Vollmann being Vollmann

Whoa nelly.

I’m pro-death. I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion. I believe in euthanasia. I believe in anyone’s right to suicide. I believe in capital punishment. I believe in gun ownership. I believe in violent self-defense. That’s the common denominator. The left is disturbed by my belief in capital punishment, and I own weapons. My buddies who go shooting with me are appalled that I’m not a Bush supporter. I believe in freedom of choice for everybody, which entails immense risks. Often people abuse the power that comes with freedom. Either way, society pays a tremendous cost. We pay for our gun violence, and we are paying an ever more immense cost for the repressive policies of our government. I’m not just blaming Bush, either. This ridiculous war on drugs has incarcerated so many, ruined lives and made them violent. I don’t see why it’s anybody’s business if somebody uses drugs or goes to a prostitute. If someone uses drugs and thereby injures or impairs his ability to perform a public function and as a result people are injured or killed, that person should be punished. But let’s punish the person for what he’s done, not what he might do. We are all prostitutes. We all do things we would not otherwise do just to survive. None of us should be too proud. It’s good to remember that the people we see incapacitated, drunk, and lying in the streets are our brothers and sisters.

That’s National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann, talking up an almost literal storm, in an interview with Kate Braverman. Here’s more:

The fundamental intellectual level of humanity has and will always be low. New technological possibilities mean more experimental things can be forgotten in new ways. There are amazing filmmakers, like the Soviet Dziga Vertov. Who knows who this guy is and who cares? Who knows or cares who Joyce was? That means people who want to write at that level, and I include myself, are only doing so because we love it. In the end, what else is there? There is no prize, including the Nobel Prize, which can compensate you for the work you put in. If it’s not a joy, you shouldn’t do it.

In 19 years, Vollmann has published 16 ambitious, experimental, and (usually) very long books, ranging from historical fiction to journalism in the Middle East to short story cycles to a 3000-page meditation on violence.

I’ve not read one word of his prose, though I’ve read a lot about him. As you can see, he’s quite the talker, and now I’m intrigued. I want to read him, but I don’t want to start an 800-page novel cold. So, okay, people, which Vollmann book should I start with? Give me some suggestions, please.

Related: Here’s a New York Review of Books profile, and a Bookforum critique.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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2 Responses to Vollmann being Vollmann

  1. Wax Banks says:

    I’ve got The Atlas and the abridged Rising Up, Rising Down – I don’t know where you should start but both those volumes packed a real whallop. Rising Up I can’t describe; he’s obviously kind of crazy, the way a John Nash or John Zorn was/is crazy. Like some kind of blood-spattered punk rock David Foster Wallace. I’m not sure I want to write like him, but I’d settle for writing as hungrily as he does.
    Goddamn, man. You’ve got good taste. :)

  2. Walter says:

    Thanks. I’ve heard good things about The Atlas and The Ice Shirt (I think that’s the right title), so I’ll start with one of those. I once flipped the unabridged Rising Up in a Seattle bookstore, and was simultaneously impressed and fearful. I didn’t realize there was an abridged version available, but I’ll start with the fiction and take it from there.

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