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You Are Now Entering the Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann

Home to goddesses, dreams, and a dangerously uncorrupted literary mind

Alberto Cristofari/A3/Contrasto/Redux

One morning, in 2000, while I was working as an editor for Henry Holt, a manuscript contained on several compact disks was delivered to my office. Back at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it was still relatively unusual for submissions to arrive in any form other than a stack of paper, so the occasion was memorable for that reason alone. More memorable yet was the manuscript’s author, William T. Vollmann, who had been churning out thick, conceptually audacious books faster than New York publishing could keep pace. From 1987 through 1993, for instance, Vollmann published eight books through five different houses.

This new Vollmann manuscript, Rising Up and Rising Down, was sent on compact disk mainly due to its length: 3,800 pages. “Let me get back to you,” I told his agent. I’d heard vague stirrings about Vollmann’s gargantuan undertaking, in the same way I imagine London studio engineers were hearing about Sgt. Pepper’s in the winter of 1967. The book was said to be an attempt to define a philosophically coherent set of moral coordinates for when violence was acceptable. Many houses had already rejected it, which was why its fate had fallen to a 26-year-old greenhorn such as myself. And now here I was, marshaling the entire assistantariot of Henry Holt to help me print the thing out.

A week later, I went to my boss and told him I thought we should do it. He’d read enough to agree, provided we could get Vollmann down to 1,500 manuscript pages, which was, given Vollmann’s chosen font (I had taken to calling it American Miniscule) actually more like 2,000 manuscript pages. I knew enough about Vollmann to guess at his thoughts concerning the general barbarity of editors and believed my best shot was to convince him how much I loved the book and how sincerely I believed it would benefit from compression. One Monday afternoon, he heard me out over the phone. Our conversation ended with him saying, “This subject is too important for truncated treatment.” Only while riding the subway back to Brooklyn that night did it occur to me to laugh. In 2003 McSweeney’s published a handsomely slipcased, seven-volume edition of “rurd” (as it’s known to Vollmann fans), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two years later, Vollmann finally consented to publish a “truncated” one-volume RURD, through HarperCollins, though he did so, by his own admission, for the money alone. Today, copies of the McSweeney’s edition can go for close to $1,000 on Amazon.

Fourteen years after our phone conversation, Vollmann and I walked down a quiet street in Sacramento, California, on our way to pick up shelving wood from Burnett & Sons, a lumber mill close to Vollmann’s studio. As we moved through sawdust-spiced air, the man I was now calling Bill smiled to remember his and my long-ago talk. I wanted to know: Did I ever have a shot at convincing him to shorten the book? “Nah,” he said.

Although Vollmann these days sports the punctilious mustache of a maître d’, he still resembles the baby-faced boy wonder readers first encountered in his shocking late ’80s author photo, in which he affectlessly held a pistol to his own head. Vollmann is a man of forbidding reputation, to say the least, which is why his speaking voice—as polite, deep, and expressive as someone selling you a vacation over the phone—so surprised me. He takes obvious pleasure in speaking, especially when he can add some mischievous wrinkle to whatever is being discussed: “Well, Tom, you see, the thing with that is this.” You get the feeling he might have been a wonderful grade-school teacher in another, much weirder dimension.

Vollmann has often been linked to Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, and David Foster Wallace, which makes a good amount of literary and cultural sense. Not only are or were they all friendly; they also share Midwestern roots and began publishing at the same time, in the mid- to late-’80s. They were initially hailed as heirs to the cogitationally sweaty tradition of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, writing fiction perceived as formally or intellectually challenging. In the intervening decades, Franzen became something like America’s foremost novelist of middle-class manners; Powers has become our go-to seismologist on the fault line between literature and science; Wallace, following his 2008 suicide, is now widely regarded as a literary saint. For his part, Vollmann began as an uncompromising visionary drawn to equally uncompromising material, and though he has mellowed as a man, his subject matter has, if anything, grown even more confrontational.

This month, Vollmann’s twenty-second book, Last Stories and Other Stories, will be published by Viking. Not many writers could convince a large, multinational publisher to go forth with a 680-page short-story collection about death, putrefaction, ghosts, and cancer, but Vollmann’s career has never really cohered to any preexisting template. This is to say nothing of his attendant identities: war correspondent, traveler, accomplished visual artist, parking-lot owner, gun lover (“I believe that the second amendment is really wonderful,” he once told an interviewer), privacy advocate, and champion of homeless rights. We passed numerous homeless people while walking to his studio, including a legless man in a wheelchair with a milky, unwell eye, to whom Vollmann bid a hale, “Hello! Good morning!”

