“The Forgetful Ghost”
William T. Vollmann
After my father died, I began to wonder whether my turn might come sooner rather than later. What a pity! Later would have been so much more convenient! And what if my time might be even sooner than soon? Before I knew it, I would recognize death by its cold shining as of brass. Hence in those days, I do confess, I felt sometimes angry that the treasures of sunlight escaped my hands no matter how tightly I clenched them. I loved life so perfectly, at least in my own estimation, that it seemed I deserved to live forever, or at least until later rather than sooner. But just in case death disregarded my all-important judgments, I decided to seek out a ghost, in order to gain expert advice about being dead. The living learn to weigh the merits of preparation against those of spontaneity, which is why they hire investment counselors and other fortune-tellers. And since I had been born an American, I naturally believed myself entitled to any destiny I could pay for. Why shouldn’t my postmortem years stretch on like a lovely procession of stone lamps?
If you believe, as H.P. Lovecraft asserted, that all cemeteries are subterraneously connected, then it scarcely matters which one you visit; so I put one foot before the other, and within a half-hour found myself allured by the bright green moss on the pointed tops of those ancient stone columns of the third Shogun’s loyally suicided retainers. Next I found, glowing brighter than the daylight, more green moss upon the stone railings and torii enclosing these square plots whose tombstones strained upward like trees, each stone engraved with its undertenant’s postmortem Buddhist name.
The smell of moss consists of new and old together. Dead matter having decayed into clean dirt, the dirt now freshens into green. It is this becoming-alive that one smells. I remember how when my parents got old, they used to like to walk with me in a certain quiet marsh. The mud there smelled clean and chocolate-bitter. I now stood breathing this same mossy odor, and fallen cryptomeria-needles darkened their shades of green and orange while a cloud slid over the sun. Have you ever seen a lizard’s eyelid close over his yellow orb? If so, then you have entered ghostly regions, which is where I found myself upon the sun’s darkening. All the same, I had not gone perilously far: On the other side of the wall, tiny cars buzzed sweetly, bearing living skeletons to any number of premortem destinations. Reassured by the shallowness of my commitment, I approached the nearest grave.
The instant I touched the wet moss on the railing, I fell into communication with the stern occupant, upon whose wet dark hearthstone lay so many dead cryptomeria-tips. To say he declined to come out would be less than an understatement. It was enough to make a fellow spurn the afterlife! I experienced his anger as an electric shock. To him I was nothing, a rootless alien who lacked a lord to die for. Why should he teach me?
Humiliated, I turned away, and let myself into the lower courtyard behind the temple. Here grew the more diminutive ovoid and phallic tombs of priests. Some were incised with lotus wave-patterns. One resembled a mirror or hairbrush stood on end. I considered inviting myself in, but then I thought: If that lord up there was so cross, wouldn’t a priest have even less use for me?
So I pulled myself up to the temple’s narrow porch and sat there with my feet dangling over, watching cherry blossoms raining down on the tombs. The gnarled arms of that tree pointed toward every grave, and afternoon fell almost into dusk.
A single white blossom sped down like a spider parachuting down his newest thread. Then my ears began to ring—death’s call.
So I ran away. I sat down in my room and hid. Looking out my window, I spied death up boards and pouring vinegar on nails. Death killed a dog. What if I were next?
Read the rest of “The Forgetful Ghost” at VICE.
The tale is collected in Vollmann’s forthcoming book, Last Stories and Other Stories.
|William T. Vollmann|
Vollmann in 2006
|Born||William Tanner Vollmann|
(1959-07-28) July 28, 1959 (age 58)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Novelist, journalist, short storywriter, essayist|
|Alma mater||Deep Springs College, Cornell University (BA in Comparative Literature)|
|Genre||Literary fiction, historical fiction|
|Subject||War, violence, science, human compassion|
William Tanner Vollmann (born July 28, 1959) is an American novelist, journalist, war correspondent, short story writer, and essayist. He won the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction for the novel Europe Central. He lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife and daughter.
William Vollmann was born in Los Angeles and lived there for five years. He attended public high school in Bloomington, Indiana, and has also lived in New Hampshire, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. His father was Thomas E. Vollmann, a business professor at Indiana University. When he was nine years old, Vollmann's six-year-old sister drowned in a pond while under his supervision, and he felt responsible for her death. According to him, this loss has influenced much of his work.
Vollmann studied at Deep Springs College, and completed a B.A., summa cum laude, in comparative literature at Cornell University, where he resided at the Telluride House.
After graduation, Vollmann went on to the University of California, Berkeley, on a fellowship for a doctoral program in comparative literature. He dropped out after one year.
Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife, who is a radiation oncologist, and their daughter.
