Last reviewed: June 2018
July 28, 1959
Santa Monica, California
William T. Vollmann, who burst onto the crowded late twentieth century literary scene and showed that there was still something new to say, spent the first five years of his life in Santa Monica, California. Beginning in 1964, his family made a series of moves: first to Hanover, New Hampshire, where his father taught business at Dartmouth College, then to Rhode Island, and finally to Indiana, where Vollmann attended high school. At age nine, while living in New Hampshire, Vollmann experienced a tragedy that informed his subsequent life: His six-year-old sister drowned in a pond after he had been told to watch her. Vollmann blamed himself and his daydreaming for her death, mockingly dubbing himself William the Blind when he began to write the novels of his epic Seven Dreams series; two tragic women protagonists of this work are named Born Swimming and Born Underwater. His painful early lessons about the need to try to save others, to expiate one’s guilt, and to be unflinchingly observant, all echo throughout his writing. William T. Vollmann.
William T. Vollmann.
Vollmann was accepted into the college program of Deep Springs (located in Death Valley, as he sardonically observed), which emphasized service to others and self-reliance; he completed the program with a senior year at Cornell University, from which he graduated with honors. He followed this with graduate studies in comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1982, still burning with a desire to save others and influenced by T. E. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, Vollmann went to Afghanistan to fight for the mujahideen. He described this well-intentioned but quixotic foray with rich irony, years later, in his travel memoir, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World. In 2000, he returned to Afghanistan, both literally and in print, with a lengthy and vivid piece of reportage about the Taliban, “Across the Divide,” published in The New Yorker on May 15, 2000.
Vollmann worked as a computer programmer in the mid-1980s. His experience in California’s Silicon Valley resulted in his first published novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, for which he received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 1988. The plot is a satirical allegory of the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, in which democracy triumphant turns into the next oppressive regime. The characters are witty caricatures, playing their roles in a vast, complex computer game realized in the form of a novel. A major subplot involves the history of electricity.
In his next major work, The Rainbow Stories, a collection of stories that form an episodic novel, the author creates portraits of damaged sociopaths from the urban underclass, whom comfortable citizens regard as subhuman. While retaining some cartoonlike elements in describing them, Vollmann presented their unsettling humanity for the specific purpose of winning them sympathy, as he later acknowledged.
With The Ice-Shirt, the first volume of the Seven Dreams series, Vollmann becomes a time traveler, combining a grim subplot about the sordid side of North American life with a brilliant reinvention of Norse sagas about the Viking discovery of the New World, layered with Norse and Inuit mythology. He traveled extensively, doing onsite research in Norway and in the areas where Vikings and American Indians met (and according to Vollmann, clashed violently) around the year 1000
As the volumes of Seven Dreams are completed (volumes 4 and 7 have not yet been published), the unifying theme of the ruination of North America, through technology, human self-destructiveness, and the mutual blindness of cultures, comes into focus: Fathers and Crows (volume 2), covers the conquest, conversion, and loss of French Canada; Argall (volume 3), tells the story of Samuel Argall, an Indian killer and slaver in the days of Pocahontas and John Smith; The Rifles (volume 6), concerns the doomed nineteenth century expedition of Sir John Franklin to locate the Northwest Passage; and The Dying Grass (volume 5), explores the post–Civil War campaign by the Indian Service division of the United States Army against the Nez Percé peoples in Oregon. The series presents a parade of follies and self-delusions, a heartbreaking and bloody human comedy, at which the gods must laugh. Vollmann is aware that his panoramic conception of plot, combined with ironic meditations upon history, suggests the work of Leo Tolstoy, while the thousand-year range of his epic (the years 1000 through 2000
Vollmann goes back and forth between the epic and the intimate, seeking to explain the most perplexing and perverse human phenomena on both the large and the small scales. He suggests that the need to love, twisted by an inability to love, results in the need to inflict pain, as exhibited by the schoolyard bully (Butterfly Stories); Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order (Fathers and Crows); and Adolf Eichmann, Holocaust criminal (from an analysis of him and modern skinheads in The Rainbow Stories), all of whom create countless martyrs.
With The Royal Family, Vollmann returned to the subject of the sex industry, which, as critics wearily pointed out, he had already explored in Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Atlas. The second half of The Royal Family is the less original and appears to owe much to the fantasy world of the Marquis de Sade. However, the first half contains realistic portraits which expand the scope of Vollman’s character delineations. Most interesting is the portrait of Henry Tyler, at first glance a stock character based upon the hard-boiled private investigator of popular detective novels. The pursuit of an elusive mystery woman, a stock situation of detective stories, is masterfully handled from the start and generates the suspense expected from a popular page-turner. Tyler’s brother John is unhappily married to Irene, the love of Henry Tyler’s life—another stock situation. Vollmann exquisitely delineates the myriad annoyances and misunderstandings that turn wedded bliss into marital hell. All of this reaffirms that a convincing description of ordinary people is, in fact, a much bolder enterprise than the pyrotechnics of Vollmann’s precocious, experimental novels. Before one can congratulate Vollmann on breaking new ground once again, the luminous “ordinary” woman, Irene, ends her life, the mystery woman is found, and Henry Tyler, losing his previous personality, surrenders his entire being to sadomasochistic addictions of abasement and self-abasement, described in repetitive detail.
Vollmann’s cultural background is one of world literature and a generous share of science, religion, and philosophy. He is acutely aware of the interconnectedness of all human cultures and phenomena. A provocative novelist and a voraciously curious observer and adventurer, he helped bring the twentieth century to conclusion with a bang and continues to promise new revelations.
Vollmann’s Europe Central, a collection of interrelated collection of novellas, stories, and sketches set in central Europe before and during World War II, won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction. Novelist Tom LeClair, a judge for the prize, wrote that Europe Central demonstrates “a remarkable knowledge of non-American history and culture” and “imagines the lives and situations of distant others, making it an instructive literary alternative to the American exceptionalism of its decade.”