I’d been in Sacramento a day and already noticed the pervasiveness of its homeless problem. The city seemed like California without the masks or pretense: a place where dreams were occasionally made but mostly torn apart. When I asked Vollmann why he’d chosen to live in Sacramento, he said, “Well, Joan Didion used to live here.” Then he laughed. The truth was more banal: His wife, an oncologist, got a job in Sacramento about twenty years ago. “Space was cheap,” he said. “So I made the best of it.” Vollmann told me one benefit of Sacramento was not being part of any literary hothouse. (Vollmann’s closest literary friend is Franzen, though, as he was sad to admit, they hadn’t been in touch in some time. Franzen tells a hilarious story of being a young writer in New York, meeting Vollmann, becoming fast friends, and inaugurating a draft swap. A while later, they exchanged work. Franzen gave Vollmann a dozen chiseled pages. Vollmann gave Franzen an entire novel.) In Sacramento, Vollmann said, he was merely “a guy named Bill who writes books.”

Vollmann’s studio, which he has owned for the last ten years, was once a corner-occupying Mexican restaurant called Ortega’s. Its windows are barred and curtained; its back door is fenced off, festooned with PRIVATE PROPERTY signs, and crowned with razor wire, which, he said, made him “feel like the Omega Man trying to keep the vampires out.” Vollmann cheerfully described the surrounding neighborhood as “bad,” and robbery remains a worry. Even so, he loves it here. Over the last few years he has had several offers to buy the studio. “I hear out their offers,” he said. “Then I ask for two million dollars.” What if some buyer went ahead and offered him $2 million? “I’d ask for five million dollars.”

It has been said that Vollmann works 16 hours a day, every day. To my relief, he refused either to confirm or deny this. “I’m going to be fifty-five in July,” he said with a sigh. “I’m a little less productive, a little less focused.” His studio, in which he both paints and writes, is a de facto home, complete with a bedroom, shower, men’s and women’s bathrooms (this, and the fact that his bedroom closet is an old meat locker, are the most obvious artifacts of the space’s previous identity), and a kitchen stocked with food and good whiskey. Most significant for Vollmann’s productivity, and peace of mind, was his studio’s lack of an Internet connection. In fact, Vollmann never uses the Internet. “I tried ordering from Amazon once,” he told me. “I was almost all the way through and then they wanted my e-mail. I couldn’t do it.” Along with the Internet and e-mail, Vollmann also foregoes cell phones, credit-card use, checking accounts, and driving.

Half of Vollmann’s studio felt like a proper gallery, with finished pieces handsomely framed and displayed. The other half was split into what looked like a used bookstore on one side and a struggling industrial arts business on the other. I imagined Vollmann had a gallery somewhere that showed his stuff, yes? Actually, no. “I’ve had a couple of photographer friends who have shows,” Vollmann said. “Every time, they always end up impoverished.” He employs “a couple dealers” who sell his work to various institutions, but he considers his studio a “perpetual gallery.” Vollmann gets additional income from Ohio State, which has been buying Vollmann’s work and manuscripts for several years. Vollmann has no idea why Ohio State has shown such interest in his work, but he’s grateful to the institution, which has been paying the mortgage on his studio for the last decade.

He began our tour proper while a dinging train from the city’s light-rail line rumbled by, just feet from his curtained windows. Woodcuts, watercolors, ink sketches, silver-gelatin black-and-white photographs, portraits. “Gum-printing is a nineteenth-century technique,” he told me. “It’s the most permanent coloring process. But it’s slow, and toxic. ... I also have this device here, which is based in dental technology. ... It’s like a non-vibrating, very high-speed Dremel tool. ... This was originally drawn with pen and ink, and then I had a magnesium block made with a photo resist.” Some of the pieces he showed me were complete; most were not. He estimated that he has “dozens and dozens” of pieces going at any one time.

Vollmann’s most important artistic influences are Gauguin and what he described as the “power colors” of Native American art. His other inescapable influence is the female body. The majority of Vollmann’s visual art centers upon women generally and geishas, sex workers, and those he calls “goddesses” specifically. Usually they are nude. From where I was standing I counted at least two dozen vaginas, their fleshy machinery painstakingly drawn and then painted over with a delicate red slash. Vollmann uses live models, so every vagina within sight is currently out there right now, wandering the world.

We walked over to a shelf lined with paintbrushes in old moonshine jars and little acrylic tubes of paint as hard as toothpaste fossilized. Vollmann held out blocks of Norwegian wood into which he’d carved Norse runes and which he’d translated himself: “It took me a ridiculous amount of time, hours and hours ... but I had a blast.” The wood was given to him in exchange for his attendance at a Norwegian literary festival, along with his sole other request: Norwegian women willing to pose nude for him. One of the women who volunteered was an archaeologist in charge of excavating a site related to the worship of Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and war. “I wanted a Freya,” Vollmann said, “so that’s who we got.”