Vollmann worked odd jobs, including a post as a secretary at an insurance company, and saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan in 1982. During this trip, he sought to gather information and images that could determine the most deserving candidates for American aid. He eventually foisted himself upon a group of mujahideen heading for the front lines. He saw battle with the soldiers, who were engaged in warfare with the Soviet Union at the time, before he came down with dysentery and had to be dragged through the Hindu Kush mountains. His experiences on this trip inspired his first non-fiction book, An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World, which was not published until 1992.
Upon his return to the USA, Vollmann started work as a computer programmer, even though he had virtually no experience with computers. According to a New York Times Magazine profile by the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, for a year Vollmann wrote much of his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, after hours on office computers, subsisting on candy bars from vending machines and hiding from the janitorial staff.
In addition to full-length books, Vollmann has written articles and had stories published in Harper's, Playboy, Conjunctions, Spin Magazine, Esquire, The New Yorker, Gear, and Granta. He has also contributed to The New York Times Book Review. Vollmann identifies as a "hack journalist"; he often does travel writing and reportage while doing research for his larger fiction or non-fiction projects.
In November 2003 (after many delays), his book Rising Up and Rising Down was published. It is a 3,300-page, heavily illustrated, seven-volume treatise on violence. It was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A single-volume condensed version was published at the end of the following year by Ecco Press. Vollmann justified the abridgment, saying, "I did it for the money."Rising Up and Rising Down represents more than 20 years of work in which he tries to establish a moral calculus to consider the causes, effects, and ethics of violence. Vollmann based it on his reporting from places of warfare, including Cambodia, Somalia, and Iraq.
Vollmann's other works often deal with the settlement of North America (as in Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a cycle of seven novels); or stories of people (often prostitutes) on the margins of war, poverty, and hope. His novel Europe Central (2005) follows the trajectories of a wide range of characters (including the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich) caught up in the fighting between Germany and the Soviet Union. It won the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction.
In 2008, Vollmann was awarded a five-year fellowship/grant from the Strauss Living Award, which provides $50,000 a year, tax free. In 2009, Vollmann published Imperial, a nonfiction account of life in Imperial County, California, on the border of Mexico.
In 2010, Vollmann published a critical study of Japanese Noh theater entitled Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater.
Vollman began cross dressing in 2008 and has developed a female alter ego persona named Dolores which is documented in The Book of Dolores. "'Dolores is a relatively young woman trapped in this fat, aging male body,' Mr. Vollmann said. 'I’ve bought her a bunch of clothes, but she’s not grateful. She would like to get rid of me if she could.'”
As of 2007, Vollmann was writing ghost and supernatural stories for a collection to be published by Viking ("Widow’s Weeds" was published in AGNI #66 in 2007). He was also working on the fourth and fifth volumes of the Seven Dreams series. In interviews, he has mentioned a book about abortion called The Shame of Our Youth, as well as a study on rape cases in court.
Vollmann's papers were acquired by the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library of Ohio State University.
In his personal life, Vollmann – who eschews not only the fame of authorship but also cellphones, credit cards, and other modern age touchstones – has sometimes been characterized as a misanthrope, even a Luddite. In a 2013 Harper's essay, "Life as a Terrorist", Vollmann revealed how the perception of "anti-progress, anti-industrialist themes" in his early writings had changed his life. Utilizing official files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the essay details Vollmann's investigation by the FBI as a suspect in the mid-1990s Unabomber case. Though he was cleared, Vollmann describes a lifetime of unabating negative repercussions from his permanent classified record.
Full-length critical essays about Vollmann's work have been published in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, BookForum,Open Letters Monthly, and Science Fiction Studies. In 2010, the German magazine 032c dedicated 40 pages of its 19th issue to Vollmann, and featured a rare interview with the author in addition to reprinted texts.
Michael Hemmingson co-edited, with Larry McCaffery, Expelled from Eden: A WTV Reader (NY: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004) and published William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co) in 2009.
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, and including contributions from Larry McCaffery, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Hemmingson, James Franco, Carla Bolte, and others, was published by the University of Delaware in October, 2014.
Novels and collections
Seven Dreams series
Main article: Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes
The "Prostitution Trilogy"
- An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World (1992)
- The Atlas (1996)
- Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (2003)
- Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (2006) (Part of the "Great Discoveries" series)
- Poor People (2007)
- Riding Toward Everywhere (2008)
- Imperial (2009)
- Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater (2010)
- Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan (2011) (eBook)
- The Book of Dolores (2013)
- No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies (Forthcoming, 10 Apr 2018)
Unpublished and rare works
- The Song of Heaven: Grammar and Rhetoric in Literature and Political Action (1981)
- Welcome to the Memoirs (autobiography, later reworked as An Afghanistan Picture Show) (1983)
- The Convict Bird: A Children’s Poem (1988) (bound with steel plates)
- The Happy Girls (book)|The Happy Girls (1990) (hand-painted and bound with metal plates, later included in 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs)
- Wordcraft: Hints and Notes (circa 1990) (writer's handbook)
- The Grave of Lost Stories (1993) (bound in steel and marble box, originally included in 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs)
- Burning Songs (circa 2000) (poems)
- The Book of Candles (1995-2008) (ten poems, in wooden box)
- ^Biblioklept (2011-09-24). "William T. Vollmann's Favorite "Contemporary" Books". biblioklept. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- ^"National Book Awards – 2005". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
(With acceptance speech by Vollmann, introduction by Andre Dubus III, essay by Tom LeClair from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog, and other material.)
