances to Pynchon are superficial. Vollmann may seem "Pynchonesque" because of his obsessive pedantry and the fact that he is better acquainted with the hard sciences than the average contemporary literateur. But in truth he is much more radical, in the original sense of that word.
Vollmann has branched out at a point on the tree well below the sixties metafictionists. His avowed models, Poe and Lautréamont, may really be his most important influences. Poe wore many hats, serially, but if one could combine the macabre Poe with the humorous Poe and add on Poe as the crazed logician who invented the detective story, wrote Eureka, and unmasked Maelzel's chess-player, there'd be a fair approximation of Vollmann's voice. From Lautréamont, Vollmann takes most obviously the modular structure. Like the French writer he uses the short vignette as his fundamental building block, though he is able to arrange them in considerably more complex and comprehensive designs. He shares with both Lautréamont and Poe a strong sense of the aesthetic possibilities of horror, and he has also adapted these authors' manifestations of personal involvement in the work and personal responsibility for it to his own rather different purposes.
In Poe, the notion of eyewitnessing has paramount importance. The initial trope of the horror stories, especially, is I only am escaped alone to tell thee. Indeed, the idea that the story to be told must be (by some series of connections however tenuous) a part of the personal experience of the teller was once a presupposition of all fiction. It took most of the nineteenth century for this trait to become vestigial, and one of Vollmann's projects is to rediscover its usefulness.
The example of Lautréamont is rather different. Vollmann does project himself into all of his works in some form or other, although he appears to be a more benign presence than Lautréamont's Maldoror. But the idea of splitting off certain traits of the author to form a new, quasi-fictional entity comes more from Lautréamont than Poe. In Lautréamont we sense that the author persists, additionally to his alter ego Maldoror; Vollmann also achieves this kind of doubling, most obviously in An Afghanistan Picture Show, where Vollmann as the author of the work in hand sets a quite different tone than Vollmann's manifestation as the ineffectual Young Man who, in drifting down the Stream of Time, has hardened into history.
The recently published Afghanistan Picture Show, apparently the first book Vollmann wrote, is his least subtle, most flawed, and in some ways most revealing document. Most of the techniques of his mature work are present here. He uses modular design much in the manner of Lautréamont, yet the arrangement of the modules is all his own. The intent of the arrangement is to break the constraints of narrative continuity so as to draw structural and thematic analogies between otherwise unrelated story lines. Thus the Afghan landscape is mapped onto the Land of Counterpane of Vollmann's childhood reveries, and the Young Man's experience as the helpless dependent of the Mujahideen is mapped onto Vollmann's experience as the ineffectual dependent of Erica during their arduous wilderness trek, an analogy which drives to a third level with the devastating throw-away line: "When I was growing up, my little sister drowned because I hadn't paid attention."2 This is the most nakedly self-revealing moment in all of Vollmann's work so far, though it is by no means unique.
However, Vollmann's work cannot be explained or explained away by any exercise in depth psychology, cannot be reduced to its relation to any personal trauma. Nor are the moments of self-revelation Vollmann permits himself an invitation to any such attempt. Still, he does deliberately allow the reader some glimpse of the motives behind the driving, driven energies of his prose. With brutal efficiency we are shown what underwrites the Young Man's pathological concern with ocular proof, his need to see everything with his own eyes, however impractical or impracticable it may be for him to do it. When I was growing up, my little sister drowned because I hadn't paid attention.
Vollmann's stance, as a character, in his first published book You Bright and Risen Angels seems at a glance to be much less unusual. His presence is a more ghostly one--he doesn't, as a character, have much effect on the plot, but serves as a catalyst for the near-metaphysical conceits that connect the struggle of the Bugs against the Blue Globes to his (mostly) unrequited love for the superbly insectlike Bee. The description of this love affair is playful, self-parodying, and largely concerned with creating intertextual links between itself and other aspects of the novel, so its status as authentic autobiographical revelation is dubious; it looks more like the usual metafictional jiggery-pokery, in fact, or what Wallace, in "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," calls "the act of a lonely solipsist's self-love" (332).
