Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, September 03, 2005

William T. Vollmann

For a while now, I've heard about William T. Vollman. He's apparently a favorite of a lot of writers, and he has a certain enthusiatic following among readers. I went looking for his books at the local library, but they don't have much by him, so I took out his latest, Europe Central. It's a 750-page exploration of the WW2 Eastern Front told through the fictional experiences of various figures who lived at the time, most prominently Dmitri Shostacovich. I am about 150 pages into it, and I must say that I'm not impressed. Critics of Vollman say that his prose is bloated, and I would have to agree one hundred percent.

The Vollman novel that I really want to read is You Bright and Risen Angels. What an intriguing title, and it is supposed to be edgier and more surrealistic than his later work. In an interview, he said that he wrote it while working as a computer programmer. He said that he didn't really know anything about computers but that he managed to talk himself into the job. He hates automobiles and doesn't drive, so he would often go to work on Monday and live in the office until Friday, eating nothing but candy bars from the vending machines. He would work on You Bright and Risen Angels late at night while no one was there.

It's a wild story, but Vollman is a colorful character. In 1981, he spent time with the rebels in Afghanistan. He's made a trek to the North Pole. He met Pol Pot's brother in Cambodia. He spent time with the prostitutes and pimps in San Francisco's tenderloin district. During that time, he carried a gun for protection, and claims to have pulled it in self-defense. You get the picture. It's the classic writer-as-romantic-hero, at least if Vollman's accounts are to be believed.

One thing that I found interesting was Vollman's claim that he likes to write under the influence of crack. That's something he said in an interview that's ten or more years old. I doubt that it is now true since he's in his late forties, and crack would likely stop his middle-aged heart. At any rate, it's a surprising claim, and I'm skeptical. I've never done crack or cocaine myself, but if it gives you a "speedy" high, I could see its attraction, but it's my understanding that it's a short-lived high that leaves you with nothing but a hunger for more. A little bit of meth might do a better job.

When asked about what he thinks about technically when writing, Vollman responded as follows. "When I write a sentence, oftentimes what I do is try to treat it like a kernel of popcorn. I'll keep packing more and more words in there. Sort of refine it, until it explodes. When it does, it has all this surface area. It's kind of complicated to trace the whole shape of the thing. But if you do, you get the whole round shape of it." Say what? That makes no sense whatsoever to me. Hmm, about that crack, Billy boy.


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