|Photo by Noel Neuburger|
Though his base of operations would never give him away, tucked as it is in territory manifestly occupied by the God-fearing chosen — a house of red brick fronted with white columns, on an oak-lined suburban Sacramento street, like something out of a Jimmy Stewart film — William T. Vollmann is a secret agent, a propagandist for the outcast heirs of Cain, idolaters and whores, addicts, pimps and pederasts. He has scoured the Earth, visiting Canaanite cells in the brothels of Bangkok, in war-torn Afghanistan and the Balkans, among the poppy fields of Burma and the narco-thugs of Bogotá’s barrios, and, most intimately, in the crack hotels, bars and massage parlors of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He’s networked with all those who bear Cain’s indelible mark, partaking in their rituals, sharing their most sacred sacraments, be it fleshly communion or a wafer of cocaine, reporting back to tell their stories in the unforgiving world of daylight, to an audience largely uninterested and generally unimpressed.
And now, reclining in his tidy living room, his feet resting on a glass coffee table unmarred by even a speck of dust, Vollmann outlines the case against God. He starts with Cain: “Why should God have rejected Cain’s offering back at the beginning? Cain gave God what he had,” Vollman says, staring at the ceiling through small, cloudy blue eyes, nearly invisible behind thick lenses. “But God, for whatever reason, didn’t like Cain’s sacrifice, and Cain felt terrible and jealous and killed his brother, and after that he was cast out. It doesn’t seem fair.”
The novelist, tall and oddly shaped — almost elliptical, large at the waist but not quite fat, the broad lines of his torso converging into narrow shoulders and a deceptively small head — goes on to decry God’s treatment of the Canaanites. “When the chosen people go to the land of Canaan, God tells them, ‘All right, here’s what you’ll do: You tell the cities that if they surrender to you right away, you’re going to enslave everybody, and if they don’t, then you can go in there and kill everybody except the virgins, and you can just take them and rape them and use them as your concubines.’ It’s disgusting, you know?” He shakes his head and takes a long swallow from the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale balanced on his belly. Even in the Gospels, Jesus rebuffs the Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her daughter, consenting to help her only after she’s groveled a bit. “I think he was kind of mean to that poor woman, even though he helped her. I think if I were a Canaanite woman, I would feel like I had to be a prostitute, swallowing Jesus’ cum or something like that to get his money, or in this case have him fix my daughter for me. It would just be some degrading thing that I had to do to get what I needed. Christianity is supposed to be the religion of the oppressed, it’s supposed to comfort the outcast, and in a way it does, but there are so many outcasts in the Bible that I feel sorry for.”
“Theme of the Work: Steadfastness, or the Addict”
—The Royal Family
Vollmann’s mission was first made public in 1987. A few years out of college — Deep Springs and then Cornell, summa cum laude in comparative literature — he published You Bright and Risen Angels, the novel he had cobbled together during off-hours from his computer-programming job in Silicon Valley. A wild, hallucinatory account of the global battle between insects and the inventors of electricity, it nonetheless devotes a few pages to skinheads and junkies. Vollmann followed that two years later with The Rainbow Stories, a collection of often barely fictionalized reportage about skinheads, prostitutes, a terrorist, a serial killer and his girlfriend. In the next two years he produced another collection, 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs, and The Ice-Shirt, the first installment of his “Seven Dreams” project, a planned septet of novels, or “symbolic histories,” focusing, in a style completely at odds with the stodginess of most historical fiction, on the encounters between Native Americans and Europeans. Since then he has produced two more of the “Seven Dreams” volumes, two novels about prostitutes, a nonfiction book about his experiences in Afghanistan, another collection of stories and essays, and countless journalistic articles. In a mere 13 years, he has published, by my count, 5,278 pages, not including magazine work.
That number includes his bulky new novel, The Royal Family, his most complex work. It does not include the soon-to-be-published Argall, the next of the “Seven Dreams,” or Rising Up and Rising Down, the 4,000-page treatise on violence for which he has just found a publisher (“The guy is probably going to lose a huge amount of money on it,” Vollmann sighs. “I feel kind of sorry for him”) and which he has the chutzpah to refer to as a “long essay.”
He generally works on four or five books at any given moment, currently on a nonfiction book about the Imperial Valley, a collection of interrelated stories set during World War II, and the three remaining “Seven Dreams” volumes. He had hoped to finish the septet before he turned 40 — Vollmann is 41 — but was slowed by wrist damage sustained by typing 16 hours a day. Now, with a 2-year-old daughter to care for, he limits himself to a mere nine or 10 hours at the computer. He has the pasty, almost lumpily pale skin of a man who rarely sees the sun. “Mainly I’m just working when I’m not doing anything else, and to me it’s a pleasure,” he says, shrugging. “It’s what I would rather be doing.”
