The August issue of New Republic carries a long (and engaging) piece by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97) entitled, “You Are Now Entering The Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann.” Vollmann, as Tom writes, “has been churning out thick, conceptually audacious books faster than New York publishing could keep pace. From 1987 through 1993, for instance, Vollmann published eight books through five difference houses.”
It turns out that Tom Bissell first came upon Vollmann’s vast outpouring when he was 26 and an assistant at Henry Holt. Vollmann had sent in his manuscript, Rising Up and Rising Down, on compact disks that translated into 3,800 pages of paper Tom had to print out for his editor.
In an interview with Vollman this year, Bissell appears to have been taken back by the strangeness of the man who, among other things, was listed as a Unabomber suspect. Vollmann found out that only when he requested his FBI file. (His FBI file is 785 pages long, but he only received 294 pages from the government.
Also, Bissell reports that Vollmann, as a novelist, started hanging out with sex workers as a way to get to know and better understand women. Also, he sometimes dresses up as Doloress to better understand what it’s like to be a woman. (Vollmann, meanwhile, is married to a successful woman and they have one daughter.) Based on his research, Vollmann published The Royal Family in 2000, which Bissell describes as a “gargantuan novel about a private investigator chasing the so-called Queen of San Francisco’s prostitutes.” It runs 800 pages and has 593 chapters.
Vollmann also paints. His most important artistic influences are Gauguin and Native American art, but he paints the female body. The majority of his models are sex workers who he paints in the nude. Bissell writes: “From where I was standing (in Vollmann’s studio) I counted at least two dozen vaginas, their fleshy machinery painstakingly drawn and then painted over with a delicate red slash.”
Bissell does a masterful job of interviewing (and observing) William T. Vollmann. He sums up the man, the artist, and the famous writer. It is an essay well worth the read.
— John Coyne