Vollmann's position as a character in The Rainbow Stories is almost opposite, at least superficially, though it too is based on fairly recent literary precedent: New Journalism. In stories like "The White Knights" and "Ladies and Red Lights," it appears that Vollmann is performing a conventional insertion of the reporter into the report, a well-established New Journalistic ploy for enhancing immediacy and credibility: "I was there, I talked to all these terrible folks myself." So one might say that the difference between a report by Vollmann and one by Gay Talese or Hunter Thompson is merely stylistic--however drastic this difference may be. But then we come to stories like "The Blue Wallet" and "The Green Dress," where the first-person narrator has plainly crystallized into a fictional entity quite separate from the author, in the conventional short story mode. However, plot overlapping between (for instance) "The Blue Wallet" and "The White Knights" unquestionably shows that the reportorial Vollmann and the fictional first-person narrator are the same created character, or real living author, or perhaps somehow both of these things at the same time.
As much as to say that in all of these apparently different cases we are in fact looking at different appendages of the same elephant, which is what An Afghanistan Picture Show, for all its flaws, reveals quite glaringly. The position of the author/character in Vollmann's work is unified and coherent, although it straddles many of the boundaries the categories of twentieth-century literature (e.g., journalism, realistic fiction, metafiction) have accustomed us to accept. Part of Vollmann's undertaking is to create a place for the author in the work that is different, and more comprehensive, than the positions that have been deployed in most of our contemporary fiction.
In the Seven Dreams sequence, Vollmann uses the new powers he has assumed as author/character to the utmost. This series of historical novels would seem to bring his passionate need for ocular proof to fatal frustration, for after all he has no time machine. But his framing of these novels is nevertheless similar to the framing of The Rainbow Stories; he begins by showing us something about his own process of discovering the subject, and by placing himself, insofar as it is possible, on the site of the story to be told. In The Ice-Shirt we find Vollmann, the author, in modern Greenland and Iceland, where scenes of his researches there cunningly interpenetrate the "primary" story line, which is drawn from the Norse sagas of centuries before. Vollmann, the author, is in the right place at what's simply a different time, and he does what he can to perforate the temporal barrier by using his trademark interpenetrations and by making a fictional analogue for himself as William the Blind, the ancient Norse skald who wrote what we are reading, namely, The Ice-Shirt, which is the work of William Vollmann. William the Blind is still Vollmann, then, when he labels his "True Map of the World" as "engraved on sight by William the Blind."3 Believe it or not, this sentence means exactly what it says; indeed, William the Blind does see everything with his own eyes.
After all, Vollmann does have a time machine, for which his most expressive metaphor to date is his adaptation of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, which is the principal structural device of the second Seven Dreams novel, Fathers and Crows. Here Vollmann presents himself as a practitioner of a version of the Exercises whose purpose is to subvert time and overcome its constraints--to swim against its current. Thus his image of the Stream of Time. The Jesuits swam against the stream in their effort to recover for themselves a direct, personal, sensory, eyewitness experience of the Passion of Christ. Vollmann swims against it to recover just such an authentic experience of what happened to the French and the Indians in seventeenth-century Canada, and thereafter. It is his same quest for ocular proof, which no doubt applies more broadly to all of the material of Seven Dreams.
Vollmann may not be making the apocalyptic declaration that time is an illusion. But he does at least seem to be saying that time does not have to be unidirectional--that one can move within time in more than one way, as the Huron paddle their canoes against the current of the Fleuve St. Laurent. This phenomenon goes beyond a technique of presentation--the broken and rearranged chronologies which many more strictly realistic authors also employ--to the subject matter itself. The first of the two deities who preside over Fathers and Crows, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, is unstrung from the time line through fairly conventional devices. Despite the beautiful acrobatics that permit her appearances in the text centuries before or after her temporal existence on earth, we never forget that we are dealing with analogy, that for Champlain and his priests she is part of the future, and for us and for Vollmann, part of the past. That principle holds even during her ghostly journey downriver (in both senses) into modern Montreal.
With the second demigod, Gougou, the situation is quite different. Early on, Vollmann makes it deliberately plain that the undersea monster is created from the Fox's scalp centuries after it begins to play its part in the story. Gougou's activity in history antedates its own birth, and so Gougou is truly transtemporal, belonging to the apocalyptic compression of time. The apocalyptic instant is the moment toward which Vollmann must be headed all along, for his project will not allow him to acknowledge temporal barriers. He wants to be present in past time as badly as he wanted to get over the red hill onto the Afghan battlefield. It is absolutely essential for him to see with his own eyes, so that he may bear witness. He must get over the red hill. ...
