This will be Worthwhile, and I will be a Better Person for reading it. At my next job interview, I’ll tell them my best quality is I’ve read William T. Vollmann…”
by kristina eldredge
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 “I’m 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 I’ve worked on it, and now I have an appropriately canny answer ready for that question. It’s “Sometimes I’m too ambitious and take on too much.” Ha! It looks like I’m an overachiever, which is the idea. But it’s 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 I’d be done in plenty of time to write this month’s column. But that didn’t happen, as I’ll explain.
William T. Vollmann, for those not familiar with this fiction writing phenomenon, is the author of around eight or nine (it’s 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. He’s 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.” He’s been a foreign correspondent for SPIN magazine, reporting from Southeast Asia on subjects like the trail of Pol Pot’s murderous violence and poverty and prostitution in places like Bangkok and Hong Kong. He’s 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 don’t weigh much and can be held in one hand. Vollmann’s The Royal Family is actually hard to read even in my studio apartment. Its size and weight make it awkward to prop up when I’m lying on my bed. Once I stuck it into my knapsack and lugged it into Manhattan, thinking I’d 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.” I’ve decided to deal with getting through Vollmann’s 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 you’re 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. It’s a dark-tinged photograph, and a somewhat debauched and sinister image. All right! I thought. This book will go into dark corners. It isn’t about the dull, image-conscious, Apollonian America we’re 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, I’ll tell them my best quality is I’ve 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 he’s rendering something fairly well-worn. The first scene of The Royal Family has a hardboiled tone that isn’t unfamiliar if you’ve 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 wouldn’t 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, he’d wear his old London Fog and stand with the suspect’s photograph hidden inside the latest Wall Street Journal. And tonight he was a nasty old whoredog. – Let’s see what you look like naked, he said.
It’s 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, who’s a private detective in San Francisco. His beat is mostly adulterous spouses, but as the book starts he’s 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. It’s a marginal occupation that leaves you alone for most of the day, observing and playing roles, which is a good description of the fiction writer’s 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 people’s trails of deception, which was an effective device for telling seamy tales underlain with tortured sensitivity and disillusionment.
Still and all, we’ve seen Vollmann immerse himself in seedy settings before – what will keep this story aloft for its gargantuan page count? Turns out he’s 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. John’s Korean wife, Irene, is Henry’s lover. John is as indifferent to Irene as Henry is smitten with every detail about her. Henry’s job is to catch spouses in infidelity, so in a sense he’s tailing himself. John, it turns out, is not the most honest husband himself, and starts to figure into Henry’s job in a way he didn’t 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, it’s clever and catchy and it’s sensitively rendered. I hate John, and I am agonized for the sensitive Irene. I admire Henry’s 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 – it’s not yet openly acknowledged between them that Henry was Irene’s 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 Henry’s work trying to track down the Queen, who is like the Queen of the prostitutes. It’s a frustrating search that, so far, has resulted only in false leads. It’s not boring, but so far, it doesn’t have the spellbinding tension of a private detective who’s involved with his brother’s wife as both of them try to live out versions of the good life in California.
That’s where I am. The book was delighting me, but suddenly, I stopped reading. I’ll 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 hadn’t 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. Salinger’s 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, it’s clear he’s 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 Holden’s 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 he’s on his lonely bender in New York, ashamed to go home and admit he’s 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 doesn’t want to have sex with her. It isn’t until he’s 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 he’s given away almost everything he has, throughout the novel. Remember the hunting cap he’s 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 brother’s head, rightly perceiving that he needs it. It’s 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 spectator’s perch on a bench, that kids just have to try to reach for it anyway, and grown-ups shouldn’t 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. It’s his first expression of the combination of realism and resignation that accompany adulthood. While not a spectacular moment compared to others in the book, it’s 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. He’s 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 can’t make a good comparison since I’m stalled in the Vollmann, as I described. But next issue, I’ll report on how he has used the San Francisco underworld and his protagonist’s 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 I’ve read, I sense it will also yield a lot more, and I’ll tell you about it. I swear I will.