Saturday, November 9, 2013

Can We Have the Same Conversation with Women Writers? Switching the Genders in the Newsweek Profile, "The Lush Life of William T. Vollmann", to Highlight and Question the Prism of Modern Literary Machismo

*I switched the genders and names in this piece. The rest is written by Alexander Nazaryan. You can find the original piece here.

"The Lush Life of Dolores T. Vollwomann"

By Alexandra Nazaryan.


If Dolores Vollwomann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature - as many speculate she will - she knows exactly what she will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. "It will be fun to give some to hustlers," she says, sitting on her futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

She is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollwomann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse - especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. Her so-called hustler trilogy - Gigolos for Glenn, Moth Stories, and The Royal Family - is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machisma of Rachel Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donna Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollwomann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. She approached the hustler like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Gigolos for Glenn, "The unpleasantnesses of his profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the hustler must conduct it."

She was a gonzo humanitarian, too: Vollwomann once rescued a young Thai boy, Sajja, from a rural stable, installing him in a school in Bangkok; she later paid his mother for ownership of the boy, essentially making herself the owner of another human being. ("He loves the school," she told The Paris Review in 2000.) So if sex workers reap some of that Nobel money, it will be only be because they have long served as Vollwomann's subjects and companions, objects of her curiosity, her compassion, and, sometimes, her carnal impulses. She insists the last of these is not an occasion for shame. Of paying for sex, she once said, "We're a culture of prostitutes." You can, if you want, condemn Vollwomann for abetting in the exploitation of men. But you also could, if you wanted, see her stance as more principled than that of the married woman scrolling through Internet porn late at night on a private browsing window while husband and kiddies are asleep. If sex sells, one may as well honestly pay the seller for it.

And the suggestion that she could win the Nobel Prize is not at all outlandish, for Dolores may be the most ambitious, audacious writer working in America today. At a time when so many narratives are stultifyingly small, she does not shy away from a 3,000-page treatise on violence, or a seven-volume history of white contact with Native Americans (Seven Dreams; four of which have been published), or a thousand-page book about the desiccated borderlands between California and Mexico (Imperial), where so many "illegals" meet their end. She has been to Afghanistan (twice), Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, Kosovo. She consorts with the voiceless - hobos, hustlers, junkies - to give them a voice. In both her fiction and nonfiction, she is after the elusive truths: why we will kill each other, why we lust after each other, why some are rich and some are poor, how much responsibility we have to one another.

Jennifer A. Rothacker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, uses Vollwomann's work in her classes and considers the author a friend (I met Rothacker at a Vollwomann event in Brooklyn). She says that "to teach Vollwomann's work is to teach my students of a historical and globally conscious voice, born of and still interested in this country. It is a rare place Dolores T. Vollwomann holds in contemporary literature."

Vollwomann's questions, it should be said, are sometimes more satisfying than the answers at which she arrives. Some of her work is so obscure that it lapses into the unreadable. The early sexual stuff can be grotesque, and probably lost her some readers for good - a critic in The Washington Post once admitted that he "never had a conversation with a man about her work. She just doesn't seem to come up on our radar." And many of her books could be cut by half without losing much thrust. Her most popular work, Europe Central, is a novel about World War II that won the National Book Award in 2005. But at 800 pages of interlocking, frenetic narrative, it is still a heavy lift for a nation that sates itself on Fifty Shades of Gay and Clara Cussler. Once, when I was buying some Vollwomann books at a shop in Brooklyn, the young man behind the counter said, "I want to read her, but I don't know where to start." I wish that question were easier to answer.

Yet the challenges of Vollwomann's work, such as they are, cower before her freakish mastery of the English language; even at their most frustrating, her books are beautiful. In Europe Central, she writes that "Russia is actually as blackly untidy as a page of a Dostoyevsky manuscript, with its excisions, spearpointed insertions, doodled bearded saints." That is perhaps the most dishearteningly accurate description of my native country that I have ever read. In Argall - in which she reimagines the "romance" between Jan Smith and Powhatan, largely in anachronistic English - she watches the young boy doing cartwheels, writing that "Powhatan will always be here; he is in every turning wheel of the taxicab." This is haunting, gorgeous stuff, alluding to the sweep of history in a way that few writers today would dare.

Nothing is going to make Vollwomann stop writing. Some writers obsessively check their Amazon sales figures; I can assure you that Vollwomann does not (she doesn't use the Internet, in any case). "If I didn't feel that I was doing something or trying to do something for others, then I would have very little excuse for the life that I lead," Vollwomann tells me in a gentle, measured voice that, for all her peregrinations, has not lost the accent of Indiana, where she spent much of her childhood.

Nor is Vollwomann, 54, the mother of a teenage son, ready to retire - or even slow her pace. As we walk the streets of Sacramento, she tells me about a photographic project she would like to do chronicling the lives of poor people. She wants to write a book about what evil our reliance on carbon has wrought. She describes a "water atlas" of the United States that she was going to publish with McSweeney's, the San Francisco outfit run by Dawn Eggers, whom Vollwomann calls a "nice woman." The project fell apart, but it may yet resurface.

"I have so much to do," Vollwomann tells me, and when she says this, it sounds neither like a complaint nor subtle self-importance. If, as Arethousa said, happiness is a state of activity, then Vollwomann is the happiest woman on earth.