He means, of course, to take the reader with him. What are the precedents for his positioning of himself in his texts? The metafictionists of the preceding generation have prepared us to understand his position in certain rather programmatic ways. To make a Möbius strip of Gougou's origins is almost a standard metafictional device, as is the habit of allowing the author to stroll into the text and mess around with the scenery and the action. But again, Vollmann is more radical.
In the nineteenth-century novel, generally speaking, the presence of the author continues to be felt in the work even as it becomes more vestigial, and often this presence is asserted outright. Think, for instance, of Trollope's practice of opening a trapdoor in the narrative through which he can directly soothe and reassure the reader at moments when the plot may have created an uncomfortable emotional tension. Even when, as in most cases, the author remains silent, his presence is still implied--as an intelligent and well-informed companion to the reader in the work. If the nineteenth-century author has the power of a maker over the text, it is most certainly not the power to manipulate character or action arbitrarily. If the nineteenth-century author is the god of his text, he is a sort of deistic god, who cannot interfere with the clockwork he has made, though he may, if he so chooses, explain its workings to the reader. But as fiction evolves toward more faithfully mimetic realism across the turn of the century, the clockmaker disappears, leaving only the clock.
Metafiction reinstates the author as the creative deity of the text, but he has ceased to be a deistic god and become a more mercurial divinity, whose chief end is to teach you not to trust him. Here Vollmann's break with the metafictionists is complete. While he is indeed as agile in his intratextual maneuvers as a Barth or a Coover, he is, at the same time, as sincere as (yes!) Trollope--or Melville or Dickens or Tolstoy.
Most typically, a metafictionist enters the text in order to reveal that its artifices are only that, to collapse whatever mimetic illusion may obtain, to reveal (from the detractor's point of view) that the whole work is predicated on bad faith. Or at least, to quote Wallace one more time, that "Itself is its only object" (332). Vollmann, however, has turned his presence within his work into a declaration of engagement. Instead of entering the work to declare that it is a trick, he stands inside it as a witness--vouching for its authenticity. With all his open manipulations, Vollmann never tries to show you that he is a clever imagination who is inventing something. He always tries to show that he is a witness who has seen something. We understand that he himself believes his discourse as completely as he expects us to believe it. Any chance the reader is asked to take, Vollmann will take also.
Indeed, if he is the god of his own texts, he offers himself up for crucifixion every time. The procedure is artfully accomplished. Vollmann splits himself, prismatically, again and again, and each new bit that he offers for sacrifice is potentially a newly fictionalized character. But the final effect of these divisions and re-presentations is to create a convincing impression that Vollmann really did write all these books in his own blood, as Nechayev wrote on the walls of his cell with a bloodstained nail.
So it seems that Vollmann has broken out of metafiction's self-reflexive squirrel cage, just as Wallace was wishing someone would. He has shown a way for an author to be present in the work and to manipulate it without undercutting its credibility. His work, even at its wildest and most fanciful, is meant to say something about the world, not just something about itself. In fact his work is history just as much as it is fiction, and it penetrates the barrier between these two categories much more thoroughly and significantly than Mailer or Capote ever did with the so-called nonfiction novel. It's important too that Vollmann does have something to say--not just a means, but an end.
The elements of Vollmann's strategy are not unfamiliar; it's their combination that is new, striking, as exciting for writers as for readers. Vollmann has changed the standing of the writer in the text in a way that can benefit writers especially. He has proved that the writer may have an open relationship of good faith with the reader (as opposed to the tacit trust that obtains between writers and readers of strictly realistic fiction), and this is an idea that has not been much exploited for quite a long time. According to the new terms in which Vollmann has cast it, metafiction is no longer just a game, but certainly more than one writer can play it.
1. David Foster Wallace, Girl with Curious Hair (New York: Norton, 1989), 332-33; hereafter cited parenthetically.
2. William T. Vollmann, An Afghanistan Picture Show; or, How I Saved the World (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992), 155.
3. William T. Vollmann, The Ice-Shirt (New York: Viking, 1990), frontispiece.