Book Review of Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader
Fans of David Foster Wallace, relax! Your fair haired (and still dead) boy is still the most terrible, overpraised, overhyped, PoMo, omnibustial critic’s darling of a hack writer out there. Having read Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader, edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson, I can safely say that Vollmann is merely a bad- nay, a very bad writer, but not a terrible one, for, unlike Wallace, Vollmann is at least capable of writing solid, passable prose in journalistic articles, even as his fictive prose is dull, and laden with stereotypes and stale tropes. Unlike Wallace (or James Frey or Dave Eggers- one of Vollmann’s publishers, for that matter), Vollmann’s paragraphs are not usually drenched in multiple naked clichés. That stated, it’s simply not good, and Vollmann’s sciolistic mind is, like William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon before him, merely one which appends all sorts of observations together, with no grace nor facility, so that his ‘admirers’ can loftily claim and declaim that Vollmann is a ‘genius,’ with a mind that roams far and wide.
Well, no doubt that this is true, to the extent that Vollmann has read lots of books, and has a mind that clutters his prose with trivia and minutia that really serves no purpose. The fact of the matter is that he simply has no idea of what to do, creatively, with all of this information. Great art and artists are the bearers not of mere knowledge, but of wisdom- the ability to use knowledge creatively and for benefit. In this aspect, Vollmann is sorely lacking. His prose (especially fiction) is lacerated by the sexual obsessions that normal human beings outgrow by the time they pass through puberty, and Vollmann adds little or nothing of insight to his endless descriptions (sans any poesy and insight) of drugs and prostitutes. In fact, as someone who actually grew up amidst the drug and sex trade industries, having led a Goodfellas-type youth, I am uniquely qualified to call bullshit on Vollmann’s claims and writings on these topics, for they are paper-thin in reality, and larded with stereotypes and myths about both industries. But, he is especially fetishistic in his ideas and descriptions of prostitution, almost always (at least in this ‘best of’ reader) proffering the worst ideas about prostitution- white slavery, child abuse, criminality, violence, death, drug use, etc. Well, literally, this represents less than 1% of the professions, and it has always been that small a part of the profession. Almost every industry has its horror stories, and one could go to a steel plant, warehouse, a factory production line, or a paper-shuffling office, and find far greater percentages of abuses of all sorts in those industries, and by ‘far greater’ I mean in much greater excess. Having worked in offices, warehouses, and on production lines, as well as my street knowledge of the drug and sex industries, I can attest to the fact that at least 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 workers in those industries is subjected to physical dangers, emotional and/or physical or sexual harassment, yet the stereotypes that abound about prostitution, especially, are the ones that, in this Puritan-derived society, remain. And the fact that Vollmann so indulges them, and in such flaccid terms, suggests that the reality is that he has very little, if any, experience with this facet of the human experience. Oh, I’m not suggesting that he was not employed to do ‘research’ by his employers, as a journalist, merely that he was painfully (and rather obviously) unaware of the varied put-ons that members in the lowest echelons of the sex industry regularly enact for those with a mindset to seek those very stereotypes to reinforce their beliefs.
Now, before one accuses me of armchair psychologizing, consider that on the third sheet of the book is a full page photo of a seemingly barely pubescent Vollman, with depressive mien, holding a pistol to his head, thus emulating the suicidal genius stereotype that many artists, especially the bad ones, seek to propagate about themselves. The faceplate for the photo banally reads: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN WITH A BERETTA BDA 380 PISTOL; WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN PHOTOGRAPHED BY HIS FRIEND KEN MILLER IN 1985. Take a look at the link supplied, and realize that that seemingly barely pubescet boy is actually Vollman at age 26, and one can clearly get the reasons why such a person would indulge in fantasies of sex and violence, and be easily gulled into perpetuating them in an attempt to seem ‘cool.’
Nonetheless, all of this puerility and stereotyping, instead of making many readers realize how bereft of quality Vollmann’s writing is, predictably has led Vollmann to becoming an icon, in the mold of William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, for many deliterate wannabe gonzo writers who look at Vollmann’s prose and state, consciously or not, ‘Hey, this is not good, and this guy is famous, so why can’t I be famous, since I can write as well (or poorly) as this?’ And it is, indeed, a legitimate question, for such is the deliterate state of publishing over the last few decades, in what might be dubbed the PC-PoMo Era, wherein quality literature is actively sneered upon, and ‘celebrity’ status is held up as a quality worth promoting.
