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Notes towards four meditations on W.T. Vollmann.

1. The infant/enfances - to find out where he comes from, talking so high and hard, as he does. Research here for you, schoolmen.

2. Dawn of murder - does he want to turn murder, which is just a common American bad habit, into some inflected art? I hate his public pistol. Murder is alas the forced end of any possible conversation. One thing I can't stand is a slammed door. So less slaughter, por favor.

3. What catches me at the moment is not yet who he is, but who he was. Isn't it interesting that Mark Twain gets reincarnated as a young novelist influenced mightily by Philip Jose Farmer - in whose Riverworld novels Twain is the central character?

4. Or humor is what Gatsby was full of that Fitzgerald never quite understood. (Americans who go to Europe are usually fleeing their sense of, humor, which they find somehow coarse or inappropriate. A glimpse of the Galerie Apollon in the Louvre freezes all laughter forever, I think they thought. Hoped?)

(towards Meditation 3:)

In his Riverworld tetralogy (or are there more? - commercial sci-fi pullulates like a frog pond in Missouri), Philip Jose Farmer predicates and interestingly exploits a zone from which the dead, both the celebrated and obscure, are at an uncertain, half-physiological, half-technological signal, roused to live again in the world that stretches along a vast but finally terminable river. The awe-filled cosmogony of the books soon enough gives way to business as usual, and we follow exciting adventures along a nineteenth-century riverboat amongst the conmen, savages, and sorcerers of all times assembled, hats off to Melville, all under the captaincy of Samuel Clemens hisself, our old Mark Twain. What had begun as cosmodrama winds up (thrillingly, but as ever disappointingly, the curious duple nature of adventure books) as Up the Limpopo with Girl and Gun. Sam Clemens, modo Faust, is young and heroish, clever as ever, but more Paul Newman, alas, than Hal Holbrook. Truth to tell, not very Twainy.

So we have to wait for William Vollmann. What seems to happen is this:

After Twain died in Connecticut (Halley's Comet, 1910 and all that), he had to pass through several reincarnations in less celebritied life forms. His angry surliness toward the end of his long life, which would ordinarily have won him birth in hell, was matched with the deep compassion of his nature, and allowed him to pass some years as an ordinary rhinoceros, disagreeable, suspicious to a degree, but staunchly vegetarian. His equivocations about the probity of Mrs. Eddy would have led him to a poor pass, but his attempts to speak well of those who meant well let him cycle a few times through the inane sky up the flyways from South America and back again as a monarch butterfly. Eventually, the high benefit he had conferred upon the readers of his language, and through them on many another being, brought him rebirth as a human. It is this human birth, as the youthful novelist William T. Vollmann, that we have now to do.

One apologizes for this preliminary essay in Incarnational Criticism; one must begin where one begins.

Vollmann has the grasp of the thing - that geography is our subject, not "man" as the books used to say, but the Earth, of which humans are vivid ambassadors and extensions. Funcfions. Vollmann knows that he has to grasp the place - the frozen countries of the Eskimo, the Viking lands half mapped and half dreamt from some evil dwale of the prophets, nith-verk of sauce simmerers, magic.

What makes him different is that, in common with romancers like C. S. Lewis and William Golding, he doesn't believe in money. Yet he doesn't believe in the usual staples of romance-heroes, successful quests, and meaning.
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Author:Kelly, R.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Arctic revelations: Vollmann's 'Rifles' and the frozen landscape of the self.
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