The title of this book may be a bit misleading. In his mid-50s, after a five-year grant which afforded him a break from frenetic typing and prolific publishing, William T. Vollmann, given his work ethic, presumably intends to tell more tales. His books blur globetrotting journalism, ethics, violence, sex, travels among the down-and-out, history, cultural critique, and speculative fiction.
Michael Hemmingson’s 2009 monograph on Vollmann explains: “Vollmann’s collections are not compilations of random short stories written over a certain period of time, as many collections seem to be. Each is compounded on a high concept, a grand metaphor; the volumes are cycles of related texts with recurring topics and motifs.” In these 32 sprawling stories, composed apparently during the past decade, ghosts hover, spirits tell tales, and memories linger, to settle down.
A journalist now “fat and old” returns to Sarajevo two decades after the war. His story, told obliquely, labels him only by his nationality, bound by the dictates of an internecine conflict which reduced neighbors to their territory or tribe. That war shot down any Romeos and Juliets who tried to escape the snipers, as the opening vignette dramatizes. The natives try to flee, the protagonist echoes Vollmann’s experience as it opened his critique of justifications for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), as one of “Three Meditations on Death”.
This event led to his serious wounding and the death of two of his companions when their jeep was ambushed on the way to Sarajevo. Driven to investigate this, and to make a living off of documenting pain, Vollmann reflects on such collusion by a curious, compliant war correspondent:
The American felt that slight sickness which always visited him on such occasions; in part mere adrenaline, which was intrinsically nauseating, that higher form of fear in which his mind floated ice cold, and a measure of disgust at himself for having voluntarily increased his danger of death. Over the years, the incomprehensible estrangement between his destiny as a risk-taking free agent and the destinies of the people whose stories he sometimes lived on, which is simply to say the people who were unfree, and accordingly had terrible things done to them, would damage him. Being free, however, he would never become as damaged as many of them.
Some of Vollmann’s characteristic tics emerge in this representative passage. As his critics contend, it might benefit from editing. Vollmann has responded to past criticism that he submits exactly what he needs to, and he refuses many excisions requested by editors or publishers. Therefore, his books tend towards heft. (See my reflections on Imperial here.) Does this latest volume need it?
Some 650 pages of themed stories shift from Sarajevo to Trieste for part two, and then part three in Bohemia. The fourth section leaves Trieste for 1860s Mexico. Fifth, Norway, and sixth, Tokyo follow. The seventh setting is unspecified while the eighth roams further, into Kauai, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the unknown. Here, the ninth portion concludes, as spirits intervene. The success of these restless, spectral stories depends on whether Vollmann can sustain in-depth soul-searching.
Part one explores Sarajevo of two doomed lovers, then that city as revisited earlier this current decade by the “American”. The relatives of one of those killed in the jeep distrust the reporter, as if he was a “leader”. They resent that he survived and not his Croatian-American friend, although the “patient fatalism” of the journalist proved not a shortcoming but a survival technique for one long bullied.
Three twined tales, for those familiar with Vollmann’s themes, fictionalize his reflections on the 1994 death near Sarajevo of his classmate and later interpreter, Francis William Tomasic. What’s added for this anthology is the discomfort of a boy once bullied turned middle-aged teller, who with his weary wife revisits, with mixed results for friendship or fondness, his former hosts.
One story ends as these two Americans rest by the “Yellow Bastion, with heavy, fragrant clusters of white elderflowers bowing the branches down before them, and then, far down through the greenness, a hoard of those other white flowers called tombstones, rising delicately and distinctly from the grass.” Vollmann prefers to underplay such prosier sections, so when these appear, they deepen their emotional impact.
The next story reaches novella length, with purpled, prosy passages filtered through a storyteller from an vague time perhaps 200 years ago, about Jovo Cirtovich. This Sarajevan wine trader in Trieste seeks arcana of how the spheres move and the earth turns. It deepens Vollmann’s immersion into this region’s lore and landscape. But its meandering pace recalls digressions within Don Quixote, or or a heady, epic recital, its ending postponed for what feels a thousand nights, from Scheherazade.
This wandering attention persists over part two, with a few stories set around the Balkans. First, a boy who desecrates a statue of Our Lady of Flowers. Second, a shaggy-dog saga dramatizes a plinth of bronze statues which come to life, and then fictionalizes a surrealist painter, doubling as a slinky cat goddess. Then, a haunting episode introduces a trench ghost. Golem-like, this eerie figure animates post-WWI figurines to fight at grave sites, recalling tales of corpses restored and spirits unable to leave their places of death. Vollmann’s invention strengthens over these loosely linked Trieste tales.
Back to Bohemia, part three connects stories about a vampire husband and wife, a widow, and a witch-finder. These take place in the 1630s, but retain as many tales in the first sections do a timeless sense. The folk nature of their narratives suspends them, however. A resigned tread dampens them, and they smell musty. As the Trench-Ghost tale’s teller averred, “eternal stories do have a way of becoming tedious”. But the last, with its showdown “come the dark of the moon” as “a squad of Holy Bohemian Dragons stood ready with garlicshooters, buckets of holy water and arquebuses loaded with silver bullets every third one of which had been blessed by the Pope”, enlivens this morbidity.