His nonchalance hides a compulsiveness that would be familiar to the addicts populating his work. Of the periods when his wrist troubles prevent him from working, or from even holding a book or a cup of coffee without pain, he says, “Usually I go stir-crazy and then I start working anyway, even though it hurts and it’s bad for me” — the logic of addiction, which brings us back to The Royal Family, in which, in a short foreword, he writes, “. . . let this book, like its characters, be devoted to Addiction, Addicts, Pushers, Prostitutes, and Pimps.”
The addiction of the book’s protagonist, Henry Tyler, a down-at-the-heels private detective, is surely love. He loves his brother’s wife, Irene, and when she kills herself, he enshrines his love like a relic. He falls in love again, this time with the Queen of Whores, a small, middle-aged black woman, matriarch of a clan of prostitutes, addicts and outcasts for whom her very spittle is narcotic, who are united only by their mercurial devotion to their queen, and by their common badge, the mark of Cain. This titular royal family includes the bilious prostitute Domino; a full cast of variously addicted streetwalkers; Justin, the loyal pimp; the saintly, retarded Sapphire; Dan Smooth, a goodhearted if repugnant pedophile; and, eventually, Henry himself.
But Tyler can neither let go of Irene nor surrender himself entirely to the queen. “He tries and tries, and he does end up being stripped down to something more pure and honest, but at the same time he always blows it,” Vollman says. “If Henry were just as obsessively steadfast as some of these other addicts, then maybe he could have achieved some sort of spiritual enlightenment.” He thus introduces the notion, present in nearly all of his works — in which compulsion, even when delusional, becomes an almost spiritual form of striving — “of addiction as enlightenment.” It may not matter what you do in life, Vollmann speculates, whether you’re a soldier or a whore, “maybe the most important thing is faithfulness and concentration, in which case addicts really have it.”
With typically ambiguous open-mindedness, Vollmann extends that thought into unfamiliar territory, seeing addiction as the basic force behind not just the culture of Canaanites, but the aboveground culture of consumerism. He writes of a department store: “By some cheerfully hypocritical caprice, the addictions that it sold were all legal,” and elsewhere, of Henry Tyler, inspecting flatware with Irene, “This way of living sometimes struck him as monstrously evil. And yet Domino and the crazy whore were hardly happier. It was not that he objected to people enjoying their cutlery; it was the knowingness, the connoisseurship without enjoyment, the wastefulness of it all that depressed him.” With greater depth than his other works, The Royal Family — in the spirit of the producers of baggy monsters Vollmann so admires, Melville and the Russian heavies — interfuses social critique with his religious and philosophic ponderings. He does so not only through discoursing on addiction, but on his favorite theme: prostitutes.
“Man, I love San Francisco! It’s a nice dry cool place to pick up whores.”
—13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs
Prostitutes are not just an abstract interest for Vollmann, nor a convenient source of sexily tragic stories. He loves prostitutes, adores them with an almost childish passion. Talking about them, his usually elegant vocabulary devolves into a series of gleeful, inexpressive adjectives like “wonderful” and “special.” He has spent countless hours with countless prostitutes as research for his fiction and an ongoing photography project, befriending many in the process. When he travels abroad as a journalist, the first thing he usually does, he says, is pick up a prostitute, because they always speak English and “they know more about what’s going on than anybody else.”
As the evening draws on, Vollmann suggests we get some dinner. “We’ll go over to Oak Park,” he says mischievously. “That’s where all the street prostitutes are.” Driving through the darkened streets a few minutes later, he points to a woman lingering on the sidewalk. “She’s working tonight,” he observes from the passenger seat of my rented compact. A few blocks later, not having spotted any others, he looks disappointed. But we soon pass two more women in miniskirts, huddled in the shadows. Vollmann smiles. “Good,” he says, like a kid sneaking downstairs to peek at his presents under the Christmas tree. “It always makes me feel good to see them.”
After dinner, he takes me to his favorite bar. The owner and bartender both greet him warmly, and he radiates his boyish, slightly off-center charm, a good-humored oafish vulnerability. There are no prostitutes in the bar tonight, but Vollmann doesn’t seem let down. He sips a tequila and chats with the barmaid about a regular who’s been exiled “to the big house.” On the ride home he tells me that during the holidays they put up a tree and hang it with three stockings — one for the bartender, and two for the prostitutes who are there all the time. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing?”
