Freaks and Geeks

August 15, 2014   •   By Ira Wells

PARTWAY THROUGH William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stores, a character known simply as “the inspector” has his head gnawed off by rats. He doesn’t seem to mind. The story (if you’re still with me) is called “The Judge’s Promise,” and is set in a geographically and temporally hazy region of central Europe. We are somewhere between the Bohemian towns of Javicko and Svitavka, in an unremarkable little village in which the aforementioned inspector constitutes a one-man police force. The atmosphere is choked with superstition and incense and the aroma of freshly roasted witch. The music, if there were any, would be jangly. The year is 1673 — unless it is 1752; the narrator is uncertain. What is certain is that the forces of evil are ascendant, and our dutiful inspector, without being particularly zealous or self-righteous about his office, goes to considerable lengths to fulfill his obligations to justice.

Accordingly, one night the inspector arranges to have himself buried in the town’s cemetery. He lays in wait, breathing through a straw poking out of his coffin, until he hears the mausoleum doors screech open. The inspector charges out, guns blazing, dispatching three vampires with garlic-rubbed silver bullets. Later, at the behest of the town’s priest, the inspector goes, shall we say, deeper undercover. This time, he will actually die (mushroom poisoning), the better to infiltrate the ranks of the undead. Like some supernatural narc, the inspector ingratiates himself with the likes of King Vrykolakas and a certain vampire colonel — this is the point where he allows his head to be severed by rodents as a demonstration of fealty (it’s not like it hurts; he is dead) — all the while conspiring with the good Father Hauser to exterminate as many of these demons as possible. (Precisely what happens to the dead after they are again “killed” remains unclear, though it is possible that the answer is to be found in The Malleus Maleficarum (1487), or in one of the numerous authorities on such matters that Vollmann cites in the ample “Sources and Notes” in the end matter.) Vollmann has always been fascinated by the violent energies at play just beneath the surface of life. Where another sort of literary inspector might give you a tour of the cemetery, perhaps commenting on the ornamentation of a tombstone or two, Vollmann is going to pick up a spade and start digging.

By the story’s end, our humble inspector — having by now enjoyed the pleasures afforded by being on both top and bottom of this immortal dance — abandons his attachments to both sides and starts to decompose. The church authorities, having squeezed him for what he was worth, disinter the shriveled carcass and drive a stake through his heart.

Vollmann’s singularity in the landscape of contemporary American letters stems in part from his willingness, his eagerness, to physically go to places that others won’t. His research has taken him into the middle of war zones (in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina), to the magnetic North Pole (where he spent a couple of weeks in an abandoned weather research station, fending off frost-bite and hallucinations), and red-light districts across the globe: Sam Anderson reports that Vollmann smoked crack “a hundred or so times” in order to win the trust of the prostitutes he writes about in works like “Ladies and Red Lights” and Whores for Gloria (1991). He has not, to date, suffered decapitation by rats, but you catch my drift.

Those hunting for authorial stand-ins in Last Stories and Other Stories will be readily satisfied. For one, there’s the American journalist in “Listening to the Shells,” who embeds himself with Bosnian Muslims during the Siege of Sarajevo, and readers who are even marginally familiar with Vollmann will find many of his well-documented interests and peccadilloes (photography, Japanese Noh theatre, prostitutes) dispersed among the male narrators and protagonists of this collection.

At this point in the proceedings, it is customary for the reviewer of a new Vollmann book to make a few openmouthed, gargling noises regarding the length and girth of the author’s canon. Vollmann (now 55) is famously prolific: his work includes eight novels (the most recent being Europe Central, which won the National Book Award in 2005), four collections of short stories, and non-fiction books on poverty, Copernicus, and cross-dressing — in addition to what he has called his “life’s work,” a seven-volume, 3,300-page treatise on violence called Rising Up and Rising Down. Lawrence Buell has recently argued that Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series of novels “qualifies as the hands-down boldest attempt ever launched at fictionally historicizing the whole trajectory of modern American ‘civilization’ from first contact to the near-present.”

Last Stories and Other Stories is in some ways vintage Vollmann. The historical scope of the collection is characteristically vast, encompassing the last 500-or-so years. I was about to say that the stories (which shuffle between Italy, Mexico, Norway, Japan, and South America) “span the globe,” but that’s an understatement, since at least one of them takes place on the moon. As a rule, Last Stories is less interested in these locales as physical places than in their subterranean mythologies. Vollmann’s method, which involves drilling deep into the folkloric resources underlying these various regions, allows him to produce a kind of multicultural lexicon of supernaturalism: Romanian vampires mingle with Greek golems, Japanese ghosts, Mexican spirits, and American witches; the collection comes to resemble a veritable United Nations of the undead.