In fact, this very aspect of patina over substance is actually lauded by the book’s two editors. In the book’s preface, written by Hemmingson, he recounts his own claimed debaucheries, and writes:
There’s also the “hero” factor- the literary (fantasy) hero on the page. The writer as a larger-than-life-editorial-man-of-action. Here we have a guy who goes out and does what many of his contemporaries- safe in their homes, offices, and academic settings- only daydream about: risking life and limb, courting misfortune in nations whose populaces hate Americans, exploring icy regions of the world not friendly to the human body, hanging out with whores, pimps, drug dealers, the dispossessed and delusional…and so on. As one reader on Amazon.com put it: “WTV is the revenge of the nerd.”
Of course, while indulging in stereotypes and fantasies, Hemmingson erects even more. Does he really believe that most writers want to play the part of Hemingway Lite? In claiming this, Hemmingson ultimately, and unwittingly, denigrates the most important part of any art: imagination. Despite all his travels, this quality is glaringly absent from this over 450 page reader. One might also point out something obvious that the worshippers of the artist as scumbag overlook, and that is that Vollmann goes on his adventures because he is paid to do so, and thus is absented from the multitudinous opportunities for art (of the non-banal sort) that real life in the trenches affords those artists not obsessed with celebrity nor academia. This lack of ‘getting’ real life is also a brake on Vollmann’s artless avalanche of verbiage. These stereotypes of the self-conscious ‘underground’ sorts is why this bad art is always eventually, and thankfully, marginalized: witness the demise of the Thunder’s Mouth Press imprint- which published this book, due to lack of sales. The book’s other editor, Larry McCaffery, goes even more overboard in the fawning praise of Vollman’s eructations, declaiming this book more of a ‘best of’ CD, and comparing it to a Bruce Springsteen album in construction. This overt rock star-making attempt is, at the very least, honest, however misguided and deleterious to the art of writing, and the culture at large. The prefatory material even ends with footnotes, which is the unwitting mea culpa of the artist with nothing to state, but a desire to seem like there was something to state- thank you Thomas Stearns Eliot!
The book, proper, is divided into five parts, plus a postface and appendices. The five parts are not separated by genre- fiction, nonfiction, journalism, etc.- but by topic, and genres are pigeonholed within. Part I is called Background And Influences. It opens with a section called Wordcraft, from 1989, titled Biographical Statement. Here is a paragraph that really shows what a sentimentalist Vollmann is, as well as either a poor reader of human motives, or a bullshitter trying to sound deep about a subject he’s only pretending to have any experience with:
To explore this further, I decided to write stories about prostitutes. I heard one man say to his whore, “Mary, do you love me?’ And she smiled and said to him with real tenderness, “Listen, babe, I’ll love you for a whole hour.” These Rainbow Stories, as I call them, have gradually come to encompass other lowlifes, as well, such as tramps, street alcoholics and Nazi skinheads. Love is what they all want. But they do not know how to get it, and so they become twisted.
Where to begin? The fact that most skinheads are from the middle class, and not ‘lowlifes,’ socio-economically? The bullshit quote from the hooker passed off as firsthand knowledge? That little ‘exchange’ reminds me of the scene from Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, wherein Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy DeVito, starts fucking with Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, and shines him on with a feint of violence, by stating, ‘Am I here to entertain you?,’ and then goes about bullshitting on being reduced to a ‘funny’ man. Well, that quote was one that was in Mob circles for decades before it hit the film, and Hill adapted the old anecdote, as if it really happened to the characters depicted. Most accepted it as genuine memoir, but I- as someone with an in- know better. The same goes for Vollmann’s hooker’s claim about loving a john for an hour. As I stated earlier, I call bullshit, and it’s these refried anecdotes and clichéd settings and sayings that give away Vollmann’s poseur game on the sex industry, for he actively counts on his readers’ ignorance in such matters to make himself look like an ‘insider,’ when he is simply displaying his own ignorance and terminal puerility. However, worse than all that is Vollman’s pathetic Freudian analysis of all these lowlifes simply wanting love, and becoming ‘twisted’ at its lack. Where to end? Not only is this a narrative cliché, but it’s simply and demonstrably false, as any conversation with most prostitutes will show they enter the biz to be empowered- to gain something, not because they are lacking anything. Again, this paragraph shows how little Vollmann’s ‘fictive’ underworld resembles that in reality. Of course, unlike Frey, Eggers, Joyce Carol Oates, there are no naked clichés in the paragraph, but even a clunky term like ‘street alcoholic’ shows how little time Vollmann has actually spent on ‘the streets.’ Someone like me, who grew up on the streets, can see things from the perspective of a lion cub raised and survived in a pride. Vollmann, at best, is trying to describe life in a pride by observing a few captive lions in a zoo.