From Trieste, part four opens with the Emperor Maximilian and his soon-maddened wife Carlota embarking for Mexico. Soon defeated, the Hapsburg claimant to the Second Mexican Empire spends his last night in prison imagining, in a set-piece displaying Vollmann’s skill, an eerie Aztec sacrificial ritual anticipating the pretender’s humbler demise before a firing squad in 1867 Querétaro. Later, a folklore student in today’s Mexico falls in love with the incarnation, or deterioration, of his subject La Llorona, once La Malinche the mistress of Cortes: her lips “were cochineal-red, like the teeth of an Aztec prostitute”.
Finally, a diabolical fable, in the style of a notary from the Inquisition and the length of a garrulous episode from Cervantes, accounts for Veracruz’s reputation for the plague. This moralizes on the fate of the Amazons, producing an allegory for colonialism’s deadly sins. While scenes, set in grim prison and then in grim fantasy, benefit from detail, it seems a never-ending story.
Norwegian tales, of a spider-love, a graveyard, and a churchyard, mire themselves in the icy macabre. Perhaps the climate can be blamed. Set on an emigrant ship to Québec, part five’s longer story fuels a hellish excursion, concluding in a gruesome, if at least warmer, cannery run by trolls. Two more stories, one in the first person, also end abruptly, although this leaves them lasting longer in memory.
For Vollmann’s meandering prose, followed for long stretches, blurs these ghosts with doom-laden narratives. Committed to these, the dogged reader must capitulate, following the protagonists on their decaying pursuits. “The reason I had first approached her,” one man who longs to turn a ghost rationalizes, “was to overcome the defining human error of despising death’s carnality.” This articulates Vollmann’s motive, and reveals his determination to pursue hermetic themes.
Embracing what repels most of us, part six’s shift to Japan reaches its peak in loosely paired stories: the lover of the ghost of Rainy Mountain haunts the slopes in the feudal era; in modern times, a “camera-ghost” sucks its title character into its inner mechanisms, perhaps a setting no previous epic of ectoplasm has explored. More tales waft about the floating world of geishas, and over all them there rises a miasma.
“Defiance Too Late” comprises the total of part seven. This dour story, about Abraham’s connivance and capitulation to God’s command, cannot free itself from too-dutiful a recital of biblical cadences.
Part eight saunters first to Kauai for an love affair between another mortal man and an increasingly formless presence. The narrator confides for her his “capacity for affection—I nearly wrote infection”; this proves too true. At first, courtship appeals. “Swimming in her foamy white petticoats and her long green seaweed hair, she sang me the same melody she’d sung Ulysses,” but the fun fades. That siren song “made little impression on me; I’d heard it all before.” Vollmann lets the bracing impact of her humid, tropical, and watery allure or disgust dissipate. “Wringing out her sea-black skirt afterward, on her tiny lava-islet decorated with skulls, she offered me eternal life beneath the water; unfortunately, I was already diseased by that curse.”
This jaded attitude does not keep pages turning as fast as most authors may desire. As this narrator saunters off mid-tale to pursue a Greek corpse in Paris, before his return to Hawai’i, the novelty of an extended pursuit of a siren fades into narrative lassitude. A gruesome Poe-type tale of corpse robbers and flesh-eaters turns humdrum. A fable emanating from Toronto incorporates a time-altering view from a telescope perched high on its immense sky tower promisingly, as it allows the narrator to see past and present, but it peters out.
“The Grave House” refreshingly, conveys spiritedly not a haunted but a haunting house. Very brief and witty, it evokes by its inversions a spooky series such as Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone.
This section concludes with “When We Were Seventeen” which at over 50 sections nears another novella. Dying of cancer, a middle-aged man rummages through his desk to conjure up, through a witch’s magic potion, not only the letters from a long-ago failed romance in his teens, but the woman herself, after she has died, also from cancer. This uneasy affair between a revenant and his past object of affection, who keeps humiliating the clumsy swain who in middle age repeats the failures of his teenaged dating gaffes, enlivens this epistolary encounter. But again, energy fades, over such length.
Part nine by comparison moves this creaky compendium briskly towards a conclusion. In its entirety, here is the first entry, “The Answer”: “I asked the grave why I must die, and it did not answer. I asked who or what death was, and it kept silent. I asked where the dead I loved had gone, and its earthen lips did not open. I begged for just one reply, to anything, and then its grassy lips began to smile. Moistening itself with its many-wormed tongue, it opened. Too late I realized the answer.”
Returning to the site of one of the tales in part six, Kamakura, “Goodbye” recalls earlier entries of watery seduction, subterranean skeleton-lovers, and ghoulish embraces. Then, these stories fade away, with their protagonists. They recall H.P. Lovecraft, by conjuring sinister, sinuous elongations.
In the typically diligent endnotes explaining where fact (such as Jovo or Maximiliano, or feline-obsessed one-time Trieste resident, surrealist painter Leonor Fini, whose works decorate the dust jacket) departs from fiction, Vollmann lets his sly hand show. He claims that he “cut a few pages, out of compassion” for his agent and editor. “No doubt Last Stories will make us all rich, at least in those ‘hell banknotes’ at certain ethnic Chinese funerals in Southeast Asia.” Out of paper, Vollmann constructs his own tiger, words to howl at death.
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