To what purpose? Well, one of Vollmann’s protagonists (in “The Cemetery of the World”) is writing a doctoral dissertation on “syncretism” (the amalgamation of different cultures and religions) in Mexican folklore; in another story (“The Forgetful Ghost”) Vollmann cites H. P. Lovecraft’s hypothesis that “all cemeteries are subterraneously connected.” The ghostly juxtapositions in Last Stories suggest the possibility that each of these local eruptions of superstition might eventually connect back to some ancient, universal reservoir of ideas, anxieties, and yearnings about death. In any event, Last Stories is informed by careful research, much of it emerging from the author’s own fieldwork. Vollmann’s dedicated readership may find that Last Stories reads like a series of fictional B-sides to accompany the more substantial non-fictional offerings that the author has unloaded over the last number of years.

And yet, for all their wide-ranging promiscuity in terms of setting and time period, the stories that comprise this collection are unwaveringly faithful in their thematic commitment to sex and death. In an interview, Kate Braverman once asked Vollmann about his “political and literary agenda.” He responded, with, one assumes, a touch of irony: “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.” The vision of mortality that emerges in Last Stories is qualified by a few supernatural axioms that are clearly stated at the outset. Two of these axioms bear repeating here: first, “to the extent that the dead live on, the living must resemble them” — and, given the fidelity of the resemblance, there’s no gainsaying that we might be dead at this very moment. Second, “since eternal consciousness would be the worst torture possible, and God’s own writings under various aliases hint at such a possibility, why not expect it?”

Death turns out to be a curse because it is just like life, only longer, and infinitely more boring. In Last Stories, Vollmann takes this idea and runs with it; his dead literally hang out in their coffins, trying to distract themselves from the non-passage of time by recalling the plots of old novels, chatting with other members of the cadaver community, and so on. Victoria, the dead sweetheart in “When We Were Seventeen,” struggles with the quotidian banality of her post-mortem condition: the woman in the grave next door won’t stop chewing on the dirt in her grave, and her family never engages in intellectually stimulating conversation. She fantasizes about seeing the stars or the moon through the ceiling of her grave, but “then I remember that I don’t have eyes and if I could see anything at all it would only be a maggot crawling across me.”

So, a pair of paradoxes. Vollmann’s vision of death is time-bound and physical (gruesomely so: these corpses rot, they reek, they’re consumed by worms and maggots and rats), while at the same time metaphysical and eternal, played out within the inescapable cells of our own imperishable subjectivities. And, despite the formidable imaginative force that animates them, many of the stories in this collection lack a pulse. In his New York Times review, Dwight Garner contends that Last Stories is “harrowing in the boredom it delivers,” and one suspects that few would argue with him. Part of the problem has to do with Vollmann’s penchant for long, grammatically difficult sentences, in which any graspable meaning seems to melt away with each additional clause.

Vollmann’s metaphors, while sometimes symbolically productive, are more often simply baffling. Victoria’s “body was the white trunk of a flowering tree, growing out over its reflection in the brown-green water stained by the rainbow of mud-spirits beneath.” Or, from a story called “Widow’s Weeds”: “The coffee-like odor of her armpits, her breasts like a cluster of green papayas around a white trunk, the perfect softness of her legs, her cool ginger-ginseng scent, these were like various desserts set before me on a porcelain plate at a fancy restaurant.” This sentence’s combination of weird imagery (“breasts like a cluster of green papayas”) with first-draft laziness in the phrasing (“a fancy restaurant”) is representative of the overall texture of the language in Last Stories, in which unappetizing, half-chewed morsels of metaphor bob around in the murky dishwater of Vollmann’s prose.

With all due allowances for their anthropological diversity, Vollmann’s tales in this book are anchored to the same wounded male subjectivity. We start off with a jilted Lothario, whose generalized bile toward every breathing female drives him into the arms of some corpse or ghoul or supernatural entity. The recently dumped Ricardo, in “The Cemetery of the World,” has an affair with the ghost La Llorona. “Please eat me; please drink my blood,” he whines; “I don’t want to start over anymore.” The narrator of “The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” seeks out a ghost who promptly disembowels him as a prelude to more advanced necrophilic sport, while the narrator of “Widow’s Weeds” distracts himself with a whole menagerie of supernatural sluts. Vollmann includes the following pro-tip:

The beautiful Chinese fox-spirits who suck semen out of a man until he dies can be beaten at their own game: sustained, repeated, remorseless penetration will kill them first, so that suddenly, in the middle of the act, the lovely longhaired lady squirming on the bed becomes a sad little fox-corpse with its tongue hanging out…

Last Stories and Other Stories is a compendium of grotesquerie. Severed heads are stuffed with garlic, children are boiled in soup, witches masturbate on the ends of their broomsticks. Around the point when one male character starts inserting live animals into the mouth of his vampiric beloved, readers may find themselves musing on the etymological coincidence underlying the two meanings of the word “geek”: 1) “any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit (Cf. nerd),” and 2) “a performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal.”

