Sunday, October 11, 2009


Madison Smartt Bell’s book “Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft and Form” with the cover showing a man writing with his pen connected to an IV bag of ink, impressed me -- and a lot of others -- deeply. (I blogged about the book on January, 2006.) So when I spotted an essay by Bell about William T. Vollmann, who also impresses me and others very deeply, I downloaded and have been reflecting on the content. -

One point has been particularly helpful, as Barrus and I find that agents and publishers or even just friends, feel that they cannot discuss or understand a specific piece of writing unless they know what it “is.” What genre is it? What's the "brand." What label must we use? And particularly, of course, the vexed issue of whether it is “real” or not. (Whatever “real” means.)

Bell says, “Vollmann has been sometimes considered part of a new wave of metafictional writers, including David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers and Susan Daitch; he is also sometimes grouped with quite a different movement known as "transgressive fiction," including writers like Catherine Texier, Joel Rose and Dennis Cooper.” When I googled each of these writers, I found that their demographics were more like Barrus than me.

That makes sense: the changes in society since the Boomers were born (and began to instigate the changes, if not quite digest them) are certainly documented by what they write. I’m not sure quite what puts me into their landscape. I thought maybe Bell’s age would be more like mine, but he was born in 1957, the year I graduated from high school. Maybe it is his academic training: his MA was granted in 1981 and mine the year earlier. (I was a retread.)

Bell says, “Vollmann's admirers are also moved to wonder if he will survive to finish the series, for his methods of mingling his own life with his work have led him to put himself at all sorts of serious risk.” He travels internationally, embeds with warriors, camps in the arctic alone, frequents slums and wastelands, and buys child prostitutes. (Not their services: the whole human being.) His early explorations were in San Francisco, like so many. Then he went to Manhattan, again like so many, and found life there nearly unsurvivable. (All testimony is that this is not unusual today. The risk now is not so much crime as expensive living.)

I have notes on Vollmann that suggest things to me more than they would to my readers, but maybe I could pick out a few and explain them a bit.

My first note is the word, “layered.” Bell describes Vollman’s veneration of Tekakwitha, the only Native American saint, whose traditional self-affliction was burning her legs and feet as a devotion to God. Something like this happened to Vollmann in New York City, when a gang he sought to join held him down and burned him with cigarettes. He used the experience in his book about the Iroquois, who were notorious for their interest in torture.

In Browning there is a statue of Tekakwitha in front of The Church of the Little Flower, Saint Theresa. No mention of burning. Tekakwitha is especially revered in Browning, aside from her being the Indian patron saint, because a woman named her Down Syndrome half-Blackfeet baby Tekakwitha -- usually called “Tekkie” and maintained a close relationship with Rome.

Vollmann’s deep and driving grief is that his little sister (aged 6) drowned in his presence and he felt that he failed her by not saving her. Tekkie, the Blackfeet girl, did not drown, though she died young. But her cousin, when he was small, was also supposed to be caring for his little sister when she was killed by a car. The effect on him was similar. He is an esteemed friend of mine, partly because of his own drive to do enough good to compensate for his failure.

For Barrus it has been his failure to “cure” his adopted son that has felt to him like a death for which he was responsible. (His son has done well after all, but his fictional version died, partly as a salvation.)

The “transgressive” element has been strong for Barrus, right out in the open where he taunts and eviscerates society for its abuse and neglect. Of course, society says he’s transgressive for not staying with one gender assignment. They would rather he continued to represent himself as homosexual than went, more honestly, to admit the idea of being able to move among the social categories of gender-assigned desire. Likewise, they want to label his novels “pornographic” or “s/m” even though (despite marketing) they are not. (I was entertained by a negative review from a gentleman who complained that he didn’t come to climax by the end of the book, in spite of his best efforts at frottage. He was not using “climax” in the literary sense.)

But the biggest transgression was claiming to be half-Navajo. This was far more unforgivable among blog-reviewers, sensation-journalists, and professional Indians than any of the sexual writing. Indians are a sacred category in American society. I think that what has protected Vollmann has mostly been that his books are so huge and so difficult to read that the author torturers haven’t run across his version of the Iroquois. Or maybe they think Vollmann came “pre-tortured” through his own efforts. (One might wonder why Barrus’ avascular necrosis doesn’t qualify as torture since it’s extremely painful.)

The literary category of “metafictional” sounds promising except that I’m unclear about what it means. I HOPE it means not being so judgmentally obsessed with what is true or not, or what is true and false at the same time, or what is true in a different sense than what journalism or law require. There are other things to think about that seem far more important to me when it comes to writing about today’s society, like injustice, poverty, starvation, disease, and so on. The usual subjects. But not to write about them in the usual statistical and analytical way: rather to expose the actual experience of the victims. Without whining. But demanding attention. Vollmann packs heat in the vernacular sense and Bell describes him at a reading firing blanks from a revolver at the ceiling to wake up his audience. (Barrus grew up with hunters and respects long guns, but does not allow guns at Cinematheque where some boys are suicidal.)

“Meta- (from Greek: μετά = "after", "beyond", "with", "adjacent", "self"), is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.” I guess it depends on your definition of “fiction,” which is a metaphysical problem. Stand by. Take notes.

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