The next piece is from Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, and is almost a primer on how to fuck up, or, at least, avoid one’s real life by running away from it and ‘seeking adventure.’ It ends with Vollmann describing an illness in rather stale terms- not necessarily trite, but lacking all depth, being flat, dull, and, above all, solipsistic. The Butterfly Stories provides a section called Butterfly Boy, which was Vollman’s doppelganger- an awkward boy who lacks grace and social prestige, and is victimized by others, Section 7 of that piece encapsules Vollman’s utter lack of poesy and grace in writing. Look at the strained metaphors and cringe-worthy melodrama. One need only recall a similar encounter in Werner Herzog’s great documentary, My Best Fiend, to realize how poor a moment this paragraph attempts to capture, and how poorly it actually presents it:
So the butterfly boy’s pleasures were of a solitary kind. One evening a huge monarch butterfly landed on the top step of his house and he watched it for an hour. It squatted on the welcome mat, moving its gorgeous wings slowly. It seemed very happy. Then it rose into the air and he never saw it again. He remembered that butterfly for the rest of his life.
There are worse paragraphs in this book, and far worse, I’m sure, in Vollmann’s canon, and, no, this paragraph is not as obviously deliterate as many of the paragraphs that aforementioned writers have shat into the public arena, but this is bad writing, very bad, and mawkishly so. The first sentence is not trite, in phrasing, but utterly banal in its depiction. Even in just the reader’s excerption, all of what comes before this seventh part states this of the butterfly boy, so why open a whole section with it? It cannot need recapitulating, nor is it so grand nor gorgeous a piece of prose that it just had to be there- editor, where art thou? We then get the butterfly, and is there any doubt that it had to be a monarch butterfly? One would think, were one to scan literature, that monarch butterflies were 90+ percent of the butterfly world. Then we get the claim that it stayed for an hour. Ok, perhaps poetic license can account for that, but not even a ‘seemed’ is hammered in. Butterflies need to keep moving or else they become easy prey, especially uncamouflaged on a stoop. And, of course, it lands on a welcome mat, rather than a railing, or a brick, and, its wings are described as ‘gorgeous,’ not something slightly less trite, like ‘imperial,’ ‘divine,’ nor, well, anything. Then it rises into the air and is never seen again. The narrative tropes, to this point, in just this one paragraph, are surfeit. Then we get the final sentence, which is the dose of saccharine that induces total retching. My God, the very fact that the moment is written about so mawkishly states indirectly that the incident was remembered and stuck with the butterfly boy. There is ZERO reason to state the obvious. Just bad writing. Period.
The rest of the selection is just as poor, puerile, lacking in depth and insight, and in narrative cliché hell. The next selection is from The Atlas, called Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. , and describes Vollmann’s sister’s death by drowning, at age 6, when he was 9, and Vollmann’s blaming of himself for his carelessness in looking after her. Of course, the recounting of this is in a prefatory note by editor Mccaffery, so to lesson the cringe the reader will experience reading the piece, literarily. Interestingly, I actually did drown in a New Hampshire lake, at the age of 6, like Vollmann’s sister (only three years later), but in my writing of it never descended to the levels that Vollmann does. Note the terrible mix of sciolistic bigwordthrowingarounding, along with overmodified mawkishness:
Your little skull’s a light-globe to help my shadow lead me as you did when I was your brother, older than you but small like you, afraid of the toilet’s cool skull-gape at night. You always held my hand. Now please take me down the slippery dark path, down between the crowds of palms to the lava-filled, frond-curtained river of broad and rapid waterfalls. Until now I’ve scrubbed at the stain of your face on my brain’s floor, your sky, your headstone- I never wanted you to come back! But whenever you did (your ghost some ignored dog to raise itself hopefully at every word), I convinced myself that you loved me most, because when I thought of you I thought of you alone. Can’t you understand that I’m afraid of you? (You’re only caput mortuum.) Now take me to you.
