Approaching History: The Works of William Vollman

By Mike Lenz

Pynchon's definition of history is intentionally complicated. It is an illustration of his point. His definition is "a great disorderly tangle of lines." Yet, if we probe, as he suggests, with a skillful eye (with the "arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit"), we can decipher truth in it. If facts are to be easily dismissed, then fiction must be evaluated. Taken as a narrative, fiction carries the weight and duty of relating occurrences. Each narrative, then becoming a history in and of itself, it becomes a strand in the weave (in the "Tangle of Lines"), further blurring boundaries between fact and fiction. To suggest that history is not simply a "Chronology," demands that it is in some way a cumulative quality, a collected experience. Still, Pynchon will not let us off without cautioning that it is not simply "Remembrance" either, for memory can never feign objectivity. His description of multiplicit web of history coincides with what Brook Thomas identifies as a shift to "emphasize heterogeneity rather than homogeneity" in defining a cultural identity (Thomas 198).

In his ambitious Seven Dreams series, William T. Vollmann toys with the novelist's role as historian. The series is a fictional rewriting of the history of North America. Though fictional in genre, Vollmann incorporates thorough research (Fathers and Crows contains a 120 page appendix of glossaries and notes) and, like Pynchon, an academic awareness to critical method.

Since the rise of new historicism in the critical idiom, the definitions the word history are endless. Nicola Chiaromonte describes the history of historians as "unreal or mythical" when compared to "reality itself, history as it is actually experienced by the individual and the community" (Chiaromonte 19). The basis of Chiaromonte's argument is that history is useless if it does not allow for a personal connection to it. Thus the individual's history, the way each person approaches history, becomes more important than the sort of generic textbook history of a historian. While this may stray dangerously close to the form of recollection that Pynchon warned against, it remains an important formula for gathering history. If the individual histories of large groups of inter-related communities are gathered under the same observer, they lose some of their subjectivity, their prejudices are in check with one another. Pynchon's initial assertion that remembrance is a form of power, carries with it political implications. Remembrance is easily colored by the media, leaving a people with a manipulated sense of their own society's past. This sort of history appears as "prepackaged....to present itself for immediate consumption....a product of power whose label has been cleansed of traces of power" (Trouillot 114).

The gathering of individual and communal histories is exactly the method Vollmann employs when writing his Seven Dreams novels. Set in the present, history is a "Mnemonick" device through which his narrator (and his readers) discover their true identities.

The Narrator and His Time Machines

Vollmann's narrators overcome time through two methods--structure and device. He structures his fiction in the storyteller/parable form, according to the time and setting of each work. Vollmann authenticate's this method with his own experiences. Having traveled extensively and lived among a wide variety of people in a wide variety of places, he has not only collected the stories of the people, but also inherited the way in which they are to told. The dialect and verbal structures of the text are built shaped by the tradition of the storyteller, a role he often delegates to the narrator. In order to access history more readily, Vollmann employs a number of narrative metaphors, functioning as devices for navigating time. They serve as vehicles for his stories, making the varied styles and forms of his fiction into a more cohesive whole and leaving inroads leading back towards authorial voice. For, as much as Vollmann tries to keep himself at a distance from his narratives, we, as readers, are tempted to see a caricature of him in Jimmy, the desperate protagonist of Whores for Gloria. Both seem to be wanderers, traveling from station to station, gathering stories toward a larger purpose--the assembly of an identity. Each of Vollmann's narrative metaphors: the Atlas, the Stream of Time, and the Ghost of Magnetism, are used to draw together isolated incidents and experiences. The result, if successful, is something approximating a universal experience, a unified sense of identity, a history, and quite possibly one that heals as it is related.

William the Blind, the narrator of Father and Crows, is remarkable for his ambivalence towards a past he knows so well. His name is a thin disguise the author admits to dawning in the novel's prefacing pages and represents the author's own "blind" attempt at understanding present-day Quebec. William the Blind sees in terms of the Stream of Time. As readers we must constantly remind ourselves that what we read, is what he sees. His own intrusions are few and he is easily forgotten in the tale he tells. The framed structure, with the narrator following a guided tour of modern Quebec, seeing (and relating) hundreds of years of history in the landmarks and geography before him, allows for endless depth in his perception. He is, in fact, "blind" to any existentialist idea of now. He is unable to isolate any given moment as its own, rather seeing a vast array of experience that has helped determine and includes the present. He is, for all intents and purposes, the tour guide, devoid of any politics or sense of discretion. What he gives is a curious mix of academia and empathy--an understanding of what has happened. In a rare narrative break, William the Blind speaks of "mak[ing] the exercises" (359). He is referring to himself, using terms he generally uses to describe the Jesuits. They are the ones who have a tradition of making exercises. That he should be making the exercises indicates that he, too, is in some way following the example of Saint Ignatius, reaffirming the notion that his role in the text is that of a healer on a spiritual quest to find resolution in history and a connection to the purity and idealism of the great saints. He, too, is struggling with understanding his position in time and history.

