Thursday, November 4, 2010

THE ATLAS by William T. Vollmann

I'm tempted to demonstrate the excellence of Vollmann's The Atlas by opening the book four times at random and quoting the first lines I see. Here goes:

The songs were sung by a Cambodian woman with a shrill yet beautiful voice whose turned vowels reminded him of a harpsichord's metallic loneliness. (p.75)

Outside the hotel window an Indian girl was saying: Pay me, and a white man said, It's in the car. I'll get it, I promise. No, don't come with me, bitch, you just stand there and wait. (287)

Between Malachi and Winnitoba, which is the first town in Manitoba, he recollected for accidental reasons Diesel Bend, Utah, where he'd gone north through the green fields walled in by trees, the little farms and white houses all embraced by those chalky cliffs in which fossil fishes are sometimes found; these, too, were tree-greened...and farther ahead lay the blue blue mountains that made you know you were going north. (217)

Vanna's nipples were long and thin as he remembered; they were the beautiful rusty bloody color that he remembered (Cambodian rubies tend to the brownish). (78)

And two more passages, not chosen randomly:

Your little skull's a light-globe to help lead me as you did when I was your brother, older than you but small like you, afraid of the toilet's cool skull-gape at night. (102)

Too much contemplation of any object, however unwilling the gaze, may reveal a secret. Better to change the angle of view as often as possible. -- That was why I so frequently ascended mountains without seeing inside them. (In the Norse sagas people go "inside the mountain" when they die.) (295)

Not everything in The Atlas's 455 pages is as good as these quotes suggest. Some sections are better then others, and some of Vollmann's far-fetched similes fall flatter then deflated balloons, but when this book is good, it's very good indeed, and when it's bad it's sometimes even better. (Mae West's line seems oddly appropriate here.)

Formally, Vollmann's fragmented postmodern travel book is a vast palindrome in three parts. The twenty-seven sections of part one are intended to thematically mirror or somehow find their echoes in the corresponding sections of part three. (The connections are more apparent in some sections than in others; a few corresponding sections seem unrelated, at least on a first reading.) At the book's center is it's longest unbroken part, an extended Romantic-Symbolist prose poem that takes a rail journey into the Canadian north as a narrative main line from which the author departs for a series of beautifully-written stream of consciousness excursions. This is by far the book's most impressive performance, and anyone who wants to know what a contemporary Romanticism might look like should read it. But as Vollmann more than implies, this physically central section is not the 'center' of The Atlas. The book's hermeneutical 'center,' its interpretive crux, lies elsewhere. Perhaps it can be found in the sole fragment narrating (in a rhetorically distanced style) the signal traumatic event of Vollmann's childhood--and probably of his life--the accidental drowning of his younger sister. This event is the ultimate source of the narrator-writer's irrational guilt and the consequent desire for punishment and self-destruction that provides the motive force for his turbocharged travels. He keeps moving, as he tells us, because changing the 'angle of view' is the best way to avoid deep psychological penetration. And he keeps moving toward death--in the forms of violence, war, extreme weather, AIDSy sex--because the psychological forces he can't bear to see are doing their best to destroy him.


ColoradoJ said...

great post. he's one of our greatest American writers.

Joe Miller said...

What was your favorite section? I liked 'Houses' and 'Under The Grass' a lot.

BRIAN OARD said...


The long, eponymous central section is my favorite, but others that stick in my mind are "The Prophet of the Road" (those fucking mosquitoes!), "Under the Grass" of course, "A Vision" and the great, Hemingwayish "An Old Man in Grayish Kamiks." There's a lot in this book that's worth re-reading.