Ok- ‘light-globe,’ ‘shadow lead me,’ ‘slippery dark path,’ ‘you loved me most,’ I’m afraid of you,’ and ‘take me to you.’ Some of these are naked clichés, others contextual clichés. And the modifiers add nothing. Again, where are the editors? And, yes, the piece only gets worse from this first paragraph. Don’t believe me? Here is the end of this selection:
Our parents gave me a toy of yours to totemize you by and told me to keep it forever because you were never coming back. When they were gone, I buried it in the garbage so that it wouldn’t hurt me with its horrifying screams.
Outside, the night skull, you looked for me to hold your hand, but I only screamed.
Sometimes we used to visit your headstone, under which your bones lunged muffled in black dirt. Our mother would cry but I tried not to cry because then you would hear me and get me.
I made your birthday gutter out like wax-light and stumbled the slime-slaked anniversary of your death. I forgot every word you ever said and the sound of your voice and how we played like salamanders, but Mother mothballed your dresses in a cedarwood chest where every year they went smaller and yellower (although I never looked) as your face grew along with mine. Now you’re my white witch.
Suppose I’d never done what they never said I did, my executioneering I mean, would I still have been brazed to ferocity year by year by the memory of your blue face? My blood-writing has quarried you, but I wish that you were still my sister, dancing above the grass.
Again, so much of this writing is so manifestly bad that where to begin is a challenge. There is his sciolist’s tendency to toss in big words like totemize next to nakedly clichéd emotional pornography, only to follow that with bad alliteration and assonance, the expected description of the afterlife of the survivors, and then the bad, forced, yet expected mawkish end. I mean, ‘blood-writing’? Really? Once we get the screams, early on, is there any doubt how this passage will end? And, no, I am not trying to deny Vollmann any real grief, deserved or not, over the death of his sibling, but art (especially any that makes claims to greatness) is simply not about the expression of the self. That is why bumper stickers arose. When one engages to create and propagate art and literature, one must think of others when one writes, not just oneself. Why? Because the self is immaterial to the percipient, and, ultimately, despite any claims by the creator, the raison d’etre of the art is meaningless. Only its effect on the percipient matters. All else is speculation. Hence, I am not concerned with Vollmann’s need to spank his monkey in front of the public. Yes, it is not something I’m drawn to, but if done well, I can elucidate the how, what, and possibly why of its creation, but since, as amply demonstrated in the above samples, it is not done well, I, and no one else, will care.
A bit later, in Part I, Vollmann declaims 32 of his most admired contemporary books, and editor McCaffery makes a point in relating a claim that Vollmann believes that his contemporaries include writers of the last 200 years- hence trying to hagiographize Vollmann into a visionary, above mere passing trends. Too bad it does not show in his work, as selected above. The list is the usual hit and miss garbage that includes minor and bad writers, overpraised classics, and some requisite greats- none of which are justified, save for being ‘liked’ by Vollmann- as if that elucidates a damned thing. This is true of many such lists proffered by bad writers- go Google’em! As example, Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves (his weakest book) makes the cut, while his two masterpieces, The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being- do not. Presumably all of William Faulkner makes it (ugh!), as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and minor sci fi by James Blish, Edgar Allan Poe’s love stories, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, and Herman Melville’s Pierre, rather than Billy Budd, Omoo, Typee, or, naturally, Moby-Dick. Then there’s a selection of ‘experimental writing’ from Thirteen Stories And Thirteen Epitaphs, whose experimentality consists of a lack of paragraph breaks. The actual wordsmithing is as dull as any of the selections I’ve proffered. If you doubt me, still, I quote its end:
-But as yet I did not believe the fact. I would not believe that this wide throat of sunlight that had swallowed us and the ferry so that we could sail to the island of light ahead must soon be strangled, that something would put black fingers on it and squeeze and squeeze until the sunlight choked and died and then the place that I found myself in would be a black place, which was where Elaine Suicide lived. As long as I had known her she had been crying, because although she was loving and wanted to be glamorous (unknowing that she already was) she could not help lashing out carelessly and childishly and selfishly, so she drove away the men she adored and then was miserable and dreamed about them and cried herself to sleep or sat in bed at night smoking cigarettes and watching the moon. I did not want to go to this Crying Place, but because I was leaving home I knew that I had to; it was black in every direction.