Finally, Vollmann removed some sketchbooks from their protective plastic covers and set them down on a table for me to look at. Vollmann’s sketchbooks, naturally, were about three feet by two feet across; turning a page was like opening a door. His Arctic sketchbook had page after page of beautifully hand-drawn and water-colored portraits of Inuit people, northern landscapes, and walrus hunts. They were exquisite, which I told him. “Oh, thanks!” he said. “I had fun.” A sketchbook from Southeast Asia was thumped down before me. These were less colorful, and many were simple pen-and-ink portraits. The subjects were all sex workers. Vollmann explained that to fill up the back pages he’d encouraged the women to draw pictures of him. Some of the women, I observed, were quite skilled. “Yeah,” he said. “They had fun!” The last sketchbook he showed me was titled The Best Way to Smoke Crack. (Once, when asked by an interviewer if he had ever smoked crack, Vollmann memorably responded, “I guess that I would say that I have.”) I paged through a run of despairing watercolors depicting crack-addicted San Francisco sex workers. Vollmann stopped me when I came to a portrait of a woman languid on a hotel-room bed, a crack pipe beside her. The subject of the portrait, Vollmann told me, loved to steal his red paint and use it as lipstick, even though Vollmann warned her the paint was carcinogenic. According to Vollmann, she laughed off his warning, saying that something else was bound to get her. “And she was right,” Vollmann said. “I heard she got strangled.”

Photo by Kent Lacin
The author/artist in his studio, a renovated Mexican restaurant in an unsavory neighborhood of Sacramento.

When I asked about his infamous fascination with sex workers, Vollmann said, simply, “I love and admire them.” In another interview, he’d gone so far as to describe sex workers as “almost like saints.” Here, even the most liberal-minded will have their qualms. But Vollmann believes that, once one sheds any crypto-Christian assumption that sex must have a context deeper than pleasure, it becomes difficult to regard paying a consenting sex worker as all that different from paying a masseuse or psychotherapist. In the end, it’s intimate labor, professionally applied. “I’d say there are almost as many different kinds of sex workers as there are different kinds of women,” Vollmann told me. “I think, ‘Well, how different is that from what I do—just running around worrying about how to finish paying off my mortgage?’ I’ve never really answered that.”

By his own account, Vollmann started hanging around sex workers as a way to get to know and better understand women. He first wrote about the subject in The Rainbow Stories, which is the kind of book Mark Twain might have written after smoking crank and hanging out with skinheads for six months. Like Twain’s travel writing, or Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, Rainbow is an amalgam of unlabeled fiction and nonfiction. It has several running threads, one of which is its narrator’s pith-helmeted investigation into the lives of street prostitutes. After many harrowing passages, a footnote will summon one’s attention down to the bottom of the page: “This paragraph cost me seven dollars,” or “This revelation cost me twenty dollars.” One story, sub-chaptered “While Trying Unsuccessfully to Make Ginger’s Cunt Wet,” features a narrator who self-identifies as Bill and appears to be Vollmann himself. Bill calls an escort service, finds himself with Ginger, and is doing as advertised. A supremely unmoved Ginger suddenly asks him, “Do you like camping?”

Butterfly Stories was Vollmann’s first book-length plunge into the world of prostitution. Vollmann has described it as “strictly a novel ... based on documentary research with prostitutes,” a phrase (as he knows) that can be interpreted any number of ways. The novel began as a nonfiction piece for Esquire about the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, but appended to that piece was a long, bonkers travelogue starring two journalists whore-mongering their away across Southeast Asia. Guess which part Esquire chose to publish? Shortly after the magazine hit the stands, Vollmann told me, “I was visiting my grandfather, and my mother and sisters were crying. My father took me down to the basement and said, ‘Bill, do you have AIDS? Have you been sleeping with prostitutes?’” When I asked whether Esquire had published the piece as fiction or nonfiction—in Butterfly Stories, the main character, called “the journalist,” eventually contracts HIV from an illiterate Thai prostitute—Vollmann shrugged and said, “I don’t know what it was published as.” Butterfly Stories reads like Henry Miller de-romanticized and poxed with STDs, with the added looming specter of Cambodian genocide. Its appalling central character ponders, at length, his predatory nature with illiterate, impoverished prostitutes and wallows in sexual crapulence. Despite or possibly because of that, the book ranks high among the most grimly riveting things Vollmann has written.

