Thursday, December 31, 2009

William T. Vollmann

I’m going to take a break from talking to the turtle to tell you about the only author worth a shit. It’s not Steinbeck, Hem., or even Updike. No. The author everyone ought to look out for is William T. Vollmann. I don’t know why he isn’t in book clubs. David Balducci? What? Are you kidding? Harry Potter? Vampires? Vollmann is the only guy worth reading.
He’s got another more recent book but since I have absolutely no money I don’t own it. The last one I read was Europe Central. Now, that took me about three months to read. Actually, I only took two books to Mexico. Europe Central and George Orwell’s essay collection. I finished Europe Central like 6 months after getting there. It was a grind. In fact, it played a small role in my emotional collapse because I was suddenly a character in the story. Dimitri Shostakovich was in love with a translator named Elena. Elena was in love with a filmmaker who was always on the western front. Elena’s favorite word was creepy. I was living in a group of apartments next to a British guy who would later die (and who fought in the war the filmmaker had filmed.) a Vietnam War veteran/poet who lived without electricity in a closet. A guy my age who smoked so much pot that he was chiefly responsible for the drug war in Sinaloa. Don was in there too, and his hooker-a-night habit I’ve already discussed elsewhere. And me…playing violin and guitar at café Molina and chasing after my own Elena, a multi-linguist Scarlett O’hara with dark eyes and Hollywood emotions.
So, reading about the fantastic details of Russian/German relationships in 1940 put me over the edge. It had nothing to do with the cheap rum.
I had too many white Russians to drink one night and yelled, “We can never forgive the dead!” at Elena.
She said, “Wha’ doo yoo kno? Yoo chil’. Jus when I t’ink I understan’ yoo, I see how you really t’ink.”
“Listen,” I said very slowly, “Hannah Montana is out there. Right now. And she’s devouring the world. She is the anti-christ. And this…” I jabbed Europe Central. “This can destroy her.”
I think Elena started crying somewhere right around then. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. I got in her face.
“Look at you. You’re acting so innocent. Are those tears real? Mrs. Crocodile?”
Finally, she took control again and wiped her tears away and said, “Ok. Wha’ shood I ma’e for loonch.”
“Lunch?” I said. “I’ll give you lunch. Hitler burned so many people that the hair…”
It just got worse and worse, like at 5 in the morning with the sun dawning over the gulf of Mexico, gulls cawing, crabs fleeing to their holes. The evening had started out pretty well, too with Elena and her sister and I playing Trivial Pursuit. I taught them absolutely everything about Jackie Robinson and Lou Gerhig. Laughter. It ended in tears and Hitler. Needless to say, I slept alone. Thanks, Vollmann .
Anyway, I gave that book to Elena before I left. I said, it’s not entertaining, but it’s the best writing there is right now. I even printed out a picture of her and her sister and put it in the book, as a gesture. She took the 800 page monster and tossed it aside, shrugging. “Goot. You wan’ too eat?”
Elena cooked some mean fish and rice. I said OK.
“Firs’ wash yoo han’s. They are fuckin’ feeelthy. An youse soap thees time o soo help me…”
I got better gas mileage without that book in the van.
I would not start with Europe Central unless you are a masochist. I never read his first book, something he famously wrote while hiding in a computer factory after it closed and living on snickers bars. He said there was a motion detector and he could not leave the keyboard or move very fast. So he typed all night and slept in the bathroom. But I’ve read almost everything else he’s written. The reason I bring it up is because Europe Central is the model I’m after. It doesn’t really have a point. It’s third person and all over the map, plotwise. I can’t ever explain what it’s about. Hitler is called The Sleepwalker. And there’s an octopus. And a symphony. And a picture that Elena asks to be returned. And a guy who worked at the concentration camps and was the chemist who designed the gas used in the chambers and who later smuggled out proof of what was happening and no one believed him so he tried to intentionally lose cases of the gas to slow down the executions. After the war he was executed for crimes against humanity.