Now, go reread that quote. It’s so childish, so bad, so self-indulgent and trite that no context could save it- and none does. The whole piece is as poorly wrought. And, no, this is not satire nor parody. It simply reveals the stunted state of Vollmann’s intellectual and ‘artistic’ growth (and this was published in his early to mid thirties). The man simply has the understanding of a child. Is this because he never grew beyond his ninth year? Who knows. Who cares? That this slobber passed off as literature is put before me is my only concern. Just look at all the clichés and self-flagellation. Editors, like McCaffery and Hemmingson- writers of very limited means and thoughts themselves, are so desperate to try and claim and declaim their peers as greats, to vamp off the ‘glow,’ if you will, of such honorifics, show an utter lack of concern for the progress of humanity, for how can raising up this navel-gazing puerility as art do any food for generations breathing now or in the future? Vollmann simply lacks raw talent, acquired skill with words, and any real vision. Future readers will damn the publishers of this deliterate era as the Philistines and poseurs they are. Let it start with me. Hop on board!
We then get photos by Vollmann hanger-on Ken Miller, then an essay, titled Honesty, from Four Essays, and instead of an ontological or epistemological essay on the word, its meaning, and import, we get more Vollmann flagellation and discourse on his self-loathing and love of prostitutes. Emblemic of all that is wrong with Vollmann is the second paragraph of the essay, which is really a microcosm of the essay and its writer’s oeuvre:
I think I have always been ashamed of my body. I was born with as many moles on my back as a leopard has spots. These are not flat circles of pigment, but actual protrusions. When I was in second grade one of them had to be cut off. A boy who didn’t like me ripped open the stitches, which left a scar about as big as a fifty-cent piece. So I was embarrassed to go swimming with the other children. Later on I got acne. In the past two or three years I’ve begun to get fat- nothing yet more grotesque than the jellyroll thighs of self-indulgence (which actually help keep me warm when I’m in the Arctic), but still something I try to hide. So I never wear shorts, and because of the moles and the acne scars I never take my shirt off, either. I guess that covers most of me.
Vollmann then goes on to discourse on his inner self’s worthlessness and love of prostitutes (again). This is not honesty, nor even shame, but sheer exhibitionism, and it reads like something scribbled by a pudgy twelve year old girl looking in a mirror rather than a then-34 year old ‘adventurer.’ And it’s not even well wrought, so why this need to make a hero of this bad writer? The only reason is because he represents most of the wannabe artists out there. Just as Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace won the MFA lotteries as random hacks chosen to ascend to the heights over tens of thousands of equally bad writers from the MFA writing mills, so too has Vollmann been anointed as the geek poseur as badass writer of no talent whose impoverished writing can serve as spur to many, many equally bad writers, especially those not in the next Eggers-Wallace type MFA exaltation lottery.
Part II, titled Death, War, And Violence is no better than Part I. From Rising Up And Rising Down, a 3300 page tome on Vollmann’s ideas on human violence and morality there is a fact-based article that contains the man’s best writing, although by ‘best’ I mean ‘not bad’ because it is merely straightforward facts, no elaboration nor creativity required. Herein the book’s best written paragraph:
No matter that her murderer had a reason- she died for nothing; and all the toxicology and blood spatter analysis in the world, even if they led to his conviction, cannot change that. The murderer’s execution might mean something; his victim’s killing almost certainly will not.
There it is. I have given you the best paragraph in the whole book. No need to part with your hard earned cash for the rest of the tripe. Now, ask yourself: is this the stylings of a great mind and artist? No. Passably generic journalism is Vollmann’s apex with word. Not that this cannot serve a purpose- even, possibly, a noble one. But, art it is surely not. That victim’s killing almost certainly will mean more than Vollmann’s work. Compared to the work of a great journalist, like Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie LeDuff, in a book like Work And Other Sins, Vollmann’s work, such as Regrets Of A Schoolteacher, is utterly forgettable. It lacks individuation, voice, music, poesy- and this is even more true of his fiction than journalism. Now, aside from Vollmann’s simple lack of natal writing talent, the reason for much of his banal and predictable work is found in another portion from Rising Up And Rising Down, called Some Thoughts On The Value Of Writing In wartime, wherein he writes: ‘Whether or not you believe, as I do, that art is inherently and inescapably political is up to you.’ To such puerile thought and posturing I can only respond as devastatingly as I have before, that ANYTHING can be parallaxed against a single other thing, but it’s an absurdity, for, if I state that ‘All art is about poodles,’ I am stating no less an absurd but truthful claim as Vollmann makes, for if the art in question does not immanently seem to deal with poodles, then, of course, the very fact that it DOES NOT directly deal with poodles is proof that the art, by avoiding mention of poodles, must be making a statement about poodles.
