"This will be Worthwhile, and I will be a Better Person for reading it. At my next job interview, Ill tell them my best quality is Ive read William T. Vollmann..."
my fluent mundo
momentarily foiled by vollmann, while simultaneously rescued by caulfield
You know that horrid job-interview question, "What is your worst quality?" I used to freeze when I got that, my head filling with nothing but self-demolishing replies like "Im lazy" and "I quit jobs a lot," in a terrible quandary because I have a reflexive honesty dunned into me by a Catholic mother. But Ive worked on it, and now I have an appropriately canny answer ready for that question. Its "Sometimes Im too ambitious and take on too much." Ha! It looks like Im an overachiever, which is the idea. But its true, too. This month, for my column, I wanted to write about a novel by William T. Vollmann The Royal Family (Penguin, 2000). I bought a copy and started reading it a while ago, thinking Id be done in plenty of time to write this months column. But that didnt happen, as Ill explain.
William T. Vollmann, for those not familiar with this fiction writing phenomenon, is the author of around eight or nine (its hard to keep up with his rate of production) novels and three short story collections, as well as a non-fiction work called The Afghanistan Picture Show. Hes working on a projected seven-novel historical series dealing with (quoting the Penguin jacket copy) "the repeated collisions between Native Americans and their European colonizers and oppressors." Hes been a foreign correspondent for SPIN magazine, reporting from Southeast Asia on subjects like the trail of Pol Pots murderous violence and poverty and prostitution in places like Bangkok and Hong Kong. Hes also written on the shadowy sides of American desperation the non-therapyized versions of poverty, drugs and the sex trade in California.
But since I made it through The Butterfly Stories around 1994, reading a book by William T. Vollmann has started to seem to me like the quest to slay the great white whale of contemporary American writing. The guy is a maximalist profoundly smart, sensitive and imaginative, but never brief. The Royal Family is almost 800 pages long, for crying out loud. That makes it really, really bad subway reading. You need a small, light paperback on the subway, so I end up grabbing old books off the shelf on my way out the door and rereading stuff like Catcher in the Rye, just because they dont weigh much and can be held in one hand. Vollmanns The Royal Family is actually hard to read even in my studio apartment. Its size and weight make it awkward to prop up when Im lying on my bed. Once I stuck it into my knapsack and lugged it into Manhattan, thinking Id read it in some café. But I never got the time, so instead I just had its weight to deal with all day. And a kind of ostentatiously huge-looking thing to pull out and read when I got a seat on the subway.
I see this has turned into a rant about how hard it is to simply read in this city, so pardon the extreme localism of these comments. But other people have echoed a certain awe or reluctance when it comes to tackling Vollmann. One friend said: "I feel so overloaded with words and information the thought of trying one of his books is just too much." Ive decided to deal with getting through Vollmanns book by reporting on it in stages, as I read it over the next few months. I will share with you, dear readers, my struggles as I hit walls of discouragement, or my excitement as I catch a wave and make a good, 70-page run or so. I will detail the alternating exhilaration and disappointment of reading a large, challenging book, and it will be like youre reading it with me, which of course you could do, writing in with your own impressions and your own troughs and high points.
Okay so, the first thing to observe is that it looks cool the cover is a photo of three naked women, semi-intimately positioned on a bed, with some interesting colored circles superimposed on the image. The women have fleshy, non-toned bodies. Its a dark-tinged photograph, and a somewhat debauched and sinister image. All right! I thought. This book will go into dark corners. It isnt about the dull, image-conscious, Apollonian America were all sick of seeing reflected back at us. This will be Worthwhile, and I will be a Better Person for reading it. At my next job interview, Ill tell them my best quality is Ive read William T. Vollmann.
But the real trick was actually reading the book. I started out. Readers, I was pleasantly surprised by not having to work too hard to get into the story. Vollmann is such a smart writer that he catches your attention even when hes rendering something fairly well-worn. The first scene of The Royal Family has a hardboiled tone that isnt unfamiliar if youve read The Butterfly Stories or anything by Raymond Chandler. As the novel opens, two men are in a room with a prostitute named Domino, interrogating her. The men seem hard and insensitive; Domino seems tough yet victimized. The man named Brady leaves, the man named Tyler stays. Our first hint that the author is aware of the clichés operating is a paragraph near the bottom of the page:
Tyler untabbed his beer and burped
. His narrowed eyes guarded his soul by occluding and devaluing it.
Chandler wouldnt say that, though the whole Chandler tradition is about guys occluding and devaluing their interiors by rough exteriors. Vollmann goes on:
Tonight he was vulgarizing himself still further to play some conception of an appropriate part, perfectly aware of his inconsequentiality to the blonde but habit-driven to conform and mimic, just as when spying on some potentially unfaithful banker in the financial district, hed wear his old London Fog and stand with the suspects photograph hidden inside the latest Wall Street Journal. And tonight he was a nasty old whoredog. Lets see what you look like naked, he said.