Vollmann’s most serious artistic statement on sex workers, and their clients, is The Royal Family, a gargantuan novel about a private investigator chasing the so-called Queen of San Francisco’s prostitutes. Running at 800 generously text-crammed pages, and containing 593 chapters, the book lingers at a hypnotic remove from its nightmarish narrative material. It’s also a moving and humane book, not only in how it handles its fucked up characters but also in how it presents itself to readers, for it eschews many of Vollmann’s formal pyrotechnics. There are, however, several sections that make it quintessentially Vollmann: an astonishing “Essay on Bail” (a piece of nonfiction originally commissioned, and then rejected, by San Francisco Magazine), a marvelous prose poem called “Geary Street,” and the unendurably vivid confessions of a pedophile named Dan Smooth. One astute reader of the book imagined, probably correctly, that had it been shorter, less gruesome, and better emphasized its private-eye elements, it might have become a “blowaway detective best-seller.” As it happens, Vollmann took a lower royalty on the book in exchange for not having it edited.

Standing with Vollmann amid his many portraits and paintings of sex workers, I asked him how his wife and teenage daughter felt about his subject matter. “Oh, they’re used to it,” Vollmann said. His daughter was particularly gleeful when Vollmann went public with his “thought experiment” inhabitation of “Dolores,” a transgender woman, whom Vollmann discusses exclusively in the third person. There were quite a few photos and portraits of him as Dolores around his studio. And his wife? How did she feel about Dolores? Vollmann was silent for a moment. “She was not impressed,” he said. “When I started doing the Dolores stuff, it was really fun because I thought, ‘Now I can exploit the hell out of this person. I don’t have to worry about ethics. I can show this woman as she is or whatever she is, in all her ugliness and vulnerability and vanity, and she has nothing to say about it.’ ” Like his earlier artistic excavation of sex workers’ lives, Dolores was Vollmann’s gambit to place himself in closer psychic orbit to women. As he put it, “Until I started doing the cross-dressing, I had no idea of what it was like to go out into the night and be afraid. That is what a huge portion of the human race has to go through, and I really get it now.”

Vollmann admitted that, after he went public with Dolores, some of his friends “were really disgusted.” This only underlined his point about what becoming Dolores meant. After a career of hanging out with neo-Nazis, pursuing sex workers, doing drugs, dropping thousand-page books the way Updike dropped short stories, and being suspected of being the Unabomber, Vollmann, without even meaning to, had managed to cross the last line of decorum. He had dared to abdicate his masculinity.

As for being suspected of being the Unabomber, William T. Vollmann was suspected of being the Unabomber. He discovered this accidentally, after he requested his FBI file, for a piece he was writing for Harper’s about privacy. His FBI file is 785 pages long; only 294 were released to him. When Vollmann first discovered he was a Unabomber suspect, he thought: “ ‘Wow, this is really fun!’ I bustled about telling all of my friends. Then I started reading more of it.” He’s still angry that the content of his fiction was marshaled against him. His novel Fathers and Crows, for instance, is about the clash between the Iroquois and the first French missionaries to what was then called Kebec. An FBI operative rather ambitiously deduced that its title had something to do with the “FC” the Unabomber was known to scrawl on his bombs. “Fathers and Crows,” Vollmann said incredulously, “which took place in seventeenth- century Canada. It was outside what’s now the U.S. in a time before there was the U.S. It was evenhanded, I thought, about Iroquois and Jesuits. [But] they were saying, since he supports the Iroquois torture of the missionaries, he’s clearly in favor of terrorism.” (Not everything the FBI said about him was unkind, or not exactly unkind: “By all accounts, VOLLMANN is exceedingly intelligent and possessed with an enormous ego.”)

Vollmann’s politics, which are both coherent and somewhat bananas, run toward big-hearted Libertarianism—except when it comes to the environment. “The more I see of unregulated coal and nuclear companies,” he told me, “the more I think, ‘Boy, do we have to watch those people.’ ” At the same time, he believes we are living in a growingly consolidated police state that will only get worse. The Internet, he told me, “is partly about government surveillance, and I have to reject that, given my hatred of authority. It’s partly about helping these corporate types make money from me, which involves surveillance and targeted ads, and I have to reject that also.”

These are not the fulminations of a department-chair radical. Vollmann is one of very few American writers who can claim to have fallen under concerted government surveillance based on nothing more than what he thought and wrote. Today, he’s fairly certain his calls are still monitored; on one occasion, his studio’s security system was remotely hacked into, possibly, he says, by Homeland Security. As a private investigator told him, “Once you’re a suspect and in the system, that ain’t never going away.” Indeed, after the arrest of Ted Kaczynski, the actual Unabomber, Vollmann was upgraded to a suspect in a different case involving mailed anthrax.

“What’s discouraging,” he said, “is that I don’t get a lot of mail. My poor Japanese translator has practically given up writing to me. One year, she sent me so many postcards. I never got one.” Perhaps the strangest thing about all this is Vollmann’s estimation that he’s made tens of thousands of dollars writing and lecturing on privacy around the world since he went public with his FBI case file. It amounted to a rather ambiguous endorsement of the American Way: We’ll investigate you, we’ll put you under secret surveillance, and we’ll steal your mail, but we’ll also make you rich when you accidentally find out about it, provided you’re famous.

