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 he thought: After all, I never knew what anything else meant, so why should I know what this means?
Six months later he hears that the girl is about to marry someone else.
“It was like her”; “I never knew what anything else meant.” Both the confident moralizing, the certainty of allegorical goodness in the midst of allegorical badness, and the easy skepticism, the quick slide from verbal uncertainty into total ignorance, are characteristic of Vollmann’s writing. But they are characteristically stylized too, matters of performance. As soon as we hear his voice, he has another one. He lays himself open but he moves on, leaving us to pick up the pieces, construct some sort of meaning of our own. Is he saying, does the slight mawkishness of his language suggest, that the prostitute’s goodness is his own article of faith, not a fact about her? Do we hear in the faint note of self-pity not that he doesn’t know what things mean but that he can’t bear “the squirm and wriggle” of words? Vollmann describes himself elsewhere as having been “a hack journalist” before he became a novelist, and of course it must always be possible, if you are as restless and as curious as Vollmann is, to see your reportage as self-reportage too, and to distrust and get impatient with the words that are your very trade.
In Expelled from Eden the editors have collected an interesting cross-section of Vollmann’s writing, including short stories, excerpts from novels, pieces of journalism, letters, manifestoes, juvenilia, and unpublished nonfiction. The selections are often rather short, which given the pace and space of Vollmann’s work seems a slightly odd choice, and the emphasis is on Vollmann’s energy and eccentricity. “Rimbaud, then,” as Larry McCaffery cheerfully puts it, “but also… Rambo.” This old gag doesn’t do Vollmann any favors, and we don’t in general get much sense of the more thoughtful writer from the anthology. There is a slightly awkward irony too in so much room being given to the writer’s letters to his editors protesting cuts in his Seven Dreams novels: we could have been reading some of the stuff Vollmann didn’t want to cut. But then this collection, addressed to “the astute Vollmann reader, scholar, fan, and fanatic,” is not meant to introduce anyone to Vollmann. It’s offered as a greatest hits album, a portrait of Vollmann as Bruce Springsteen. Everyone reading it will already have read him. Well, nearly everyone.
Europe Central is described in Expelled from Eden as a “collection of World War II stories,” which it may have been in the planning. The book is “dedicated to the memory of Danilo Kis,” and within the text Vollmann repeatedly evokes A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, for which he wrote an afterword in 2001. Kis’s book is a masterly work of linked stories, an ironic and compassionate portrait of the horrors of Eastern European history in the first part of the twentieth century. The thirty-six stories in Europe Central are paired in what Vollmann calls “pincer movements”—a Russian story linked to a German story mainly, although occasionally he twins one moment or scene in Russia or Germany with another from the same country. I don’t see any reason not to call the whole thing a novel. The stories connect as we read them, and the book has a lengthy central plot involving the fate of the composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Many characters reappear; certain questions preside over all the stories.
Vollmann calls Kis’s book “a series of parables,” and “parable” is the word he keeps using for the stories in Europe Central, even if its application is intermittent. The work is dominated by an “imaginary love triangle” in which Shostakovich is irrecoverably in love with Elena Konstantinovskaya, a translator who is married to the filmmaker Roman Karmen. This is not a parable, but a slightly soggy romance; and the many detailed accounts Vollmann gives of World War II battles are not parables either, but something like written versions of Hollywood war movies. Still, the word “parable” does help us to see what Vollmann is trying to do, and there are times when it seems precisely the right term.
From the beginning of his career Vollmann has understood that distortions of the real can improve rather than hinder our vision. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), was subtitled “A Cartoon,” and had an epigraph from a manual on graphic art: “Only the expert will realize that your exaggerations are really true.” Even the expert would have had a little trouble with this particular book, a hectic, allusive, and very funny account of the long war between a reactionary imperial power pictured as an electricity-mad America and the forces of rebellion represented by a seething mass of insects and their human allies. The exaggerations—the portraits of capitalists as rapaciousness personified, of revolutionaries as children who never got over the horrors of summer camp—are not meant to be “really true,” but they do hint at forms of continuity that are important to Vollmann. A hyperbole, he is saying, is the rhetorical end of a line which may start out in modest-looking fact. Or more polemically, “nothing displays such an artificial nature as ‘life as we know it.’”
What Vollmann calls a parable is actually closer to a good cartoon. It works by tightening up and paring down rather than through exaggeration, so that the confusions of reality give way to a series of schematic moments. One of Vollmann’s many narrators in Europe Central, in this case an enthusiastic German in Freiburg in 1933, throws a book—“some Jew book, something about pacifism, I believe”—on to a pile of burning volumes. But what he chiefly describes is the flight of the book in the air, and for a moment we are led to believe he is talking about a newly developed German rocket. “The command came. I was ready; I did my part. Liftoff! And so it rose and flew, gloriously propelled by human force….”
In his prodigious notes on his sources for Europe Central—voluminous reading scrupulously registered—Vollmann says his “goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision,” and speaks of “historical situations…stripped down into parables,” but the word also occurs many times among the stories themselves. “Moral actor” is a crucial term in Rising Up and Rising Down, and reminds us that history for Vollmann is above all a scene of ethical events or non-events, often floating rather too easily free of their contexts, although in Europe Central they are considerably more grounded.
In a chapter called “Breakout,” the corpses of fifty Russian peasant women who have “perished variously, as people will,” that is, fallen to their death in a range of different positions, become “an enigmatic parable of universal fatality” because they have all been killed by the German invaders in the same way—“shot in the base of the skull.” The grisly implication is that death, and even murder, are individual matters until we see what unifies particular instances. “I see him,” the German narrator says of Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, who was captured by the Russians after defying the Führer’s order to fight to the death, “as the central figure of a parable, and therefore apathetic in spite of himself.” “He was brought into the story of our Reich to illustrate a principle, to carry out a function, to think and suffer while things were done to him.” The narrator goes on to say: “On 22.1.43, the last airstrip in Stalingrad fell to the Russians. Paulus again requested permission to surrender. The Führer replied: You must stand fast to the last soldier and the last bullet.”
The very first story in the book, “The Saviors,” about the attempted assassination of Lenin in 1918 by the anarchist Fanya Kaplan, is subtitled “a Kabbalistic Tale” and is so abundantly set up as a parable that it reads like a parody of an ancient Jewish example of the genre: “The tale of Fanya Kaplan, that darkhaired, pale-faced, slender idealist, tells itself with grim brevity in keeping with her times,” the story begins. “And doesn’t the parable,” Vollmann asks, raising the stakes immediately, “possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form?” After the assassination attempt, Lenin’s wife, N.K. Krupskaya, seeking to understand the deluded enemy, visits Kaplan in jail. Except that she doesn’t, can’t; the woman has already been executed. Lenin and Stalin together arrange for Krupskaya to see an actress impersonating Kaplan, and who is to say the actual Fanya would have stood up to such a symbolic inquiry any better than a person with a professional sense of history as theater? “Who are you?” Krupskaya asks at the end of the interview. The actress whispers, “I am unknowable. I am nothing.”