The writer we deserve

Ivan Schneider

March 02, 2016

It’s early in the year, time for taking on ambitious, resolution-worthy reading projects, and what better project than The Dying Grass, the latest novel from William T. Vollmann?

Vollmann, our young nation’s own Tolstoy.

Russia can keep Count Lev Nikolaevich and his high society, literary friends, peasant pedagogy, and pacifist moralism. Oh look, there’s Leo dressing up as a muzhik again.

Here in the modern-day U.S.A., we’ve got William Tanner Vollmann. Travels to war zones. Camps out in the Arctic. Rides the rails. Sleeps in homeless encampments. Smokes crack with sex workers. Venerates sex workers. Paints portraits of sex workers. Shoots guns. Big guns. Becomes a knowledgeable observer of Noh theater. Dresses up and walks the streets as “Dolores.” Doesn’t use the Internet, email or credit cards. Suspected by the FBI of being the Unabomber.

There’s a Facebook fan page dedicated to Vollmann: “What Would William Tanner Vollmann Do?” The page was established by the late Michael Hemmingson, a writer and Vollmann scholar whose body was found under suspicious circumstances in a Tijuana hotel room in 2014, dead of an apparent overdose. #NotAllVollmannScholars. Although we may not all follow as closely the brave and fearless example of our living bodhisattva, we are, as a group, characterized by a signature combination of moral seriousness, non-judgmental loquaciousness, and clear-eyed pragmatism.

Vollmann writes several books at a time using multiple publishers. He is currently working on a non-fiction book on fossil fuel and nuclear energy; a novel about extraordinary torture and rendition; and a book about lesbian and transgender sex workers.

Every nation gets the Tolstoy it deserves.

In August 2015, Vollmann read from The Dying Grass at Seattle Public Library. The novel has no “he said” or “she said” dialogue markers. There’s no omniscient narrator walking you through the blocking or framing of each scene. The only signal of a change in voice or narrative mode is the typography. Otherwise, you have to figure it out on your own. As it’s mostly dialogue interspersed with interior monologue, it’s a difficult book for a live reading.

Rather than Vollmann’s steady, flat, and carefully enunciated mode of speech, it would have helped to have a voice guy. I’m not asking for Michael Winslow, but on second thought, yes, I am asking for Michael Winslow.

Vollmann invited the audience to join him for a drink over at Sazerac, the bar at the Hotel Monaco.

After signing everyone’s books, Vollmann arrives at the bar accompanied by two volunteers from SHARE/WHEEL, Seattle’s self-managed community for homeless people.

Vollmann has been well known as an advocate for the homeless since his March 2011 report for Harper’s, “Homeless in Sacramento.” The police stopped him from allowing homeless people to sleep on his property, and so he started visiting Sacramento’s homeless encampments. He borrows a sleeping bag and waits in lines for donated food. He returns over and over again. He becomes recognized in the community. He takes in its rhythms.

I join them for a drink. Vollmann has a double Johnny Walker Black, neat. The cover band plays “Take it Easy.” Times like these, it’s always the Eagles.

We talk about the positive reception of his books by Native Americans. We talk about climate change. We talk about Cervantes. We talk about adapting Rising Up, Rising Down for the digital age.

He moves along. I enjoy meeting a few other Vollmann fans. I go home with a signed copy of The Dying Grass and resolve to read it.

Vollmann’s novel reanimates a historical moment, a fundamental moment, a central collision in American history, and it’s way too important, GODd---n it, for the author to waste time figuring out what the average reader may or may not know about American history. Despite my earlier comparison, Vollmann isn’t Tolstoy. He’s not going to take you by the hand to the edge of the battlefield for a clear vantage point of the crashing of armies as the occasion for an interpolated authorial lecture on the meaningless of war or some grand philosophical theory of history. No, there’s none of that. Vollmann aims to get into the heads of these historical personages. You are there to listen.

As readers, we have been trained to be careful, linear plodders. We’re accustomed to literature that dribbles out tiny little mysteries, cliffhanger chapter endings to be resolved in the next digestible chunk, which in turn spawns a new cliffhanger according to a formula. We expect to have things explained to us. When we encounter something we don’t understand, we either blame ourselves for not being ready for the work, or we blame the author for being unnecessarily obtuse. Neither of these stances are helpful when reading The Dying Grass.

My advice: Whenever you come across an unfamiliar historical reference in Vollmann, instead of crashing to a halt or running to Wikipedia, just keep going. If it’s something you need to know, you’ll more than likely see it again. You’ll pick up through context the names, voices, landscapes, and language. Sure, keep a separate bookmark at the Chronology and Glossaries, but more often than not, just keep reading.

The Dying Grass is Volume 5 of a series, “Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes,” of which to date Vollmann has written (not in sequential order) all except Volumes 4 and 7.

Just as with the Star Wars movies, you are under no obligation to go through the series according to release order or volume order.

I’ll go even further and say that you don’t have to read The Dying Grass starting at page 1 and continuing linearly through page 1215. Vollmann famously eschews the services of pesky editors along with recommended page counts, but in the age of the Internet we are all free to create and share our own editorial apparatus.