Vollmann tried to be characteristically charitable when imagining the FBI’s interest in him: “One reason that the FBI thought I might be the Unabomber is that I believe probably the thing most likely to save us, and save the planet, would be a massive epidemic. Because we can’t regulate ourselves. If fifty percent or ninety percent of the humans died, maybe the rest would be better off. Would I push the button to release the virus? Probably not.”

I listened for the off-white silence of the FBI bug planted somewhere around us, possibly behind one of Vollmann’s effulgent paintings of a vagina. Then, smiling, I pointed out that Vollmann said “probably not,” not “absolutely not.”

Vollmann held up his hands. “I’d have to think about it.”

Illustration by Gel Jamlang

In On Becoming a Novelist, the classic primer on fiction writing and writers, John Gardner argues, “A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven.” If true, Vollmann was well prepared for the writing life. Like Gardner, who accidentally ran over and killed his younger brother, Gilbert, with a tractor, Vollmann lost his six-year-old sister, Julie, to drowning when she was left in his youthful care. This has understandably gripped Vollmann’s imagination ever since, and he has written several books and stories in which pursuing and rescuing a woman is the central driving impulse. In the mid-’90s, a reviewer brought up Vollmann’s compulsive attraction to human conflict—he has covered war as a journalist, but also ran off to fight the Soviets with the mujahedin in Afghanistan when he was in his early twenties—and wondered if it all wasn’t some veiled suicide mission to join his sister. That could not have been an easy judgment to read, much less ponder.

Vollmann was born in Santa Monica in 1959. He moved to New Hampshire as a child and later to Bloomington, Indiana, where he went to high school. By all accounts, Vollmann did not have a happy childhood, at least when it came to other children. He describes the authorial stand-in of one book passing the time during his childhood “by reading and dreaming alone or by watching others, wishing that they liked him,” and in the afterword to Dalkey Archive’s reissue of the Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis’s trim masterpiece, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Vollmann mentions being “beaten up on the school bus two or three times by big, tall, stinking boys,” who were outraged by his book-reading.

Vollmann credits his father, a business professor, with giving him the encouragement he needed to pursue the life he wanted for himself: “He would always say, ‘Bill, if it’s not easy, lucrative, or fun, don’t do it.’” Even so, Vollmann’s career as a writer very nearly didn’t happen. His first book, Welcome to the Memoirs, an account of his failed effort in Afghanistan, went unpublished (the version Farrar, Straus and Giroux published years later as An Afghanistan Picture Show was a much-revised version of the unsold manuscript), and for years he got nothing but “rejection upon rejection” by American editors and agents. “I think it was such a fluke that I got published at all,” Vollmann told me.

Anyone who’s taken a lot of creative-writing classes, or taught creative writing, has learned to dread a certain kind of manuscript. It’s long, for one thing; it has irritatingly small type; it’s grammatically meticulous when it comes to everything but punctuation, for which it has developed its own system of Tolkienic elaboration. An unagented manuscript of roughly this description landed on the desk of Esther Whitby, an editor at the British house André Deutsch, in 1985. Rather than do the sensible thing and reject it, Whitby went ahead and published You Bright and Risen Angels, Vollmann’s bizarre fantasia of insect war. It reviewed well and finally garnered Vollmann an American publisher. He published his next six books acting as his own representation and sought the eventual help of his agent, Susan Golomb, only because dealing with foreign rights became unmanageable. The early critical success did nothing to dissuade Vollmann’s view that his personal vision for his books trumped all other considerations. As he has often said, the money you’re paid for your writing is never enough. Therefore, why compromise?

A number of Vollmann’s books, I believe, would be better if they were shorter, sometimes much shorter. At the same time, the unaccommodating nature of Vollmann’s books is what many of his readers respond to. His books are too long in the way the Petronas Towers are too tall, the way foie gras is too rich: the manner of their excess is central to their essence. Vollmann is neither a readers’ writer nor a writers’ writer but a writer’s writer, which is to say William T. Vollmann’s writer. The point he comes back to in conversation, again and again, is how fortunate he has been to maintain his independence in a literary culture that can be hostile to such independence. “The reader that I write for will be open to beautiful sentences and will try to see why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he told me. “That’s the reader that I love and the reader who loves me.” I’ve read a great number of Vollmann’s books, but I’ve skipped around in many of them, too. Fathers and Crows is one of my favorites, yet I’ve read less than half of it. You don’t go to Vollmann for structure or old-fashioned storytelling; you go to Vollmann for the sentences, the mood, the experience. You go to Vollmann for the same reason certain people chase storms.

