It has been a season of giants in the arts. In New York, Jeff Koons’ “Split-Rocker,” a 37-foot-tall foliage sculpture of a rocking horse made up of 50,000 flowering plants, has given Kara Walker’s sphinx, a 35-foot-tall sculpture made of an estimated 40 tons of sugar, a real run for endless Instagram opportunities. Meanwhile, in the literary world Karl Ove Knausgaard has hooked readers all over the world not so much in spite of but because of the immensity — 3,600 pages and six volumes — of “My Struggle.”
It’s in this moment of heavyweights that William T. Vollmann returns with “Last Stories and Other Stories.” Remarkably, even at more than 650 pages, it feels somehow small, both in this season and in his own canon — maybe because of the kaleidoscopic nature of the 32 very distinct stories. Plus, as the title hints, the collection is centered on death; if anything, the vastness here is one of negative space, not monuments.
The book is obsessed with ghosts; among the titles you’ll find “The Trench Ghost,” “The Forgetful Ghost,” “The Ghost of Rainy Mountain,” “The Camera Ghost,” The Cherry Tree Ghost,” “Paper Ghosts.” Every story leaves someone behind, and so loss in itself, whether violent or beautiful, becomes an unrelenting thematic constant. In another writer’s hands this would seem like a gloomy trudge, but Vollmann invigorates the subject with folkloric swashbuckling bluster. He brings a sense of wanderlust even when meditating on fatality.
One of our foremost literary adventurers, he began his book career in 1987 with the metafictional epic “You Bright and Risen Angels,” written in his off-hours while a Silicon Valley computer programmer. Vollmann went on to write the semi-autobiographical novels “Whores for Gloria,” “Butterfly Stories” and “The Royal Family” (known as the Prostitution Trilogy), works in which he treated sex work with the obsessive precision of a scientist and the balanced compassion of a case worker — his methodology involved all sorts of gonzo exploits, including unprotected sex and drug use with numerous prostitutes, smoking crack and rescuing a 10-year-old child prostitute in Southeast Asia.
He’s done reporting for major magazines from all sorts of troubled spots around the globe and in the book “An Afghanistan Picture Show,” he chronicled his travels with the mujahedin in Afghanistan as they fought the Soviets. Last year Vollmann wrote an essay for Harpers after discovering that the FBI had extensive files on him, trying to tie his identity to the Unabomber’s. (From the Freedom of Information Act requests, he quotes gems such as “By all accounts VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego” and “UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN, has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing.”)
Indeed he also doesn’t write small books. “Rising Up and Rising Down” is 3,300 pages and seven volumes. And his 2005 National Book Award-winning historical novel, “Europe Central,” is more than 800 pages. But with his “Last Stories,” it feels like the author wants to create a found object that coaxes you into forgetting that you are reading Vollmann.
At best the stories are odd, transportative and of the blackest humor. “Perhaps the darkest issue in human relationships — certainly murkier than questions of vampirism, which have been resolved ages ago by our Mother Church, is that of family favoritism,” he writes in a vampire romance gone wrong.
Other stories lean toward the charming and whimsical, as in “The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich”: “When she sang, the little beggar-girls who lived in the street began dancing and fanning themselves with branches; and the sky over Trieste became a domed ceiling with a golden snowflake-sun in the center, connected to many crowned Graces who balanced all longings and judgments upon their pretty heads.”
At worst, just two pages later in the same story, the prose becomes bloated and awkward: “Although he had never yet been tricked by any of the sea’s shining and tarnished moods, bit by bit he seemed to grow shyer of the aqueous element — or perhaps merely more home-loving.” So he wasn’t into water, I think? Describing a boy who “appeared as hard and slender as a breadstick” seems as lazy and needlessly unappealing as “a leather purse like a uterus.” It’s hard to understand how someone who can consistently deliver on a macro scale — through the seamless conception of wildly ambitious plots — can disastrously fail on the micro with sentences that are undercooked, overcooked or simply incorrectly cooked.
Vollmann’s stylistic experimentation is mostly muted in “Last Stories.” But the plots in themselves hook you: Emperor Maximilian spends his last night before he meets a firing squad lost in dreams of an Aztec sacrifice; a geisha becomes a cherry tree; a dying American man gets to connect again with an old high school romantic interest who he believed had long passed him by.
In fact, “Last Stories” takes us to so many destinations, inhabits so many lives, that the book becomes less a rumination on death than a celebration of life; less an investigation of apparitions than a presentation of all the many possibilities of existence in the material world. This is a good thing. Vollmann understands that he has to not just invent but entertain here, as all good adventures must.
The spooky title and the author’s note warning that “this is my final book” — whether a tricksterish jest or a dramatic effect or an earnest farewell — may mislead new readers picking this up looking for Halloween fare. But for his longtime fans, it’s still Vollmann — an imagination on constant overdrive, a storyteller who can’t let go of the journey — indeed won’t go gently — even at the end. For the collection has an interesting lesson about “bigness” — to have a life, the weight must be more figurative than literal, as what is more enormous than our eventual forever, the infinite postmortem.
Khakpour is the author, most recently, of “The Last Illusion.”
Last Stories and Other Stories
Viking: 677 pp., $36