The Stream of Time flows forward, never backward. It is a time/space continuum encompassing all of history, flowing out of the past and into the future. This is a reversal of the post-modern dilemma of connecting with the past. The post-modernists have long been concerned with the notion that in an industrialized society, one of rapid growth and technological advance, there is a severance of cultural and spiritual ties. Vollmann contradicts this by showing the past to be a force, one that places a certain amount of inertia on the present. In Fathers and Crows, he writes, "History devours what happens, without any reason" (215). His characters are most often shown as resistant to this sort of fatalism, reaching against the Stream of Time toward visages of Christ or Saint Ignatius. In this sense, the Black-Gowns function as a sort of parody of many current attitudes about post-modernism--of the isolation theorists. The Jesuit priests are unable to find salvation by working against the Stream, instead alienating themselves from the context of their lives in the present. It would seem equally absurd to seek resolution for our post-modern tribulations by clinging to single events and instances of the past. Vollmann's approach to the Orwellian crisis of "Where are we going? What will we become? Is not one of simply looking forward or backward, but rather a vision of the present that contains the sort of hyper perceptiveness and sensitivity that William the Blind employs. He reveals this in epiphanies, rare moments of peaceful recognition that few of his characters ever realize. One such revelation occurs in a conference between a frustrated Pere Biard and an enlightened Pere Masse:

I hear the waterfalls. I hear them all. They deafen my ears. [Biard]

What do waterfalls do? said Pere Masse.

They impede travel, replied Pere Biard, and there was uncomprehending anger in his tone.

Yes, they do that. They block travel both in time and in space. What else?

Pere Biard sat thinking obediently. -They make eddies, he said at last.

What else?

They end travel. They cause death to weak swimmers.

Yes, brother, said Pere Masse. That is the purpose of waterfalls in the Stream of time. Low creatures such as you and I are not meant to surmount these obstacles. We are meant to be broken on them. Even Christ was broken on the Seventy-Third Rapid. All must die. But to understand this and die in the proper circumstances, that is to gain the Crown of Martyrdom.

Pere Biard stared at him as if he had never seen him before. (F&C 291)

Aside from being one Vollmann's more poetical passages on the Stream of Time, this provides a diagram of his sense of fatalism.

The second of Vollmann's navigational metaphors is the Ghost of Magnetism. The story of the same title is central to his collection 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs. The story's first-person narrator is a melancholy drifter who is literally consumed by his memories. After following every direction the compass bares, we find him in a Las Vegas hotel, vomiting into a pool. Here among the neon lights of countless strip clubs, he finds that "nothing could be more American and directionless" (45). The narrator himself is only a representation of all that Vollmann sees, the directionlessness of the America he lives in and perceives from day to day. The Ghost of Magnetism, as the narrator recognizes it, is Monique, a prostitute from San Francisco. His moment of realization comes when he vomits into the pool. He imagines that he is vomiting up whole persons and objects from his past. He is, in effect, vomiting up memories. The Ghost of Magnetism is the fifth direction, independent of North, South, East, and West. It is a private aspect of history with it's own gravity.

The metaphor of the Ghost of Magnetism is set up against the Stream of Time. Here, again gets more complicated. Not only do we have the inertia of the Stream pushing the individual out of the past from his specific place in the Stream, but we also have a Ghost for each individual, pulling them back against the Stream and into the past. So, Vollmann is forging a symmetry between his narrator and the dogmatists among the Black-Gowns of Fathers and Crows. Only when he has vomited the memories into the pool or disbursed them into the slot machines does he feel any sort of freedom.

The narrator purges all but Elaine Suicide from his mind . To her, Vollmann dedicates the final section of the story, "The Angel of Happiness." He relishes his memory of her because he believes he has impregnated her. This, he also believes will ease the gravity of the Ghost of Magnetism: "yes if she has an abortion I'll be able to come back to town and be with her and so I won't have to leave San Francisco yet and if she has the baby I'll be here, too, growing and dreaming inside of Elaine" (55). Thus, the story ends, the narrator finally satisfied in his sense of permanence, of place in the Stream of time, and with his victory (more or less) over the Ghost of Magnetism.