But it’s all written third person and so effortlessly. I don’t know how Vollmann does it. He’s got another book called “The Atlas” which is almost all first person blog type travel writing. Short anecdotes. That model I’ve got no problem with. But the guy went everywhere on the planet. I think when I read that ten or fifteen years ago I thought, “I’ve got my work cut out for me. If I’m a music teacher in a junior high school for five or ten years then I’ll never write like this. It’s one or the other.” And if I never write like that then I’ll never be able to write the Santa Cruz novel and it will become a cancer inside me. Because even though the experiences will never change (since it’s in the past) the skills have to develop to explain it as I understand it. And the skills can only develop with more experiences that I ponder and write about. If I’m a junior high school music teacher then that’s it. That’s where the writing will stop. I’m sure Vollmann read something one day, Crime and Punishment maybe and knew that he was going to have to work hard to write about WWII the way he wanted to write about. Europe Central is an incredible accomplishment and it is merely one of many books he’s written. But the thing about gaining experience is that it leads to completely different things. It’s like, you are going to train to climb mountain A by training on mountain B. But mountain B is damn tough. It kills people. So maybe you should train on mountain C. And in the process of climbing mountain C you meet someone who knows about mountain D, that is harder than mountain A, but you really need to climb mountain E to train to climb mountain D, so you leave mountain C and end up in a completely different place with strangers. But in the back of your mind is mountain A and the sands of time pass. You become an expert at Mountain D. People want to hire you and think you are crazy because you want to climb mountain A. Even you don’t remember why. I think Vollmann is one of the people who stubbornly refused to forget that all this extra training was preparation for a bigger task. He’s probably the fastest good writer alive so he’s got more big novels in him than a normal person, but he’s also broken his pelvis and isn’t going to die of old age so he can only do the projects that mean something. Europe Central takes the shoes back from the pile of castaways outside the ovens and puts them back on the owner’s feet. That means something.
I’d like to write that novel about Santa Cruz, to make everything right again, in a place that was such a disaster. It’s not much different since I’m dealing with forgotten nameless dead people. The world moves on. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong. In fact, Europe Central’s main theme is that Russia and Germany were two sides of the same coin. I don’t really think that way about Santa Cruz but I’m forcing myself to write like that because if I don’t then it won’t be funny. I’ve got idealists, extremists, hippies, republicans, addicts, dope heads, social workers, police, mayors, yoga teachers, revolutionaries, and bread makers. In fact, the title I’m going to use, unless it’s taken, is The Crystal Circus.
What do you think? It’s undeniably a circus. And it’s transparent, and fragile like crystal. I’m not sure.
But how do I stay out of it? That’s the hard part. Because I’ve got to be 100% in it but not offering my over all opinion.
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe Vollmann really has transcended the ovens. He did it. He’s a transcendent being. And I’m not because I proved it with Elena.
I think Confederacy of Dunces is a good model because while the hero is Ignatius, the other players are not villains. They are equally hampered by their shortcomings. It’s an unusual story and the writing is so unusual, but all the comic characters are treated with the same ruthlessness. It’s entertaining, which is more than I can say for Europe Central. I’m not convinced the Santa Cruz story has entertainment value. Grapes of Wrath didn’t have one good laugh in it. 500 pages without a joke. I can’t do that. I don’t care if Pa dies in the wagon, at least let one of the kids make a joke. Come on, Steinbeck!
I laughed a few times during Europe Central but that’s only because I was emotional at the time. It’s a brutal book to read. Confederacy of Dunces has a laugh a line. I laugh thinking about some of the lines.
Again, they are all third person masterpieces. And Rabbit Redux. Third person…present tense.
Of all 4 books I still say Europe Central is the best. I love the other three but Europe Central is totally out of the blue. You couldn’t sell that book if you hadn’t already been published. I read that Vollmann had to rewrite his contract because it had literally no audience and the publisher couldn’t afford to publish it unless he subsidized it from his royalties. To do it anyway says something. It’s a vision that’s unjustifiable. He doesn’t condemn anyone. Nothing is solved. But he manages to make dead people immortal. I admire that. If we could one day write a pornography script or pornographic novel together that would pretty much be my dream come true. I'll illustrate it or whatever. Or take pictures and rub his back while he writes.
Now, I’m going to talk to my turtle about Santa Cruz.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.