Vollmann’s public stature as a writer expanded following two events in the early ’90s. The first was the publication of the opening volume of Vollmann’s proposed mega-novel, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, which had its genesis, naturally enough, in Vollmann’s fascination with sex workers. While researching The Rainbow Stories, he found himself standing outside numerous convenience stores and gas stations, “where the whores were doing their business. I thought to myself, ‘What was the country like before all the parking lots were here?’”

Every book in the Dreams cycle dramatizes a particular epoch in the ongoing cultural collision between North America’s native peoples and its European colonizers. The books are rich with Norse, Huron, Iroquois, and Inuit myth; are filled with excursions into Catholic theology and European history; and contain beautifully observed descriptions of landscape, clothing, and weapons. In 1991, Vollmann predicted it would take him “at least ten years” to finish Seven Dreams. Twenty-three years later, he still has three books to deliver. He has written, and published, the cycle out of order, admitting that his work on the project has often been “so sickeningly depressing” that he has “deliberately interrupted the work” by writing other—often longer and equally depressing—books. On top of that, his devotion to on-site research has forced him to expensively travel to and inhabit the varied landscapes of his fictional dreams, sometimes at great personal peril. While researching The Rifles, his sixth Dream, which concerns John Franklin’s doomed quest to find the Northwest Passage, Vollmann almost froze to death in the Arctic.

Not all of Vollmann’s Dreams are successful. Argall, the fourth and most recently published Dream, about Pocahontas and John Smith, is written in an exhausting parody of Elizabethan language. At their worst, Vollmann’s Dreams read like the 4 a.m. ravings of an insomniac associate professor of history in the middle of Nebraska. At their best, the Dreams have an unstoppably mad Melvillian energy. While Vollmann’s earliest books were spastic and quick-cutting—more like textual slide shows than proper stories—the Dreams are finely crafted watchmaker novels. Every volume has a narrative of daunting complication, corrals unimaginable amounts of historical research, and contains a present-day travelogue narrated by William the Blind, aka Captain Subzero, aka Vollmann himself, who considers his Dreams “simultaneously fiction and nonfiction.”

Vollmann told me that Viking, which has been publishing his Dreams for decades, was currently “sadly contemplating” the publication of The Dying Grass, volume five, about the Plains Indian wars of the late nineteenth century. For the first time in Vollmann’s career, Viking had begun to impose page limits in his contracts. For The Dying Grass, the page limit was 700. “I gave them 2,100 and they weren’t super happy,” he said, “so I corrected it to 2,300.” According to Vollmann, the book is composed mostly of dialogue. “It looks like a concrete poem,” he said, “because I treat the printed page as a stage. Since we read from left to right, there might be dialogue which is occurring, say, on the left-hand side of the page, and then maybe in the middle part of the page people are thinking what they actually think as they talk to each other.” It sounded a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane. I asked what would happen if Viking rejected it, which Vollmann knew was a possibility. He shrugged. “If they want to reject it, they can. Of course, I will be quite sad and worried about making a living.”

The Book of Dolores, published by powerHouse Books

Sometimes Vollmann dresses up as Dolores to better understand what it’s like to be a woman. 

The other defining event of his early career happened while he was covering the Bosnian War for Spin magazine in 1994. Vollmann was traveling in a rental car, near the city of Mostar, with his interpreter and a childhood friend who, like Vollmann, was a freelance journalist, when their car either hit a land mine or came under sniper fire. Vollmann’s memory of the incident is clouded by trauma, but he remembers “two sharp reports and small holes in the windshield.” One of the bullets, Vollmann believes, struck one friend in the heart, while the other struck his remaining friend in the head. Afterward, he said, Muslim snipers came running down the road, laughing and waving their rifles. Vollmann sat in the back seat, convinced he would be next. When the snipers realized Vollmann was an American, and that the men they had just shot were not Croatian saboteurs but journalists, the mood very rapidly changed, and the Muslims began to suggest to the still-dazed Vollmann that his friends had hit a landmine. When the American ambassador and Vollmann returned to the site the next day, “the authorities there had prepared some kind of a diagram saying it was a mine trap, there were these two mines. The car looked much worse than I remembered it.” He suspects all this happened to avoid an embarrassing international incident, as the Muslims of Bosnia were greatly hoping for American protection. “They just made a mistake,” Vollmann told me. “It was no one’s fault.” Rising Up and Rising Down is dedicated to the memory of Vollmann’s friends, and his account of the incident in that book is as elegantly horrifying as Orwell’s account of being shot in the throat in Homage to Catalonia.