Vollmann's most recent narrative invention comes with the publication of The Atlas. The book is a large collection of stories and fragments arranged thematically to form a palindrome. The stories are set over five different continents and the span of a decade. The Atlas, as a metaphor, is a sort of magic carpet, a vehicle intended as much for the reader as it is for the narrator. Through the Atlas the reader gains access to the dimensions of each story, transported at the end of each to a new place and a new time. The title story serves as the center of the palindrome. Set up in a similar fashion as "The Ghost of Magnetism," the story is one of reflection and forward movement. The central character is moving (literally, by train) into an uncertain future and finds himself reflecting on the ill fate of a loved one. He goes through a similar exercise as the narrator of "The Ghost." His reflection is a sort of ritual. "The Atlas" is a more optimistic tale. In fact, it runs an opposite course to "The Ghost," which begins with a celebration. "The Atlas" begins with the statements, "he had used up every place now. Everywhere he went, he'd say to himself: There's nothing for me here anymore. No more nowhere nobody" (202). Through the course of the train ride and the passing of memories, he reaches a sort of contentment in his aimlessness, ending the story in a state of perfect sanctuary:

The train entered the tunnel. The atlas closed. Inside, each page became progressively more white and warm.

Willow lady rolled on top of him and took him in her arms. She rocked him to sleep. No more nowhere nobody. She grew a blanket of leaves over him, and he was even warmer. He lay at the center from which the world rotated round and round and round. (265)

The Proposed Intersection of Parallel Lines

Fathers and Crows is a novel about the failed integration of two cultures. Even in contemporary society, the effects of this initial failure continue to undermine attempts at cohesive cultural identities in North America. Taking this into account, the idealism that we commonly think of the United States being founded on (freedom, equality, etc.) was blindly initiated amidst the evidence of its own failure.

Vollmann illustrates European and Native American cultures as parallel lines, each unaware of the other's symmetry. Possibly the most important parallel, since it figures so prominently in the failure to integrate, is that of Christ-figure. Vollmann tells the story of Dekanwideh, the great peacemaker, born of a "red-skinned Madonna" (319). Dekanwideh possesses immortality and performs miracles. He is sent to unite the tribes in peace, as was Christ. In his absence, however, peace fails and his words are quickly forgotten. The absence of the teacher (i.e. Christ, Dekanwideh, Saint Ignatius, etc.) Plays a major role in the novel. What little authorial voice exists in the text does not approach religion with any sort of didacticism, but rather as a representative of the grim difference between the idealism and the eventual history of Western man. In his dedication of the novel, Vollmann includes two parts, "to" and "against." He dedicates the book the book "to all Canadians," listing the different peoples. He dedicates it "against all dogmatists and their armies (in which some of the above may have enlisted)." Indeed, the dogma of the Black-Gowns is there greatest hindrance and, in the end, their downfall.

Here, Vollmann finds opportunity to present a contrast. Shifting to the East, he makes yet another departure from the narrative in order to tell the story of Father Robert de Nobili. As a missionary to India, de Nobili recognized a strong sense of spirituality that had already existed in the people there when he arrived. He also saw the contempt in trying to extinguish that spirituality in the name of Christianity. "Perhaps we should adapt ourselves to them, said Pere de Nobili to his Senior. That is what the Blessed Ignatius told us to do" (474). De Nobili sought to share his faith by first sharing and understanding the faith of those he wished to convert. Upon converting Sivadarma, he stated, "My son, I believe that you can be a Brahmin and a Christian, too" (475). The failure of the Black-Gowns to find the way of Pere de Nobili, their failure to recognize and respect a culture foreign to their own is at the crux of Vollmann's novel.


Magdalen in the New World

Stepping back and taking Vollmann's fiction as a whole, another prominent archetype comes to the forefront. The Magdalen figure borders on omnipresence in his work. With books like Whores for Gloria and The Butterfly Stories, the theme of prostitution dominates Vollmann's contemporary work. After having read such stories, readers will find this motif to be persistent in his historical novels as well. Certainly, not absent from Fathers and Crows, the most powerful female characters in the novel seem to fit this image. These characters play both the damning and the damned to the male figure of Christ (or St. Ignatius, who is emulated as a vehicle moving toward Christ).

Chief among the Magdalen figures in Fathers and Crows is Born Underwater. She is the offspring, resulting from the rape of Born Swimming and, like the original Magdalen, she is a seer. First associated with the "dance of naked privies" so dreaded by Champlain, she eventually becomes a repentant figure, teaching the children of the mission to pray. Although Pere Brebeuf reprimands her for this action and ultimately rejects her, he does show considerable compassion to her. He defends her name under Pere Superior's accusations of harlotry. She causes a sudden "glow[ing] in his heart, but he could not tell if it were gladness or anger or something else" (F&C 729). In certain ways, Born Underwater should have been the "savage" bride of the Black-Gowns. She had accepted their change and their instruction, as Magdalen had Christ's, but the Pere Brebeuf were unable to accept her, failing to follow the example of Christ. In reality, his situation much like Peter's is in the Christian myth. As "visionary, mediatrix, and messenger of esoteric revelations," she is spiritually superior to Peter, who resents her privileged position (Haskins 37). Likewise, Born Underwater, with her ability as prophetess, is spiritually superior to Pere Brebeuf. It is her powerful spirituality that causes him anxiety and even fear, leading to his rejection of her. Brebeuf has imitated the apostle, Peter, rather than Christ.