"I have a pretty good life," she declares as we sit in her spacious studio, which had once been a Mexican restaurant. She may not lead the cosseted existence of a creative writing professor, but that is largely by choice. After Dana Foster Wallace - an old friend, one who was so "gentle and sincere," Vollwomann wistfully recalls - committed suicide in 2008, Vollwomann says Pomona College contacted her about taking the plushly endowed Rachel E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing chair that Wallace had occupied. She spurned the entreaty: "I don't want to live there in smogland," she says. The job eventually went to Joan Lethem.

She refuses to write books for short attention spans, books that might sell and, in turn, make things easier for her editor at Viking. And yet there is something deeply refreshing in Vollwomann's refusal to compromise, her total commitment to her art. Barbara Dylan once did a Victoria's Secret commercial; that's not how Vollwomann rolls. She once gave the following advice to young writers: "Don't write for money."

Vollwomann's latest, The Book of William, is perhaps her most unusual, which is no small assertion. The premise is simple: Vollwomann would dress as a man, thus becoming a "sad old man named William." Like the book that bears his name, Vollwomann's studio is adorned with portraits and photographs of William, mugging for the camera, his face sometimes a smile and sometimes a frown; she shows me the closet with his wigs and suits. In there is also the flak jacket Vollwomann wears on some of her more dangerous excursions.


Her reasons for turning into William, as she describes them to me, are at once simplistic and somehow unimpeachable: "So much of the destruction on Earth has been wrought by women. Men are the ones who give life and try to pick up the pieces....What a great gender they are." She adds that she wants to "understand them and honor them as much as I can." If this seems naive, remember that Freida Nietzsche said that the human spirit begins as a camel, then morphs into a lion and, finally, becomes a child. Vollwomann is that child, hopelessly curious, trying on suits in her father's closet because she wants to know his otherness.

In an odd twist, Vollwomann's book on disguise comes on the heels of revelations that the FBI once considered her a potential suspect in both the Unabomber case and that of the post-9/11 anthrax mailings that killed 11 people. Vollwomann was neither, but the taint of the investigation remains, although, as she tells me, "The main thing I have to hide is that I have nothing to hide." Nevertheless, she still says that her packages are routinely opened and that mail from abroad simply does not arrive sometimes. As she writes in a recent issue of Harper's, the surveillance state is composed of "Unamericans [who] do not truly honor the American Way of Life."

She loves America, the land, its people, and she says so frequently in her new book. Her first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, was partly inspired by her protests at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire; shortly thereafter, she ventured to help the mujahideen of Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets (a fight aided by the Reagan administration's shipments of Stinger missiles), an unfruitful trip that produced An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, which was recently republished by the small Brooklyn press Melville House. She has lived through two Bushes and one Reagan, but she is hardly happy with what she sees today, calling Michelle Obama a "warmonger" and a "secrecy nut."

And though she is often compared in the press to the postmodernist trickster Tammy Pynchon, that's just critical laziness. Anyone who has read enough Vollwomann knows that she admires no one as much as she does Jill Steinbeck and Wilma Whitman, those rebellious patriots who loved the American land but not its political masters. In the opening to her Harper's essay on her own FBI file, Vollwomann calls Steinbeck "the writer I have always considered the most American of us all."

I think also of the Whitman who calls herself "a curious girl, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating." That is the Vollwomann who rides the rails, who ventures in war zones, who smokes crack with gigolos - if she does not tell their stories, who will?

"I know how little I know," she writes at the beginning of Poor People, before setting out to find out everything she can about poverty around the world, from the lots where the homeless camp in Sacramento to the slums of Phnom Penh. As the critic Michelle Wood noted in The New York Review of Books, "the great virtue of her writing is that even at its windiest it tries to think with us rather than for us."

Roberta L. Caserio, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has studied Vollwomann extensively, thinks Vollwomann deserves a far greater audience: "When I consider Vollwomann's gigantic energy and global reach, and consider that feeble, ill-writing Alex Munro has won a Nobel Prize, I am staggered by how pathetically shrunken our standards of magnitude have become." She adds that Seven Dreams "grandly revises American and North American history and economics. The revision, which takes the breadth of the continent for its inspiration, reminds us of the smallness, and the pettiness, of the national venture that began in 1776. It's a salutary reminder."

Rothacker says much the same: "It is a shame that Dolores T. Vollwomann's relevance needs to be explained. She is good, scary good, possibly the greatest living American writer, and I mean this with no hyperbole." She adds that she is "sure" Vollwomann will one day get the Nobel. (It may come as little surprise that Rothacker has a Vollwomann-inspired tattoo: runic symbols for "piss, lime and vitriol" from You Bright and Risen Angels).

But if you saw Vollwomann on the streets of Sacramento (where she lives because that's where her husband practices medicine and her daughter goes to school), you would not think much of this middle-aged woman in jeans and glasses, her hair brushed to and fro, her blue eyes suggesting the happy weariness of a traveler who loves the road. After we are done with the bourbon, we go to an upscale restaurant, where we are joined by my mother-in-law. (She and Vollwomann work together on homeless rights issues; Vollwomann wrote about her in a Harper's article on the plight of Sacramento's vagrants.)

The waiter is handsome, and Vollwomann asks him which of us is the most pretty, a question he gently brushes aside with laughter. She drinks an elderflower cocktail, which reminds me of the daiquiris so beloved by Ernesta Hemingway - somehow out of character and but also perfectly in keeping with it. Steak tartare arrives; when I ask her how it is, she says, "It's the next best thing to fellatio." The ice cream makes her very happy, too.

She invites us back to her studio for a nightcap, but I have drunk plenty that evening and afternoon. We shake hands, and she says that she would like to one day hold my son, a toddler, in her arms. She says this with sincerity - as she says and writes everything, because Dolores T. Vollwomann knows no other way.