Perhaps the appearance of yet another book by William T. Vollmann--a collection entitled “Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs"--will encourage reviewers and critics to quit their endless wrangling over how to best characterize the “postmodern” fiction that arose in the ‘60s and get on to more immediate concerns--namely the work of the “post-postmodernist” generation of authors that has already emerged, full-throated and with plenty of old-fashioned “news” about contemporary life and writing in America.
And certainly no one writing today of any generation has more “news” to relate than Vollmann, a rough-edged beast who has been slouching toward some Millenial Bethlehem with a kind of monstrous elegance, utter fearlessness, and voracious appetite that one associates with Melville, Whitman and Pynchon.
These new kids on the block include an eclectic array of talents such as Mark Leyner, Stephen Wright, Susan Daitch, Steve Erickson, Rikki Ducornet, Richard Powers, Nicholson Baker, Ricardo Cruz and David Foster Wallace--all authors whose sensibilities were shaped by a set of circumstances far different from those responsible for the law-making, psychedelicized exuberance of their ‘60s literary grandparents or the let’s-circle-the-wagons defensiveness of their more staid parents during the mid-70s to mid-80s.
What unifies the work of this new breed of ‘90s authors is not a narrow set of aesthetic or thematic concerns but a more general recognition of the need for fiction to find a way to escape the quagmire of scaled-back expectations (“Minimalism”), self-distancing ironies and trendy nihilism (the “Brat Pack”) and illusionist game-playing (ghostly simulations of once-radical methods like metafiction and self-referentiality that by the late ‘80s had become appropriated by the mainstream as empty signs of countercultural radicalism) that American fiction has found itself mired in since the mid-70s.
Which leads us to “Thirteen Stories,” the most recent work to appear from the crazed, word-drunk Capt. Ahab of America’s post-bog generation, William T. Vollmann. Since 1988 Vollmann has published eight books of startling originality, intensity and personal vision (two others, “The Rifles” and “The Butterfly Stories” will appear in the next year).
Vollmann’s best-known work to date, “The Rainbow Stories” (1989), relies on the same New-Journalism-by-way-of-Burroughs approach found in “Thirteen Stories” to open windows onto the mostly invisible lives of pimps, prostitutes, street alcoholics, skinheads, serial killers and other marginalized people living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.
As indicated by its title, Vollmann’s new book is a mosaic comprised of 13 paired “stories and epitaphs” that reflect and illuminate each other and are themselves constructed of bright, broken fragments--shards of autobiography, travel writing and reportage, anecdotes told by a rogues gallery of drifters and grifters, artists and con-artists, Thai prostitutes, crack addicts, witch doctors, gangsters and X-generation slackers--which mix together with other materials introduced unexpectedly to establish connections among topics widely separated by time, distance, and literal context.
In “Thirteen Stories” the mosaic’s larger picture has to do with the relationship between writing, memory and death (death in the literal sense of bodily extinction but also in various other guises such as the death of relationships, ideals and beliefs, innocence, cultures, etc.). As explained in Vollmann’s “Author’s Note,” the individual pairs of stories and epitaphs, as well as the book as a whole, were developed in an effort to reverse the usually linear movement of a story--which acts like a hearse dragging the readers perpetually across the page, across time, always forward to some unimaginably final period, to where the epitaphs wait--and instead allow the end-points (death, and its articulation in the epitaph form) to function as starting points for “translations to elsewhere (to) some final glorious release!”
The two most moving and powerful stories here are the book’s opening and concluding sections--"The Ghost of Magnetism” and “The Grave of Lost Stories.” “Magnetism” is a lyrical evocation of the sadness and devastation that accompany the death of childhood and innocence. Open with a memory of a farewell party he has given just before leaving San Francisco, what follows is a series of “riffs” of poetically charged passages that recall similar passages in Kerouac--soaring flights of incandescent prose that describe the particular textures of a moment, the grain of a voice, the taste and smell of a lover’s body; these vibrant descriptions of Edenic security, love and permanency are mixed together with the recognition that he is condemned forever to wander in a shattered world that revolves not around his own needs but around the principles of indifference and perpetual change. Thus even as Vollmann rushes forward desperately trying to give expression to cherished bits of “memory flesh” before he forgets them, he already senses that nothing can stay the same--that everything is already rushing away from him and slipping into the dark emptiness of the undifferentiated past:
“In San Francisco at the very minute restaurants were closing down or opening, and someone else was existing in your apartment and Satoko would never live with Ken in the Tenderloin anymore and Sethe had moved to Tennessee where he fell in love with a woman as skinny as he and the weather in San Francisco was different and your friends there were forgetting you or at least doing without you.”
At the conclusion of “Magnetism” the impact of these recognitions is temporarily subsumed within an ecstatic sexual moment. No such reprise awaits the haunted figure of Edgar Allen Poe in “The Grave of Lost Stories” as he and Vollmann escort each other, step by excruciating step, down inside themselves into a nightmarish confrontation with their own anguished and guilt-ridden hearts. Poe’s journey in this story recapitulates a pattern of allegorical associations that recur in the numerous other perilous treks undertaken by Vollmann (or his projections) in earlier works--to the glaciers of Iceland and Greenland, to whorehouses and crack houses in Cambodia, Thailand and San Francisco, to scenes of raging civil wars in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sarejvo, to the black coldness of the Magnetic North Pole.
“Lost Stories” illustrates as well the ways in which Vollmann has mastered the aesthetics of horror (especially the surrealist, psychological mode of Poe, Lautremont, Rimbaud, and Burroughs) and appropriates the materials of history for his own purposes--in this case, the real horror experienced by Poe as he watched helplessly and inconsolably unable to affect the outcome that the operations of change, loss, decay and death were having on his beloved child-bride Virginia. The story concludes with the betrayal of hope and the mockery of one’s desire to help others (recurrent motifs throughout Vollmann’s fiction) is a scene every bit as chilling and awful as any that Poe created:
“The massive door swung slowly inward. A foul wind rushed out from that dark place. . . . Now the tomb would open for him like a vagina. With a cry of joy, he ran inside. Too late, he saw that the interior was a wedge-shaped cul-de-sac lined with spikes. In horror and dismay, he wheeled around to escape, but before long he reached it, the door had slammed shut with a malignant boom; an instant later, the wall-jaws closed upon him.”
Less hefty in terms of sheer bulk than most of Vollmann’s massive earlier encyclopedic works, “Thirteen Stories” nonetheless offers almost an embarrassment of riches. By re-establishing a relationship with his readers based on such old-fashioned notions as sincerity (surely the most truly radical approach as an author can pursue these days), writing only about what he has personally experienced, and generally promising readers real rewards rather than the “funny money” handed out by most other writers, Vollmann also provides further evidence that the “literature of exhaustion” associated with so much contemporary fiction is now itself exhausted.