My point in bringing this nonsense forth is to opine on why Vollmann is a bad writer, above and beyond the requisite lack of wordsmithing talent, and that would be he simply lacks any vision and depth, and the book is larded with self-loathing, insipidity, and flat out stupid nostra like the one just quoted above. But, Vollmann reveals his OCD, linear thinking with a selection from the same tome, called Moral Calculus- a 282 page appendix to the 3300 page tome, wherein he tries to reduce critical thought to Lowest Common Denominator bullet points. I am not even going to bother to reproduce a portion here, for it is so silly and inane that, well, if you are compelled to laugh, go seek it out yourself!
Part III is called On Love, Sex, Prostitutes, And Pornography, wherein, in an excerpt on prostitution, after much debate, Vollmann tells the reader that he prefers the working definition of prostitution to all others: A prostitute is someone who exchanges sexual services or intimacy for compensation. Well, duh! Yes, this includes more than just hookers and call girls, but the point is, no one disputes this! Yet vexed be the patron saint of nerds! However, he is utterly flummoxed by pornography, for, in an essay titled List Of What Porn Is [And Isn’t] he rips the first President Bush and Feminists, while proffering this first point:
1. Pornography has two components.
A. The aim of the pornographer, which may or may not be realized: to give pleasure.
B. The effect which it inevitably has on some people (who may or may not be distinct from the pornographer’s intended group); it offends. Both these elements must exist for a work to be pornography, just as both sex and compensation must be present to constitute prostitution. A work which sets out only to offend cannot titillate, and so is not pornography. A work which titillates everybody cannot aspire to pornography’s underdog status.
Well, where to begin? Clearly Vollmann thinks his obtuse meditations qualify him as a low brow philosopher, but virtually everything stated in this one point is wrong. Pornography may or may not give pleasure but its aim is always titillation, and of a prurient nature. As Woody Allen once said: ‘Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right.’ The same can be said of porno: the dirtier the more pornographic. If this pleases, so be it. If not, it does not matter, for, to the pornographer, only the prurience, and prurience usually for a profit, matters. Dirtiness and money are the two components of pornography for, like prostitution, pornography is part of the sex trade or industry. Monetary exchange is vital to it. And, as with art, in pornography, intent is meaningless, only its effect. That Vollmann is so muttonheadedly PC on these matters suggests strongly that his very claims of associations with sex trade folks is bunkum. Pleasure and offense? No, prurience and financial gain.
Part III ends with a piece of doggerel called Prayer Against Angels, which editor Hemmingson claims contains elements of William Blake within. A non-poet can state this only because William Blake is the avatar for any poet who wants to shoehorn his insanity into unreadable poetastry. Here’s a horrid trite 4 line excerpt:
whose blue-eyed blossom preserves me in the way
of justice, that I may outstay
temptation’s flicker, temptation’s fire-
Go ahead, groan. No? Here’s the ending:
upon my Sea of Candles, my Sea of Woe.
I will not answer- from love I lurch.
Darkness, arise! The world is my church.
Part IV is called On Travel, and offers nothing. Part V is called On Writing, Literature, And Culture, and contains this clueless claim on art, from an essay, from Four Essays, creatively titled Writing:
Every joy I have ever experienced , even the most physiological, ultimately reaches me as aesthetic. Whether writing is knowing or whether it is singing, the love remains, the joy, the daring, the exaltedness when one approaches, at however far a remove, perfection. Shake the greatest art ever, and dross will come out. But honest effort for its own sake is beauty….Write a bad poem, and you still might have seen God or gained enlightenment at the feet of the Devil.
At this point, it must be obvious to all that the only relevant question regarding William T. Vollman is whether he is a worse writer/artist or thinker. As his trite, pathetic writing speaks volumes of its own lack of worth, let me quickly denude all the still hyperbolic claims made in this piece.