With her relationship to Christ, Magdalen is often seen as a symbol of "perfect spiritual union....in which the polarities of male and female [are] abolished" (41). This is the union that should have been created between the Natives and the Europeans, and that should have been symbolized by the spiritual union of Pere Brebeuf and Born Underwater. Instead, through her rejection, Born Underwater becomes the opposite--a symbol of failed unity, the magnitude of which is perceivable even to William the Blind far down the Stream of Time. The ramifications of this failure are also recognized by William Vollmann, the author of Whores for Gloria.

Magdalen is also associated with the "gnostic claim of Christ's continued presence" (39). As a visionary, she may claim a connection to the divine, receiving guidance and insight through her visions that may serve as teachings for the faithful. Without Christ's forgiveness, Magdalen never ascends to this level, but remains as she was--a prostitute. So, for Born Underwater, the absence of a Christ-figure (the failed union) leaves her an outcast. Thus, the "continued presence" she represents is not that of Christ, but of the absence of Christ.

In Whores for Gloria, we meet a whole cast of prostitutes, none of whom are repentant. But, unless we are devoutly religious, we do not expect there repentance because we live in a society that is without the physical presence Christ. Even within present-day orthodox Christianity, the tradition lies more with imitating the Black-Gowns than with imitating Christ and embracing the harlot, repeating the failure. Yet, in Whores for Gloria, spiritual union is clearly what is being sought. Jimmy, in gathering stories from the various prostitutes, takes something from each of them, creating a composite. The Gloria he creates is an ideal, never real in any sense that Jimmy has ever her. Even the name--Gloria--suggests the divine. Jimmy is attempting to recreate the ascension of Magdalen. He is trying to save them all, including himself, from the lives that they are living. That the real Gloria shows up in the end to kill Jimmy may only be another instance of the author's fatalism coming through. Androgyny, too, manifests itself in strange ways in Vollmann's contemporary world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the prevalence of transsexuals in his stories may serve as some sort of representative of the abolition of polarities, an author's cynical reinterpretation, an individual's perverse psychological misunderstanding on par with the physical mortifications of Kateri Tekakwitha.

More than that, the spiritual struggle of presented in so much of Vollmann's fiction parallels the Gospel of Mary's account of Magdalen's last private conference with Christ. After speaking with him, she rejoins the other disciples and is asked to relate what Christ told her. She describes a vision of the soul "safely pass[ing] by seven powers of wrath on its heavenly ascent" (Dart 113). Vollmann has indicated that he chose the number "seven" for his Seven Dreams series "for poetic and didactic purposes" (McCaffery 12). Two sources that can be directly linked to his decision are Francis Parkman's Seven Dreams of Canada and Magdalen's relation to the disciples.


The fiction of William T. Vollmann, historical or contemporary, raises serious questions about the way that we treat our past. He magnifies our sense of dogma, empathizes profoundly with our rituals and our need for them, however altered they may be, and he warns us against ourselves without excluding himself. We are all making our own Exercises, just as William the Blind does when he tells the stories, just as Vollmann does when he writes them.

The rituals of our lives, in connection with Vollmann's sense of history, define the present. As Rupert Sheldrake states, "By consciously performing ritual acts...the participants enter into morphic resonance with those who have carried out the ritual in the past. There is a collapse of time....an invisible presence of all those who have done the ritual before, a transtemporal ritual community" (Natural Grace 167). William the Blind lives and breathes within such a "transtemporal community." Everyone who has participated in the history of Canada, in whatever role, is present as he walks through Quebec. There is a deep sense of collectiveness that validates all struggle and quite possibly does in some way heal. For Vollmann, as an author of this community, "Explanation and historiography, history and its writing, appear to have become the same thing" (Hamilton 21).

Works Cited William

Chiaromonte, Nicola. The Paradox of History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Dart, John. The Jesus of Heresy and History. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Fox, Matthew and Rupert Sheldrake. Natural Grace. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

McCaffrey, Larry. "An Interview With William T. Vollmann." Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13.2: 1993, pp. 9-24.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason & Dixon. New York: Holt, 1997.

Thomas, Brook. "The New historicism and Other Old-fashioned Topics." The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Thomas. New York: Routledge, 1989. pp: 182-203.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Vollmann, William T. The Atlas. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.

Vollmann, William T. Fathers and Crows. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Vollmann, William T. 13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota. This web page (http://www.d.umn.edu/~tbacig/urop/vollmann.html) is maintained by Tom Bacig, and was last updated Monday, 4-May-98 16:04:34 CDT. Send comments to Tom Bacig.
© 1998, Mike Lenz