The best piece in Last Stories, his new book, is “The Leader,” a lightly fictionalized third-person account of Vollmann’s return to Mostar 20 years after the incident that claimed his friends’ lives. It’s often harsh and unsparing: in it, the brother of Vollmann’s childhood friend, here called Ivan, attacks Vollmann’s stand-in for having had the misfortune to survive. “And now you’ll cash in,” the grieving brother predicts. “You’ll have your dramatic story.” Vollmann declined to discuss much of this with me, due to the poor relations he continues to have with the families of his dead friends (to which he seems forlornly resigned), but he did say he was pleased with the note of hopefulness that creeps into “The Leader” ’s last few lines, which provide a rare glimmer in a book whose skies are otherwise gray and unbroken.

That he’d write such a crepuscular book isn’t a wild surprise. In 2004, he had a serious bike accident, and later that year suffered the first of several strokes, which left him unable to read, write, or speak properly for months. (Vollmann believes they may have been brought on by work- and finance-related stress.) It took three years for Vollmann to feel normal again, after which his beloved father died. In the aftermath of all this, Vollmann found himself staring into what he describes in Last Stories as his “lovely wall of ill.”

The Vollmann of the early books was a bomb-throwing polymath determined to bring the novel, with its many formalities, to its knees. Last Stories is something else. There are ghost and horror stories here, parables, tales, and tender, more memoiristic stories, all enriched by Vollmann’s travels to the Balkans, Scandinavia, Japan, Trieste, Bohemia, Buenos Aires, Mexico. It’s less a story collection than a dozen interrelated mini-novels wrapped around various continents. Many of the stories have an antiquated, vaguely middle-European feel to them. Back in the early ’90s, one would have hardly imagined the author of You Bright and Risen Angels or The Rainbow Stories to one day seem so continental, so old-fashioned, but then Vollmann describes something fantastical, such as the Madonna descending into Hell, and he reminds his readers how capable he remains at launching the champagne cork of his imagination clear across the room:

Through those depths Our Lady now flew, her alabaster face downcast, her lips parted as if she might even breathe, and amidst shiny ebony snails and pale green night-leaves she found both Lilith, who had been stalking a child’s nine-hundred-year-old beetle-sized ghost, and Giulia, who was cowering in a temporarily vacant vampire hole. Gathering them both up into her arms, so that they nearly warmed the still Christ child she also carried, the Madonna ascended three hundred and thirty-two flights of stairs, each step paler and less nitrous than the last.

Vollmann has never been one to make the grotesque lyrical. When one of his characters in Last Stories makes love to a skeleton, he imagines his way through the procedure, painful abrasions and all. While there are numerous resurrections in Last Stories, what happens after the moment of death remains a mystery even to his dead. As one of Vollmann’s resurrected characters complains of the living: “It upsets me that everyone up here mentions the future so unemotionally. Why don’t they scream death, death, death?”

Vollmann stressed that in writing Last Stories, he really wanted to face up to death’s psychological challenges. Death, he said, “is nothing, and therefore the only way we can engage with nothing is to personify it ... to invent.” For Vollmann, facing up to the inevitability of death involves remembering the orange he ate in his Bosnian rental while his friends sat dead in the front seats. “It was a hot day,” he said. “I was really thirsty. I ducked down and I was peeling one of these oranges and thought, ‘This is probably the last thing I’m ever going to eat.’ ” Twenty years later, when he gets upset about something, he wills himself to remember that orange and the strange reassurance it offered. Any type of permanent consciousness in the afterlife would, he believes, inevitably devolve into torture, and there would be no parting orange to leaven it. Consciousness is to our mortality what beer is to Homer Simpson: the cause of, and solution to, all our problems.

“Where does consciousness come from?” Vollmann asked, and it took me a moment to recognize he really was asking. I told him I didn’t have the faintest idea. Neither did Vollmann. “It makes no sense to me. None of it makes sense. It’s all preposterous, no matter how I look at it.” I reminded him that his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, seems to suggest that the collectivist social intelligence of insects might be preferable to the disquieting solitude of human intelligence—and it was possible that Vollmann spent more time alone in his head than any other living American writer. “Maybe,” he said, “it’s not so bad to be a social insect.” 

The next morning, Vollmann’s model, Lindsay, arrived by bus from San Francisco for her session. “Hey, Goddess,” Vollmann said warmly. “Did you bring a robe?”

Lindsay, a former exotic dancer in her mid-thirties, had not brought a robe. Vollmann suggested that she wear one of Dolores’s robes. “Dolores doesn’t mind,” Vollmann assured her. “She likes it.” While Lindsay went off and changed, Vollmann asked me if I wanted to pick out the music for today’s session. That meant digging through the twin towers of Vollmann’s compact-disc collection. Vollmann’s tastes ran to classical and ’70s-era thought rock: Bowie, Randy Newman, Jethro Tull. After looking through his discs for a while, I said Lindsay should probably pick the music. Once she came back out, barefoot in a thin black and white dress (“You look much prettier in that than Dolores does,” Vollmann said, “but how could you not?”), she popped Lou Reed into Vollmann’s Silurian disc-playing boombox.