First, I will avoid the obvious and easy slap at the man by stating that Vollmann surely knows of dross, having crafted a career of it. Second, I cannot dispute Vollmann’s claims for himself, but a good shit can achieve the same result as his first quotes sentence claims, so this says next to nothing of Vollmann’s claims on art, in general. Second, great art can have beauty or aesthetic, but neither is a requirement. Nor is perfection a requirement for greatness. Depth and vision can be present in a flawed work of art and it can be great. A perfect work of art on a trifling matter is not great. And honest effort, or any intent, is utterly meaningless in art. And great art almost always hits the mind, and filters down to the emotions, even if the percipient is unaware of this effect, and even if it seems almost instantaneous. However, when so-called art aims for emotion first it renders a work into treacle, tearjerkers, and pabulum, and usually dies before even entering the minds of the intended victims….er, I mean, percipients. Art simply is communication, and at its highest level. What it communicates is not as important as how it communicates. Art is at its most arty when seen as a verb, not a noun. And, art can be brutal and ugly, and great. Beauty is an elective, at best.
But, Vollmann’s idiocy on art, admixed with his palpably and demonstrably bad writing, can lead to some gems as this, from his novel Whore For Gloria’s A Note To Publishers: ‘Whores For Gloria is, in my belief, of the same quality as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Grapes Of Wrath.’ I have not read Vollmann’s book in full, but given all the above, I can safely state that the chances of it reaching the first solid book’s heights are next to nil, and, of reaching Steinbeck’s masterwork, utterly nil. Yet, I have no doubt that Vollmann, who seems to have constructed his own G.I. Joe (1980s action figures version) like fantasy life, actually believes the tripe he types, and page 332, listing 7 rules for writing, from American Writing Disease: Diagnosis Of A Disease, proves this, and shows Vollmann is a phage in the disease, as his very first point- We should never write without feeling- utterly intellectually disqualifies him from the realm of art and into the realm of adman and dogmatist. Again, art aimed solely at the emotion almost always fails, and art constructed of just emotion virtually always fails, whereas art aimed at the intellect, and constructed with it, cannot fail to touch emotions, for, contrary to myth, the brain is the seat of emotion, and to fire a neuron over an exquisite turn of phrase can, in a Butterfly Effect, not fail to birth a satisfaction- i.e.- an emotion. None of this, however, has any cogence nor tangency to William T. Vollmann, a writer who does not even follow his own ridiculous rules.
So, how exactly did this cross between Forrest Gump, Henry Darger, David (still dead ) Foster Wallace, Chuck Buk, and Ernest Hemingway’s lesser second cousin get such a huge reputation? Well, aside from his fawning acolytes-cum-editors, who value supposed ‘badassery’ over quality, there are the Clement Greenbergs to his talentless Jackson Pollock. One of the cult of Vollmann is professional literary sciolist and ‘critic’, Steven Moore, who writes:
Vollmann’s verbal prowess, empathy, and astonishing range put him in a class apart from his contemporaries.
Ok, he is likely better than Wallace of Frey or Eggers, in that he can craft a competent linear paragraph journalistically. But, so what? Does this mean Molly Ivins or William F. Buckley could write novels of any worth? Of course not. In this essay I have selected eleven excerpts of Vollmann’s writing, from almost as many sources, and, trust me, these are a good cross-section of selections from the book. Is there anything that suggests ‘verbal prowess’ or an ‘astonishing range’? Seriously. Need I annotate these selections to a ludicrous degree? Need I do that for the book? Clichés, self-loathing, flaccid, unmusicked lines, predictable word choices and modifiers. And the really terrible thing about ‘critics’ like Moore is that they disservice readers and culture by foisting these bad writers, like Vollmann, Wallace, Eggers, Zadie Smith, and countless others, upon the masses. It’s a slight justice that most of these authors, if they ever even have any financial success, never repeat that success, for one can only fool an audience once, then the fools move on to the next overhyped sub-mediocrity. But, aside from the intellectual lack displayed by the Moores of the world, is the fact that, unwittingly, they almost always betray themselves. Moore clearly ‘likes’ Vollmann’s writing because it supposedly displays ‘empathy.’ Well, so do many things, but art does not require this quality. Given Moore’s background, it is far likelier that he ‘envies’ Vollmann’s supposed life of adventure and debauchery, even if, as I’ve strongly hinted, it’s mostly cock and bull, perhaps the biggest literary fraud since Alex Haley was busted for plagiarizing parts of his genealogical novel, Roots.
