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The books as apparatus: William Vollmann's special editions.

Having published four books with four publishers in less than a year, William Vollmann is attracting attention. People are understandably fascinated by gargantuan feats of writing (and research - in the past year, he has made trips to the North Pole, Cambodia, Mexico City, Sarajevo, Madagascar, and Somalia). Another pursuit of Vollmann's, and one that has yet to receive much notice, is his crafting of special editions of his own writings.

The latest child of his CoTangent Press, a small publishing operation devoted to artists' editions of selected Vollmann works, is The Happy Girls, based on a tale from Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. This unusual object serves to amplify our impression of the prolific thirty-three-year-old author's work to date.

Vollmann's handmade books differ from the fine-press editions that circulate among collectors. Vollmann, who believes "a book's form should correspond to its content,"(1) follows this principle with such rigor that the results may not look like books at all. They are of course collectors' items; they are also sportive constructs that give off an air of excess. He ran this notice on the verso of the title page of the British edition of Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs:

"The Happy Girls" first appeared in a hand-printed artist's edition of thirteen copies, complete with photographs, underwear, mirror-glass, peephole, buzzer, electric red light and bra straps. Copies are still available from the author at $4,000 apiece. (Batteries and spare bulb are included.)

Selling the pressrun of The Happy Girls could support an author of modest needs for the better part of two years. Still, Vollmann's marketing efforts stop short of high-pressure tactics. He kids around with book-arts sales-speak. The word archival for instance - the craft's cant for "durable" - is flourished in the edition's Care Instructions, which caution, "No one knows how archival underpants are." Presumably, no one has measured the wear and tear to which fetishistic items may be subjected by collectors during use.

Vollmann began his book-building with flamboyant one-off creations. Violet Hair, created with artist Moira Brown around one of the Rainbow Stories, is crafted of bright pieces of India silk in pennons some 3-1/2 feet long and 2 feet wide. The text, written in rapidograph on cibachrome images of its subject, reproduces one long sentence from the story. The pages are decorated with rosaries and with snake vertebrae(2) wired in copper with silver bells attached, sewn on so the bells tinkle as the pages are turned.

The Grave of Lost Stories, based on a tale about the death of Poe published in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, first existed in a portfolio edition that Vollmann illustrated with poisonous pigments.(3) It is handwritten on 19 x 22-inch pages that alternate between horizontal landscapes and text. An old-fashioned electrical apparatus is hooked up to the book. It incorporates pickled squid in bulbous cylindrical specimen jars wrapped with wires running to a primitive transistor - like a galvanic or mesmeric device expressing an early concept of organic electricity.

Vollmann keeps this eccentric creation at home. Asked what it does, he allows, "It doesn't really do anything. It's a sculptural element of the box the thing is in. I always wanted to make a book that sloshes when you turn the pages."

Although his first few editions featured bizarre and expensive materials, his preference now is to look for ways to make equally interesting works using "materials which have different properties and are less expensive. More paper, for instance, and less metal."

The first piece formally issued by CoTangent Press, however, was a thing of heavy metal: an austere prison ballad, The Convict Bird, which purports to address its bleak and minatory stanzas to a readership of children. For a special edition of ten, the volume was cased in brass-studded steel by San Francisco avant-garde machinist Matthew Heckert. "Since it's about a friend of mine, a woman who's serving a life sentence," Vollmann explains, "the book is its own prison. It weighs twenty-two pounds and it has a padlock, a hasp, and a little window." The text bears a place-marker fashioned from a chain and a lock of hair sold by a street prostitute.

Prostitutes are major characters in several of Vollmann's books. By virtue of the privacy of their enterprise, they are both victims and adventurers, and the tactile assembly of this second CoTangent release projects both aspects. Perhaps it is the adventurousness of The Happy Girls that makes the more immediate impact. Approaching the work you find an object so matched to its subject that you don't so much open the book as buzz to enter. It is a massage parlor in a box, a facsimile leading into the handprinted, hand-colored story Vollmann narrates of a visit to the shop of a group of Thai prostitutes in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

It comes in a heavy wood-and-glass case fashioned by Vollmann collaborator (and Steinway piano craftsman) James Lombino. The title lettering on the 26 x 20-inch black-enameled birchwood box is incised in the wood and inset with mirror glass.(4) A rectangular panel set in the door's upper part is also mirrored. When the panel is lifted, a buzzer sounds while a red light picks out and illumines a face from the title page inside. The door opens on piano hinges to reveal the interior with its lining, trussing, paintings, photos, and text. "The outside is severe, the inside colorful," Vollmann says. "The way those places are."