- ^Yudt, Dennis (November 8, 2010). "William T. Vollmann: Darkness and Light". Midtown Monthly. Retrieved June 28, 2011.
- ^ abcdBell, Madison Smartt (Fall 2000). "William T. Vollmann, The Art of Fiction No. 163". The Paris Review, no. 156. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
- ^Interview: "William T. Vollman", KCRW, 11 April 2004
- ^Bush, Ben (2006-03-30). "An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer William T. Vollmann". Poets & Writers. Retrieved 2013-08-22.
- ^ abBraverman, Kate (2005). "An Interview with William T. Vollmann". Retrieved August 9, 2012.
- ^032c.com. "WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: Conflict, Compassion and the Process of Understanding". Retrieved 17 July 2014.
- ^Bell, Madison Smartt (1994-02-06). "WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2008-01-03.
- ^Wood, Michael (15 December 2005). "Parables of a Violent World". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- ^Ross, Steven. "A MODEST IMPERIALIST: William T. Vollmann". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- ^"Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater". Amazon.com. c. 2009. Retrieved July 26, 2009.
- ^Vollmann, William T. (2013-10-29). The Book of Dolores (1St ed.). powerHouse Books. ISBN 9781576876572.
- ^Heyman, Stephen (2013-11-13). "William T. Vollmann: The Self Images of a Cross-Dresser". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
- ^"AGNI 66 Table of Contents (2007)". AGNI Online. Boston University. c. 2008. Retrieved July 26, 2009.
- ^William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2009
- ^"William T. Vollmann papers"Archived 2006-09-01 at the Wayback Machine., Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, Ohio State University
- ^Lai, Jennifer (August 2013). "How the FBI's Poor Reading Skills Led It to Suspect an Acclaimed Author Was the Unabomber". Slate. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- ^Vollmann, William T. (September 2013). "Life as a Terrorist: Undercovering My FBI File". Harper's. Harper's Foundation. 327 (1960): 39–47. Retrieved 6 December 2013. (subscription required)
- ^"William T. Vollmann Against the Tyrannical World", 032c, issue 19 (Summer 2010).
- ^Vollmann, William T. (2012-10-15). "The Forgetful Ghost". Vice. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- ^Cohen, Joshua (2013-10-15). "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? William T. Vollmann Dresses In Drag, Finds His Feminist Side". The New York Observer. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- ^Holbrook, Stett (2016-09-07). "Feature: Heading toward nowhere". Pacific Sun. Retrieved 2016-10-30.
- ^Hemmingson, Michael A., "William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews" (McFarland, 2009), p. 63
- ^William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews - Michael A. Hemmingson - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- ^Interviewed by Madison Smartt Bell. "The Art of Fiction No. 163, William T. Vollmann". Paris Review. Retrieved 2012-08-01. This was submitted to Steven Moore at Dalkey Archive Press circa 1990; Moore liked it, but publisher John O'Brien turned it down.
- ^Interview by Terri Saul Tags: William T. Vollmann. "A Day at William T. Vollmann's Studio". Quarterly Conversation. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- William T. Vollmann Collection, 1980-2000 The Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
- William T. Vollmann Collection, 2003-2004 The Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
- William T. Vollmann Collection, 2004-2005 The Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
- William T. Vollmann Collection, 2001-2007 The Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
- William T. Vollmann Collection, 2008-2010 The Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
- Profile of Vollmann in the New York Review of Books, December 2005
- TimeOut New York interview
- Profile at The Whiting Foundation
- "Seeing Eye to Eye", Vollmann on ethics in photography, in Bookforum, Feb/Mar
- Critical essay on Vollmann at Open Letters
- William Vollmann’s Burqa by Guy Reynolds, on Vollmann's "literary globalism."
- Madison Smartt Bell (Fall 2000). "William T. Vollmann, The Art of Fiction No. 163". The Paris Review.
- In Conversation: A Modern Imperialist: William T. Vollmann, The Brooklyn Rail
- You Are Now Entering the Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann, The New Republic, July 24, 2014.
- "Fathers and Crows". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. November 1992.
- "The Royal Family". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. January 2001.
- "Rising Up and Rising Down". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. November 2004.
- "Riding toward Everywhere". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. March 2008.
- "Last Stories and Other Stories (Part I)". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. August 2014.
- "Last Stories and Other Stories (Part II)". Bookworm (Interview). Interview with Michael Silverblatt. KCRW. August 2014.
- Bookslut, an interview with William T. Vollmann, November 2005.