But he’s not alone. Let me quote one more, Ian Buruma, from the New York Review Of Books, who reviews the same book I am reviewing. Buruma writes:
Vollmann, however, is not Kawabata or Mishima. He is an American who sees the appeal of Japanese fatalism, but whose instincts rebel against it. All through his essay on beauty he returns to his rebellion. Here is one example:
I see the mask of beauty, and I want to kiss it. Then what? I taste wood.
Drawn to the mask of love, I give myself. My fulfillment will be separation. One will stop loving the other; or one will die. Wait awhile; wait awhile.
No, I reject that! I want grace that lasts forever…
The paradox is that rebellion against fate, the attempt to stop time, to be always young, leads to a kind of death too. For to stop the process of decay is to stop living. It is perhaps a very American form of death, the umpteenth facelift, the short skirts wrapped tight around the withered thighs. Yet there is also something grand about Vollmann’s American rejection of fatalism. His thirst for experience is what drives him on in his Quixotic quests, from the streets of San Francisco, to the battlefields of Afghanistan, to the borderlands of Mexico, to the Noh theaters of Tokyo and the teahouses of Kyoto and Kanazawa, where geishas dance for him “like jewels in the darkness.”
I quote Buruma’s essay because it’s unfortunately typical of the crap that passes for literary criticism these days- off the rack pabulum with blurb-ready quotes. Now, in the essay mentioned by Buruma, there is no rebellion, but rebellion is a good buzzword for acolytes and critics who are disingenuous to try and sway, especially, gullible young readers into thinking that the writer under review is somehow ‘cool’ for he is a ‘rebel,’ because most readers of any merit will easily see all the flaws in Vollmann’s writings that I have manifested. Then we get the ill-selected ‘quote’: Paragraph One- can we get any more trite? Paragraph Two- expounding on the first cliché with a second one, the giving of oneself- then a third: death! Ooh, you rebel, Billy Volls, you! Paragraph Three- two sentences, two clichés. Goddamn! So, this is Buruma’s ‘rebellion’? Then the critic- and I’m not gonna even bother with the quote marks around critic, for it’s clearly not criticism. Read Buruma’s last quotes paragraph- a cascade of cliché, and then ending with his own quoted cliché from Vollmann, as if to say, this kind of banality can be yours, too, if only you rebel from adulthood, intellect, creativity, and art!
It’s too easy, it really is. Aside from being a really bad writer, the only things I can state about William T. Vollmann is that he is void of vision (the term Vollmannic is never likely to enter the English lexicon) and ambition, suffers from logorrhea of the digits, a grand and profound lack of writing talent and intellect- as well as humor, is possibly a sufferer of OCD or bipolar disorder, and that and this book, this ill wrought rot, Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader, is either a sick decades-long joke, or a literary fraud, which, if the case, should allow the many dissatisfied purchasers of this tome the ability to sue Vollmann, McCaffery, and Hemmingson for damages for intellectual and artistic abuse. After all, the editors claimed it was a ‘Greatest Hits’ sort of book, so where are the hits? And, for those who might claim it is unfair of me to state the things I do about Vollmann’s corpus from just having read this one book, it is worth considering that the editors, and Vollmann, specifically chose the passages presented as, yes, the ‘best’ examples of Vollmann’s writing, so it is certainly fair for me, or any critic, to assume that this indeed, does represent the best the man has to offer. And, in short, it’s not nearly enough to justify the overpraise and fawning. The only possible positive thing one might say for the book is that it’s a high priced ($17.95) advertisement against wasting any more of one’s money of the rest of his canon. Yes, Vollmann’s love of hookers, and desire to abuse them with poorly chosen words, is sure to keep him a cult writer (of the cult of the self sort), of ever decreasing dimensions, for a few centuries, right alongside his heroes, Bukowski and Burroughs, but he’s also as bad, or worse, a writer, for neither of those two Killer B’s had such grandiose delusions, nor verbosity. Vollmann is something more, or worse; in fact, he’s worse than merely bad or terrible, in terms of writing- his work is utterly pointless. Nothing he has written has not been written better by others before him.
Oh, and lest I forget, for those who would compare him to other similarly bad writers, well, let me come full circle: to the fans of David Foster Wallace: still dead. Take that!