The Mystery of Female Grace

Kissing the Mask:

Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines
by William T. VollmannEcco
504 pp., $29.99
Konomi-san, an apprentice geisha, in the Gion district of Kyoto, 2006; photograph by William T. Vollmann from Kissing the Mask

Some twenty years ago, William T. Vollmann wrote a remarkable novel, entitled Whores for Gloria,1 about prostitutes plying their trade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He has written about prostitutes in other books too, notably in The Royal Family and Butterfly Stories, about an American’s adventures in Southeast Asia. In “The Shame of It All,” an essay reprinted in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (2004), he writes:

I have worshiped them and drunk from their mouths; I’ve studied at their feet. Many have saved me; one or two I’ve raised up. They’ve cost me money and made me money. People might say that we’ve “exploited” each other. Some have trusted me; a few have loved me—or at least said so. They’ve healed my loneliness, infected me with diseases and despair.

Vollmann likes to do his homework. To research Whores for Gloria, he spent many hours with whores, drinking and smoking crack, paying them to tell him stories, and whatever else was required. But unlike many others afflicted with nostalgie de la boue, he does not romanticize his subject:

The kitchen floor was black with dirt. Nicole lay down on it and raised her legs to make her cunt so nice and tight for him, and Jimmy stood over her watching the groping of those legs, which were speckled with boils and lesions, until her left ankle came to rest on the chair that she had sat on, while the sole of her right foot had to be content with bracing itself against Jimmy’s refrigerator.

One of Vollmann’s literary tics is to repeat certain images in unexpected ways—in the case of Whores for Gloria, flowery images. Jimmy, observing Nicole’s genitals, which “glistened under the kitchen lights with the brightness of metal foil,” remarks: “Your pussy is just like a flower.” This elicits another Vollmann tic, the footnote displaying the author’s quirky erudition, often about some historical example of horrific violence:

“I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Gala tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes,” wrote Vittorio Mussolini. “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the center and the group opened up like a flowering rose. It was entertaining.”

It might seem a very, very long way from the scuzzy, crack-addicted denizens of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (or indeed the bombing of hapless tribesmen in Ethiopia) to the refinements of Japan’s Noh theater, and yet, once one gets the drift of Vollmann’s preoccupations, the transition is not as radical as one might think. The main character in Whores for Gloria is Jimmy, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, seedy, fat, and unprepossessing in every way, but for one odd kind of grace: he is a romantic, forever searching for his great love, the ideal woman, his…

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