The novel is split into nine unequal parts. Here’s the original order:

  1. Indian Service (1805-77)
  2. Edisto (1862-74)
  3. The Burial of Lieutenant Theller (June 1877)
  4. I Am Flying Up (June-July 1877)
  5. The Rest of My Days (July-August 1877)
  6. Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic (August-September 1877)
  7. Detached Pictures (September-October 1877)
  8. I Raised My Eyes (1877-78)
  9. The Americans Are Your Friends (1877-1904)

And here’s my suggested order:

  1. The Burial of Lieutenant Theller (June 1877)
  2. I Am Flying Up (June-July 1877)
  3. The Rest of My Days (July-August 1877)
  4. Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic (August-September 1877)
  5. Indian Service (1805-77)
  6. Detached Pictures (September-October 1877)
  7. Edisto (1862-74)
  8. I Raised My Eyes (1877-78)
  9. The Americans Are Your Friends (1877-1904)

Skip Part I, “Indian Service.” You’re not ready for it.

The Dying Grass, like other volumes in the “Seven Dreams” series, is narrated at the largest frame through the authorial presence of “William the Blind.” However, once we get into the story proper, William the Blind disappears. So, if you’re like me, jumping into one of these volumes without having had the experience of reading the other published volumes, you don’t need to begin with that introductory apparatus.

It’s also easiest to delay the time-bending chronology of Part I, in which the narrative leaps forward to the present to describe William the Blind perusing archive photos of Nez Perce Indians and driving through Oregon. Then, the story goes back in time to a wagon train on the Oregon Trail in 1876; and from there, farther back to the first encounters between Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce in 1805. Finally, we arrive at the beginning of the main narrative of the book, starting in June 1877.

What you need to know from Part I: The U.S. Army demanded that the Nez Perce remove themselves from their land and onto a reservation. A few young men from the tribe, recalling numerous legitimate grievances, strongly object to being cooped up, and so they commence hostilities. The Army responds, leading to their defeat at White Bird Canyon.

If you do dip into Part I, follow the lead of Vollmann, who at the Seattle Public Library read the following excerpts from Part I:

  • A slow-motion account of what was going through a settler’s mind as he was attacked by Swan Necklace, one of the three young men who decided to fight rather than confine themselves to a reservation (“And Black Birds on the Lake, June 10-13,” §18, p124-5);
  • How the brothers and war-chiefs Ollokot and Heinmot Tooyalakekt (aka Chief Joseph) heard about the attack and how they responded (“Some Kind of Peace, June 14-16,” §1-7, §10, p.132-610);
  • Colonel Perry and Lieutenant Theller at a U.S. Army camp prepare for the Battle of White Bird Canyon (“Should Be a Pleasurable Fight, June 15-17,” excerpt from §1, p.172-178).

Here’s a link to the MP3. Read along with Vollmann, and for best results, have the book open before you. And then, save the rest of Part I for later.

You should also save for later Part II, “Edisto,” which introduces the central figure of the novel, General Oliver Otis Howard. After the Civil War, Gen. Howard, a man of good conscience and a firm believer in the rightness of the Emancipation Proclamation, accepts a post heading up the Freedman’s Bureau. He sets aside land and establishes schools, hospitals, businesses and banks for former slaves, but those lofty plans are thwarted by racists, planters, economic interests and politicians. All of this is prelude to General Howard’s command of the pursuit of the Nez Perce, another occasion of duty overriding morality.

If you only read one section from this book, read “Edisto.” In fact, I would set “Edisto” apart as a novella on its own. It’s sad and beautiful, evocative and frightening, mostly horrible. But in a narrative sense, it gives away too much, as we get the entire backstory of the main character before the action begins. In the remix, I pair the post-Civil War “Edisto” with Part VIII, “I Raised My Eyes,” which similarly concerns the political spoils of the military victors in the aftermath of war. This pairing underscores the tragedy of being a person of conscience in a position of power, unable to reconcile the underlying oppositions.

Parts III through VII describes the Nez Perce War as conducted over the course of five months in 1877, in which General Howard, the U.S. Army and a militia of citizen volunteers pursued Chief Joseph and the bulk of the Nez Perce Indian tribe through the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the book takes place in camp, on the march, on patrol. It’s soldiers talking, cursing their commanders, speculating on enemy movements, indulging in sexual fantasies, writing letters home. When the scene shifts to the Nez Perce perspective, it’s them setting up camp, singing, talking, quarreling, riding, fighting.

Take a break in the military campaign after Part VI, “Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic,” to tackle Part I. After having followed the campaign for months, you (unlike the soldiers) will be able to go back in time and appreciate how it all began.

Conclude, as Vollmann does, with Part IX, which takes you through the years of confinement, exploitation and decline of the surviving Nez Perce.

At Seattle Public Library, Vollmann said in his opening remarks: “The Nez Perce War, like all the Indian wars, was a race war.”

This is our history, and it’s an ugly history, and to paraphrase Faulkner, it’s not even history.

So when you’re done with the book, help someone else to read it.

Books in this review:
  • The Dying Grass
    by William T. Vollmann

    July 28, 2015
    1376 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Ivan writes shelf talkers for Mercer Street Books. You can also find him at www.ivantohelpyou.com.

Follow Ivan Schneider on Twitter: @ivantohelpyou

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