Vollmann’s passion is not simply rooted in lust. He’s constructed a whole theology of whoredom: “What the prostitute offers is something very spiritual,” he says. “She offers, at the minimum, release and, surprisingly often, comfort and affection, even love.” He points to the many old men who “can’t even get it up anymore,” who pay women just for the comfort of their company. “That’s such a wonderful thing, that a prostitute can do that. She can take some of the loneliness and the pain away. And so then the next question becomes, where does that loneliness and pain go? . . . Why not suppose that a prostitute can take all this suffering upon herself and that especially when customers are mean to her and degrade her, that somehow her soldiering on through that degradation makes her a more special person. She puts up with it and maybe therefore it stops there. Maybe it disappears from the world.” He goes on, “We don’t have to think that these women want to be degraded or that being degraded is in and of itself good for them. It’s a pretty patronizing thing to think — they don’t choose it. But the fact that they can live through it and somehow rise above it makes them really, really special.”
In The Royal Family, the Queen of Whores acts as high priestess in the cult of whoredom, a Tenderloin anti-Christ ultimately betrayed by her apostles to the Pharisees of today, moralists and puritans with blood beneath their nails. To the cheers of the public, she is hunted by vigilantes sent by Brady, a shadowy entrepreneur and owner of the Feminine Circus, a Vegas casino and virtual-sex emporium that functions in the novel as a stand-in for all the shiny hypocrisy and brutality of American culture. Brady’s dirty secret is that the sex at Feminine Circus (“Illegal, immoral, unhealthy, unsafe! Don’t do it America!” barks Brady’s PR rep. “Come to Feminine Circus and indulge your fantasies in a safe, healthy and tasteful manner”) is not virtual at all. Brady buys retarded girls, literally by the pound, and, in a sanitized environment, rents them out to dentists and senators, who, believing them virtual, unleash their most sadistic fantasies. “I’m amazed no one ever thought of it before,” a cabdriver tells Henry Tyler. “It sums up the national mood, you could almost say.”
“The prettiest thing is the darkest darkness.”
—The Rainbow Stories
It should not be surprising that Vollmann’s preoccupations have kept him outside the literary mainstream. Despite a dedicated cult following, his books still sell modestly. His reviews tend to extremes — either wildly enthusiastic and blind to his failures (for all his brilliance, his work is often messy, at times dully so) or blithely dismissive. Few deny his enormous talent as a writer, but many turn their noses up — better put, pinch them shut — at his choice of subject matter. A New York Times critic, reviewing The Royal Family, charged him with logorrhea, with pandering to hip transgressive fashions, with producing a novel that was “less a fully realized work of literature than the protracted reverie of an especially precocious adolescent.” Vollmann, for his part, is obviously more comfortable in the company of Canaanites than among the literati. Until this last year, he never had an agent, and he admits to loathing what limited experience he’s had of the New York literary world. “I’m a real loner,” he explains. “They probably don’t like me that much either. And that’s okay.”
For the most part, Vollmann shields himself from what he once called “the quick, shrill hollowness of our America.” He doesn’t read contemporary fiction, doesn’t watch television, doesn’t even drive a car. If no one buys him a plane ticket, he takes the bus. “It’s always nice for my work to travel by Greyhound and talk to people,” he says. “I mind the smell of disinfectant a little, but other than that it’s not too bad.”
If Vollmann looked perfectly at home slumped over a barstool in Oak Park, he looks almost out of place back among the comforts of domesticity. His wife, a Korean-American doctor, has returned from a day spent in the Bay Area with their daughter, who sits beside her on the TV-room couch, entranced by a cartoon about vegetables. (Asked about how his wife feels about his relations with whores, Vollmann says only that “she doesn’t care” and that she doesn’t read his books.) He hunches beside them on a chair, not even glancing at the screen, as his wife enthuses about the quality of the colors and the cleverness of the plot — an ordinary houseplant gets electrocuted and becomes a noxious “rumor weed.” She goes on to tell a story about all the chaos their little girl caused in Berkeley, running wild through a crowded supermarket.
Vollmann interrupts to say with a sly grin, gesturing to his daughter, “We’re training her to be a prostitute. We’ll turn her out as soon as she’s ready.”
The joke doesn’t even register on his wife’s face; she ignores him, and goes on with her story.
Vollmann winks his double-agent wink, and smiles broadly.
THE ROYAL FAMILY | By WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN | Viking | 780 pages | $40 hardcover