Within the black box, transparent watercolorg wash over his drawings and over the type he hand-set on the story's twelve oversize sheets, producing an impression of fantasy and dizzy hyperreality. Color continues in the inner fittings, a pink rayon lining and lingerie-fringed spine. In order to read the pages, a riveted-in harness of brassiere straps securing the book must be unhooked. Thus is the reader's complicity gained in this playful and sensual undertaking.(5)

But the five Ken Miller photographic prints enclosed in The Happy Girls are in black and white, not color - and they are terrifically somber. The photo that forms the book's title page is a standing nude showing the scars of razor slashes. The back-cover photo shows her from behind, a tattoo across her back reading Hurt in Love (this can also be seen through the back of the box, where a star-shaped cutout gives a valedictory glimpse of the tattoo). The remaining portraits are 16 x 20-inch silver prints of other women in the story. One is dressed up, smiling, in a few filmy things. One is shown from the rear in an arrangement of net and straps. The other is a close-up of a woman in ordinary clothes, her face convulsed with weeping.

Inside the pink-satin-padded theatrical box, the photographs form, in their eschewal of color, a sort of documentary diapason to the story's bright hues. The contrast between bleakness and color permeates the story too. It has the atmosphere of a Japanese tale, perhaps one of Tanizaki's modern classics steeped in delicate decadence. A writer sits down to assess his experiences, as if drawing up an emotional tax return. He weighs his recollections, his exemptions, his expenses - "the sticky lips of stale joys." It is his fortune to be able to declare: "the happiest day of my life I spent in a massage parlor."

The prostitutes themselves have little claim to happiness. Their balance sheet includes insecurity and danger in their work, and the indifference (at best) of their customers. The narrator believes they were happy in the time they spent with him. But speaking of one of their number he admits "the probability that I myself was another of these tolls exacted from her."

As text, The Happy Girls characteristically bursts the limits of the wispy tale. The strong flavor of the writing is the real source of the handmade version's intensity. Vollmann carefully counts himself out of the competition in the market for volumes created by specialists in the book arts. Those, he says, "are in many ways better than mine. Mine are meant to be striking, durable, and beautiful in a certain way. But there are many points of craft I'm not particularly concerned with."

Although Vollmann is familiar with art techniques (his books have always carried his own drawings as illustrations), he draws on contributions from artistic collaborators who are skilled in working with certain materials. And though he believes that in the long run the CoTangent projects will help support him as a writer, he neither seeks nor achieves the perfection of detail dear to artisans and collectors in the book-arts field.

What is evinced in this edition is vollmann's belief in matching a book's form to its content, fueled by his long-standing appetite for exploring subcultures. The Happy Girls is like a punk version of a fine edition. The black box, an apparatus for actualizing the narrative, surrounds the story's words with sensual symbols that offer to modulate words into deeds.(6)


(1) Comments by Vollmann in this article are from conversations in 1991 and 1992. (2) The snake was found dead in the road and boiled down by the author. (3) One gathers that Vollmann thinks readers should take more risks. Joking once about how he'd style a version of Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, he said, "I'd make the pages of etched titanium. You'd have to wear special gloves to read it, or cut your fingers to ribbons." (4) The copy described is one I examined at Serendipity Books. There are variations among the thirteen specimens. Some have a mirror-glass front; one has a metal grill across it in imitation of an urban gateway. (5) One can hardly contrive to unhook the brassiere without assenting to the occasion. Vollmann's tactics with doubting readers have a history. From his first novel, the Swiftian political satire You Bright and Risen Angels: "If the reader will call me I will be happy to explain the analogy." A source note to Fathers and Crows reads with increased astringency: "I have invented [some of the Contemplations]. The reader who disparages this liberty of mine is invited to write his own book." (6) CoTangent editions are available at Granary Books in New York City, Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, or from the author in care of Steven Moore at the Review of Contemporary Fiction.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Spielmann, Katherine
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Notes towards four meditations on W.T. Vollmann.
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