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William T Vollmann Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Santa Monica, California, 1959. Education: Attended Deep Springs College, 1977-79; Cornell University, B.A. 1981; graduate study at University of California, Berkeley, 1982-83. Career: Founder, CoTangent Press; writer. Awards: Ludwig Vogelstein award, 1987; Whiting Writers' award, 1988; Shiva Naipaul Memorial prize, 1989; PEN Center USA West Literary award, 1997. Agent: c/o Viking-Penguin, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon. New York, Atheneum, 1987.

Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, Volume 1,The Ice-Shirt, New York, Viking, 1990; Volume 2, Fathers and Crows, New York, Viking, 1992; Volume 6, The Rifles, New York, Viking, 1993.

Whores for Gloria; or, Everything Was Beautiful until the Girls Got Anxious (documentary novel). London, Pan-Picador, 1991; New York, Pantheon, 1992.

Butterfly Stories: A Novel. New York, Grove/Atlantic, 1993.

The Royal Family. New York, Viking, 2000.

Short Stories

The Rainbow Stories. New York, Atheneum, 1989.

Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. London, Deutsch, 1991; NewYork, Grove, 1994.

The Atlas: People, Places, and Visions. New York, Viking, 1996.

Other

An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World (memoir).New York, Farrar, Straus, 1992.

Open All Night (text), photographs by Ken Miller. Woodstock, NewYork, Overlook Press, 1995.

* * *

William T. Vollmann is the prodigiously prolific author of several novels, collections of short stories, and numerous nonfiction articles for The New Yorker, Spin, and other publications. Like others of his contemporaries labeled "postmodernists," Vollmann refuses to distinguish between fiction, journalism, autobiography, and fantasy, preferring instead to travel among genres in his work.

Temperamentally, Vollmann's fiction is most often described as alienated and lonely. His characters—prostitutes, street people, skinheads—are culled from the margins of society, and his stories unfold through finely drawn scenes of lust and violence rendered in prose at once poetic and clinical. Indeed, Vollmann has been accused of moral ambiguity in his work, in part because of this style of writing and in part because of his apparent reluctance to remark on the physical and spiritual brutality he often depicts. His collection The Atlas, and in particular the story "Under the Grass," provides a stirring counterpoint, however. The story begins with the 1968 drowning of Vollmann's sister, as the author characteristically embeds autobiographical detail into a work of fiction, and includes an extended mediation on death and guilt, responsibility and pain, and finally on the genesis of his own empathy for and identification with the doomed.

The oeuvre of Vollmann may be divided into two categories: his historical works and what might be best described as his "extreme fiction." Like other postmodern novelists before him—Don DeLillo and E.L. Doctorow, for instance—Vollmann's outlook seems to be shaped by philosophy's pronouncement of the death of the metanarrative, and in particular by the idea that history itself is an imaginative construct, a fiction. This sensibility is evident throughout Vollmann's historical novels, which critics have called "historiographic metafiction."

In his Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, which is a planned series of seven volumes, Vollmann explores the contingency of history and colonialism and, most especially, the Western self's construction of the indigenous Other. In the three volumes completed, Vollmann effects a remarkable fusion of historiography, confessional poetry, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology. Each book is meticulously researched, and one can only marvel at the extent of Vollmann's polymath interests. In volume one, The Ice-Shirt, he examines the tenth-century Norse landings in Greenland; in volume two, Fathers and Crows, the French settlement of what would become Canada; and in volume six, The Rifles, the Canadian government's relocation of the Intuits to the Arctic Circle in the 1950s.

The second category of Vollmann's work is the extreme fiction, his portraits of the marginalized and his excursions into the sexual fringes of society. Characteristic is Butterfly Stories, in which Vollmann follows the protagonist—known to the reader first as "the butterfly boy," then later "the journalist" and finally "the husband"—through a travel narrative that empties into the killing fields of Cambodia. There he falls in love with a prostitute, Vanna. The journalist returns to California HIV-positive and dreams of bringing Vanna to America, but he is killed by the Khmer Rouge as he tries to re-enter Cambodia.

Vollmann has argued that what propels his fiction is the inescapable innateness of sex and violence in all people. And yet he has also said that what drives him most is the desire to construct beautiful sentences.

—Michele S. Shauf

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