Vollmann, born in 1959, has published eight novels (four of which are part of his Seven Dreams series, a historicofictional account of the settlement of North America), three collections of stories (including The Atlas), a memoir about his experiences in Afghanistan, and an extraordinary seven-volume, two-thousand-plus-page meditation on violence called Rising Up and Rising Down (2003). In 2004, he produced an abridgment of this last work (just 726 pages, not including the acknowledgments) and the tone of his preface makes clear why it is so easy to like him and also why you might not want his company all the time. “The longer version of Rising Up and Rising Down,” he says, “took me twenty-three years, counting editorial errands. The abridgment took me half an hour.” And:
The single justification which I can offer [for the length of the original version] is that I believe it needed to be that long. This abridgment likewise has only one justification: I did it for the money. In other words, I can’t pretend (although you may disagree) that a one-volume reduction is any improvement upon the full version. All the same, it’s not necessarily worse. For one thing, the possibility now exists that someone might read it.
Vollmann is a writer who is both stylish and garrulous, a combination I thought impossible until I started to read him. He is also both tough and sentimental, but this is a more familiar mix: he’s seen it all but he still hasn’t lost his innocence. Here he is—as the narrator of a story in The Atlas—left holding the jacket of a prostitute who has gone out onto the streets of San Francisco to look for crack. He riffles
through the lining, into which all kinds of objects have fallen: lighters, Vaseline, tissues, a hamburger wrapping, a broken cigarette, some matches, “and finally, like some sweet secret, a little Tootsie Roll.” He is touched by the Tootsie Roll, and says he doesn’t know why. But in the next sentence he knows why. “It was like her, the dearness of her hidden inside all the greed and the lies, the goodness of her that the badness drew on and exhibited and used for its own selfish work.”
And here he is—he or another avatar in another story—reading a letter from a Japanese girl. He has written a passionate missive to her, and she says in reply, among more mundane things, “Please come back alive from Burma. Because I love you, too.” He treasures the letter and its reciprocation of passion, reads it again and again, but gradually its potency fades. “One night the letter was used up. Instead of tacit it seemed lukewarm.” When he looks at the letter again a week later it is “not lukewarm but sisterly, loving, enthusiastic, not at all erotic.”
He said to himself: How can the meaning of these words squirm and wriggle so much on my mind’s hook?
But then …