my fluent mundo: on vollmann and gaitskill

I think there is a streak of misogyny in the way he writes about women, but Vollmann raises the question himself (on p. 200), earning my respect. The next time I picked up the book I was in Vermont, where I am now, and I find his intelligence is burning through my objections and doubts, as well as offering a steadying hand from the dark side as I try to adjust to rural paradise….”


by kristina eldridge


I haven’t been feeling that great. My world seems upside-down. I’ve been reading Rick Moody, his memoir about his descent into alcoholism, depression and breakdown, called The Black Veil. It has hit some nerves.

Moody really likes italics. In The Black Veil, when it works, the italics recreate the tone of suppressed hysteria that Moody played masterfully in Purple America. I think the book does work on the whole, because it strikes me as an honest account of some truly painful episodes, but some sections are weak, and Moody has been attacked for self-indulgence, which I think is accurate on some counts. But I’m not up to assessing this book.

I think in the summer, emotions are more raw. I like summer, I like the humid heat that clenches around you like an embrace, but I fall into an abyss in summer anyway, with its overripe smells and the memory of the freedom and disarray of endless childhood summers, the feeling of being out in the middle of a big lake without any of your friends, because they were all away, and that great gulf of emptiness.

What does this have to do with my ostensible subject, William T. Vollmann? Not much, just that I picked up The Royal Family some time ago, read a few pages and had two strong reactions to the few pages I read. One section blew me away with its tenderness, and the other one repelled and sickened me. Since the part that repelled and sickened me came second, I put the book down.

In most parts of this book, Vollmann is writing about prostitutes in San Francisco. It’s a rough milieu — the language is harsh and the lives he depicts are harsher. In one passage, Henry Tyler, the private-eye protagonist, is talking to Sunflower, a whore who had a wretched childhood, as she describes (Vollmann doesn’t use quotation marks):

My father fucked my sister first time when she was five. He fucked her doggy-style, and he put his hand over her mouth so she couldn’t scream….Then he fucked me when I was five, and then he fucked my other sister when she was five.

Sunflower tells Tyler that the youngest sister told on her father, and he was prevented from harming that sister, but to ensure protection for her other sisters, Sunflower let her father go on molesting her. It’s an agonizing scene to read. And this part of Sunflower’s recitation really killed me:

I wanna be a shield, she said. I was a shield for my sister, and now I protect all the men who come to me. They give me their pain. It comes out their cockheads. It just hits me. It just hurts me. It stays with me. That’s all I wanna do. I wanna be a shield for all the men in this world, and all the women, and all the kids.

It’s heartbreaking, her belief that she can deaden herself to save others. The speech also has inescapable echoes of Holden Caulfield’s professed longing to catch all the kids coming through the rye. The savior complex can be offensive, or condescending, if it occurs in an insensitive person, but in the cases of Sunflower and Holden, characters who haven’t been given enough love or gentleness themselves, it’s extremely poignant. In this passage, Vollmann’s writing rings with compassion and humanity. A page later, he’s getting inside the mind of a child molester. And he’s doing it really well. I mean, astonishingly well. And then he’s introducing you to the idea that pedophiles trade the saliva of young boys with each other over the Internet. And even though it’s amazing that he’s learned this, and his pedophile character is an FBI snitch so all his disgusting insider knowledge is put to good use, it is horrible and creepy to read and it was at this point that I put the book down. Page 145.

For some idle reason, I reread Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior before I returned to The Royal Family. That was a revelation. I hadn’t reread Bad Behavior, Gaitskill’s first story collection, since before I moved to New York. Now I know the exact streets where her characters do their lonely wandering, and this time around, I felt differently toward those characters, less awed by their eccentricity. I still admired Gaitskill’s delicately worded descriptions of minute shifts of feeling between people, but her characters seemed less purely fascinating and more lost. But one thing re-experiencing Gaitskill did (I also read around in Because They Wanted To) was it gave me a strong, intelligent, female point of view on sex and prostitution. She portrays prostitutes so differently from Vollmann that it made me wonder if there’s a streak of misogyny in the way he emphasizes his prostitute characters’ physical sickness and dirtiness. Gaitskill’s prostitutes are far less destitute, and tend to have drifted into ‘the life’ out of choice rather than necessity. Nevertheless, I wondered after experiencing several of Gaitskill’s lofty, scrupulously clean hookers rendered in her probing, honest style — does Vollmann have to be so focused on every rank odor and venereal problem these women possess?

I think there is a streak of misogyny in the way he writes about women, but Vollmann raises the question himself (on p. 200), earning my respect. The next time I picked up the book I was in Vermont, where I am now, and I find his intelligence is burning through my objections and doubts, as well as offering a steadying hand from the dark side as I try to adjust to rural paradise. He is just so damn smart about the malaise and pointlessness of middle-class American life in 2002. You remember his brother John, the Yuppie lawyer who was married to the sensitive Irene, a Korean woman who was Henry’s lover. John is now joylessly involved with a woman named Celia. Unlike Irene, Celia is content with John’s cool, indifferent treatment. Vollmann is dead on with his portrait of a person cut off from all her deeper feelings:

To her, and perhaps to many others in her generation, it seemed that the future would be worse than the present, that ‘stability’ was a fantasy, and therefore that the proper way to live was to work decently and inconspicuously, for good compensation, and, while not foregoing retirement funds, to spend as much as possible of that compensation on movies, restaurants, ‘fun’ clothes, nice furniture, a good view, and such indulgences.

This may be slightly contemptuous, but in its depiction of a sterile existence, it’s resonant because it’s so familiar – many of us feel sometimes that we’re in this exact kind of stupid hamster wheel, encouraged not to delve into dark questions but to enjoy the fruits of the moment because the bigger picture is too far beyond our control to contemplate, which means it’s too awful to even look at.

The big question of Vollmann’s novel that begins to loom is, how will he link his two worlds? The whores who walk a tightrope of illness, addiction, loss and cynicism, and the miserable Yuppies who are living ‘clean’ but can boast of little else? A clue comes on the next page, when Vollmann continues to write about Celia:

It had become her intention to marry John even though she had no faith that he or any man could be ‘right’ for her. When she thought of him, she thought of compatibility, security, stylishness. Sometimes she thought of having a baby. All these supposed motives helped to conceal that brutishly simple craving for companionship which draws widowers to street whores, crowds to dictators, monks to God.

And there it is. I’m only on page 214, so the details of how the two worlds will interact remain to be seen. Remember, this mofo is almost 800 pages long. But I’m finding it thoroughly rewarding to plough through this study of two sides of contemporary American despair. Vollmann is worth the effort, though who knows how long I will be doing this stop-and-start business. In any event, I will be keeping you posted.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002


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