The subject matter in Last Stories encourages Vollmann to get his geek on in every sense, but nowhere is the impulse to shock more apparent than in the necrophilic fantasies on display in “When We Were Seventeen.” “First I’d strip off that winding sheet of yours,” the protagonist teases his dead lover,

And I’d very carefully brush the ants and dirt off your bones. I’d get in between your ribs and clean with a child’s toothbrush […] I’d brush your teeth for you, and I’d kiss you where you used to have a mouth. I’d scour out your pelvis with sweetgrass and lavender oil. Then I’d start kissing you there. I’d lick your bones right there.

Doubtless, such passages are bound to strike some readers as “more than a bubble off plumb” (to quote David Foster Wallace’s impression of their author). Dwight Garner, for instance, argues that the book’s necrophilic indulgences are less about shocking the audience than “trac[ing] the far reaches of this author’s obsessions with sex and death.” Could be. But at a moment in which the most popular shows on television include Hannibal, The Following, Criminal Minds, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Dexter, and Game of Thrones, it seems mildly disingenuous to suggest that there is anything especially outré about the content of these stories. The “far reaches” of Vollmann’s obsessions are still well within the coordinates of contemporary pop culture, and even the most eccentric entries in Last Stories seem to point back toward something happening at the very center of our cultural imagination.

If anything, Vollmann’s lurid tales help to reveal the extent to which a “polite” necrophilia has already established itself as something of a national fetish. (You’ve seen it a hundred times since Twin Peaks: a detective or forensic investigator solemnly pulls back the plastic sheet to reveal the pristine gray nakedness of the lifeless woman.) But where a show like Dexter “innocently” sexualizes violence and death — smoothing sadistic savagery into a glossy, eroticized, easily consumable package — Vollmann’s text confronts us with the maggoty, feculent underside of our collective romance with the corpse. Part of his project involves recuperating some sense of the putridity and mortification of death: he wants us to know that cadavers smell “more vomity when fresh, more like garbage later on.” Corpses do not just exist (as TV teaches us) for one titillating moment of spectacular violence (or for our erotic enjoyment, laid out on a gurney): the afterlife of the corpse involves centuries of wormy decay.

But while images of spectacularized death are in some ways inescapable in popular entertainment, death itself — “the distinguished thing,” as Henry James once called it — remains carefully concealed from view. “There are epochs when we manage to convince ourselves that death is merely an inconvenience visited upon other people,” Vollmann writes in “The Judge’s Promise,” the implication being that ours is one of those epochs. That was the view of Philippe Ariès, who, in The Hour of Our Death (1981), argued that we are currently living under the regime of the “invisible death.” Ariès claims that the 20th century witnessed the drastic exclusion of death and dying from Western society. A few factors facilitated the transformation: serious illness came to be seen as indecent, distasteful, even shameful. Mourning — especially public or prolonged displays of it — became morbid and unnatural. Most decisively, the bureaucratization and “management” of death moved the scene of dying from home to hospital. Today, healthcare professionals invigilate every aspect of death, taking care of the difficult details (such as deciding when the dying person is actually “dead.”) Ariès writes that hospital staff often “close the eyes of the dying a little while before they die; it’s easier. Or they arrange to have them die early in the morning, just before the night shift leaves.” If many of us diligently prepare our wills and take out life insurance policies, Ariès suggests that is only so that we can forget about death more completely.

Death, in Last Stories and Other Stories, is a torture; it is sexually seductive; it is gruesome, nauseating, and putrescent. What it is not is bureaucratized, medicalized, or managed (nor is it manageable.) Near the end of “When We Were Seventeen,” the male protagonist, whose cancer is in its final stages, resolves never to “return to the corporation which called itself his hospital.” In that simple declaration lies, perhaps, some indication of Vollmann’s profound rejection of the invisible death and the cultural logic that subtends it. For all of the challenges they present to the reader, Vollmann’s stories work to disturb our forgetfulness of death — to recuperate some of the ancient strangeness, the freakishness that has attended ruminations on what is euphemistically called “the human condition.” And if the absolute worst comes to pass, and those supernatural axioms turn out to be true, Last Stories gives us a little something to chew on in the long, bitter hereafter that awaits.

LARB A.V. has published a recent video interview with William T. Vollman that you can see here.


Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto and is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.