He arranged before him the three paintings of Lindsay he was currently working on. One was a portrait, one was a nude, and another was a more impressionistic rendering of her as a gold-sequin-clad angel. All would receive “another layer” today. He’d been at work on these pieces for several months; he’d seen Lindsay at least six or seven times in the last year. Lindsay was a professional sitting model these days; when I asked how many people she sat for, she laughed and said, “Quite a few!”

Then Vollmann began painting. Once again, he told Lindsay she looked beautiful. How salacious—how Terry Richardson—this must sound: an artist repeatedly telling a younger model how beautiful she looks while he paints her in his studio. But it didn’t feel that way to me, and Lindsay pretty clearly adored Vollmann. The afternoon before, at lunch, Vollmann told our waitress he had a question: “How did you get so darn beautiful?” Our waitress, an utterly normal-looking person, laughed and thanked Vollmann for noticing. It felt like a dorky, sweet encounter, but, again, I have no idea how it felt from her end. A man who constantly compliments women could be seen as wielding power over them, especially in social situations shaped by payment or gratuity, which I think is true whether we as men are aware of it or not. “I’ve never seen a woman who isn’t beautiful,” Vollmann said, as he painted. “When I talk to guys who say they had to dump their wives when she turned forty, I always think, ‘Why?’ ” Vollmann would keep on living in his world of clumsy, sword-bent gallantry.

Vollmann’s attitude about how he’s perceived by others is simple. He doesn’t care. Here he is, painting a naked woman in front of a journalist. Whatever you think that indicates is of no concern to Vollmann. I will admit to finding this calculated diffidence seductive. The morning before I visited Sacramento, I habit-checked my Amazon ranking on a book that came out seven months before and helped a friend fretting over the precise wording of a tweet he wanted to send to his 400 followers. Twitter, Amazon, Facebook: so many writers have turned to these platforms and opportunities, if only out of grim self-promotional necessity. They allow us the illusion of tracking the fortunes of our careers in something close to real time. It would be interesting to find and interrogate the first American writer who thought this would be a good idea. When I told Vollmann how impressed I was by his determination to write exactly what he wanted, with no fear of reprisal, he shrugged and said, “I’m sure it helps that I’m not on the Internet and I don’t know what they say.” Writing is as much a struggle to control what gets into one’s head as it is to transform what comes out.

Now Vollmann was mixing up the acrylic paint—mostly blues, whites, and yellows—he’d use to touch up Lindsay’s hair. During their last session, he said, “I didn’t worry at all about color. Just tone.” Vollmann peeked around his canvas at Lindsay. “Goddess, what do you think is your most beautiful feature?”

Lindsay thought for a moment. “I think my nose.”

Vollmann was using a thin brush to add some blue shadow along his Lindsay’s jawline. “And why is that?”

“Because I used to hate it, but then I figured I’d better like it, because it’s in the middle of my face.”

Vollmann laughed. “That’s a good reason.”

She asked him what his favorite part of his body was.

“I think my hands,” Vollmann said.

“You have nice hands.”

“I know!”

Now Vollmann was working with yellow and blue to capture the light on his Lindsay’s face. “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you as a stripper?”

Lindsay sighed. “I’d have to sit down and make a list.”

I asked if either of them had seen George W. Bush’s recent self-portraits and dog paintings. To my surprise, neither of them was aware that Bush had been painting. To my even greater surprise, both voiced their unwavering support for George W. Bush, Water Colorist. “Good for him!” Vollmann said. “I try to separate the art from the artist,” Lindsay said. Suddenly Vollmann was urging me to set up an easel next to him and paint Lindsay, who was now naked, for myself. I thought: Why shouldn’t Bush paint? Why shouldn’t I try?

With a fine brush, Vollmann was lining the underside of his Lindsay’s breasts with blue paint. “You look at someone’s skin,” he said, “and you realize, ‘Oh, there are way more colors here than I thought.’ ” He took a break, and when I looked at the paintings again, ten minutes later, I noticed they seemed different. Vollmann was across the room, in his kitchen. “The tones changed,” he called over. “It’s the most fascinating part of this. As things become less liquid, everything—all the colors—shift around.” He uncorked a bottle of Ardbeg whiskey. “Well, Tom—what could be better than this? Kicking back in an air-conditioned room and looking at a beautiful woman?” He poured us both a dram and walked back over. “Now, Goddess,” he said to Lindsey, “how about stretching out your beautiful arms?”