Its the low self-esteem contained in the phrase "vulgarizing himself still further" that gives you a clue to the depressive sensibility of the main character, Henry Tyler, whos a private detective in San Francisco. His beat is mostly adulterous spouses, but as the book starts hes been asked to find a mysterious figure called "the Queen" who operates within the world of prostitutes in the Tenderloin district. Private detective is a perfect identity for a writer to sink his alter ego into, both as alias and metaphor. Its a marginal occupation that leaves you alone for most of the day, observing and playing roles, which is a good description of the fiction writers strategy. (As Joyce said, you need a combination of silence, exile and cunning.) And Chandler, who was a brilliant writer and characterizer, also used the theme of an intelligent observer following peoples trails of deception, which was an effective device for telling seamy tales underlain with tortured sensitivity and disillusionment.
Still and all, weve seen Vollmann immerse himself in seedy settings before what will keep this story aloft for its gargantuan page count? Turns out hes found a perfect structural conceit in the story of Cain and Abel. Henry Tyler is the faintly lost protagonist, who visits prostitutes as both customer and detective. His brother John is a wealthy financial worker, mysteriously tangled up in the same neighborhood and with the same people as Henry, but from a different angle and with radically different motives. John, an ill-tempered, workaholic Yuppie, is as unlike Henry as, well Abel was unlike Cain. Johns Korean wife, Irene, is Henrys lover. John is as indifferent to Irene as Henry is smitten with every detail about her. Henrys job is to catch spouses in infidelity, so in a sense hes tailing himself. John, it turns out, is not the most honest husband himself, and starts to figure into Henrys job in a way he didnt anticipate. It all begins to tie into a Gordian knot, beautifully and subtly intertwined by Vollmann in the first 70 or so pages of the book.
Yes, its clever and catchy and its sensitively rendered. I hate John, and I am agonized for the sensitive Irene. I admire Henrys tenderness and integrity as he conducts himself amidst the seedy details of his daily work. The only problem is, I became too tied up in this tension-strung triangle. When tragedy strikes around page 71, the story loses that particular configuration. The tension between Henry and John is stronger than ever its not yet openly acknowledged between them that Henry was Irenes lover, but John seems pretty sure. The two brothers will clearly work their antagonisms out as we go on. But without the triangle, we go back to Henrys work trying to track down the Queen, who is like the Queen of the prostitutes. Its a frustrating search that, so far, has resulted only in false leads. Its not boring, but so far, it doesnt have the spellbinding tension of a private detective whos involved with his brothers wife as both of them try to live out versions of the good life in California.
Thats where I am. The book was delighting me, but suddenly, I stopped reading. Ill go back to it, of course. But I got significantly sidetracked by my re-experiencing of Catcher in the Rye. Like all students of fiction, sometimes I turn to classics to see what life they still have. Catcher holds up. I hadnt read it since I was young really young. I was in love with a man who I thought was like Holden Caulfield a while back, and when I told my father that, he said, "Good God, I hope not." I was confused. Had I misremembered Holden? But no, it was my father who was confused here. Salingers book is a jazzy character study, but also a lesson in the importance of watching what characters do, not just what they say. Holden seems like a typical wiseass adolescent in some ways, but if you look at the things he actually does, its clear hes one of the only characters in the novel who ever does anything for anybody else. I looked up critical writing on the book and found reviews published at the time, all of which seemed to concentrate on Holdens voice, his jarring mood swings, erratic behavior and aggressive condemnations of phonies. But no one seems to remark on the fact that Holden consistently tries to help other people he has lent his typewriter to a fellow student at the beginning, he writes term papers for his womanizing roommate, etc. While hes on his lonely bender in New York, ashamed to go home and admit hes been kicked out of yet another prep school, he continues his pattern of trying to give: he buys women drinks, he invites even homely ones to dance, he pays for a prostitute but doesnt want to have sex with her. It isnt until hes with his little sister Phoebe, in the last section of the book, that any character seems able to give to Holden in the selfless way hes given away almost everything he has, throughout the novel. Remember the hunting cap hes worn, given away, and gotten back during his time in New York a freezing few days, right before Christmas. Phoebe originally takes the hat, but in the park she puts it back on her brothers head, rightly perceiving that he needs it. Its that gesture of love that seems to unlock the ability in Holden to see the world more as an adult might, and less as an angry child. In the scene where he watches Phoebe on the merry-go-round in Central Park. Phoebe keeps reaching for the gold ring and keeps missing, like all the other kids. But Holden thinks, from his spectators perch on a bench, that kids just have to try to reach for it anyway, and grown-ups shouldnt stop them. This is the first time Holden has identified with grown-ups in any way, and recognized an unrealistic need as something that needs to be indulged but not necessarily approved. Its his first expression of the combination of realism and resignation that accompany adulthood. While not a spectacular moment compared to others in the book, its a genuine expression of growth for him.
Catcher in the Rye is a swift trip, a voice-driven book that may not deserve the accolade great. But then again, it may. The growing pains of late adolescence have hardly ever been given a more wrenchingly emotional treatment. Vollmann is doing his own wrenching in The Royal Family. Hes writing from the postmodern anomie of our age, which is different from the post-war anomie Salinger wrote from, but not that different. Both writers are struggling against the sense of cooptation and meaninglessness in American life. A sadness permeates both books. Beyond that, I cant make a good comparison since Im stalled in the Vollmann, as I described. But next issue, Ill report on how he has used the San Francisco underworld and his protagonists immersion in it as a search for identity and meaning, which I believe is some of the subject matter it will plumb. From the section Ive read, I sense it will also yield a lot more, and Ill tell you about it. I swear I will.