William T. Vollmann
746 pp. Viking, 2001. listing

I already ran a quick piece on Vollmann’s Argall, and noted, foolishly, that I hoped to complete a formal book review of the work before going on about the book for another five hundred words, which permitted me to start to say what I wanted to without expending any particular intellectual energy. Absurdly, yet obviously, my need to review the piece became much less urgent as a result.

Nonetheless, it’s past time, so here we go.

Argall is volume three of Vollmann’s seven-volume “imaginary history” of the mythic points of contact between the native peoples of North America and the inbound Europeans, Seven Dreams. In my earlier gesture toward a review of Argall I outlined the plan and scope of the series, which is not necessarily published in the chronological order of its’ subjects. Thus, volume six, The Rifles, preceded Argall to the bookseller’s stall. To date, including these two books, four of the seven volumes have seen print.

Argall tackles what is likely to be the best-known of the historical-cum-mythic events that Vollmann will tackle in the series, the fateful encounter of one Pocahontas and one Captain Smith of the Jamestowne colony in the reign of King James, father of Elizabeth. Previously he’s tackled the Viking colony at l’Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland; Franklin’s ill-fated polar expedition in the mid-19th century, and the arrival of French missionaries among the Huron in the 1500’s. While I have never seen subjects listed for future volumes, it would be reasonable to expect a work that covers the encounter on the plains at Little Big Horn, possibly with reference to the later one at Wounded Knee; perhaps one covering the meeting of the Aztec and Spaniard, and so forth.

My interest in Vollmann’s work is multifold. I was introduced to his writing not as a reflection of his status as one of the most interesting, ambitious, and challenging writers of his generation, but because he is the son of one of my father’s long-time colleagues and close friends. I first met him when we were both teenagers, but I can hardly say we know one another.

When he was in Seattle for the release of his fugue-like, carefully developed collection of short stories, The Atlas, I introduced myself and expressed hope that we might correspond or have a beer together sometime. This was reciprocated, but due to laziness and ill-fortune that’s not yet happened. He did not have a recollection of our childhood encounters, I think.

At any rate, what a pleasure it’s been to come across his work. It’s very nearly perfectly to my tastes, although his fascination with squalor and extremes surpasses mine. His playful intensity in the use of language and his commitment to a kind of transparent authorial subjectivity and honesty are both unique, in my experience, and of a depth that invests them with the resonance of poetry. They are not merely the work of a clever wordsmith, but also express perceptions and emotions that can be hard to convey.

For example, the works of Tom Stoppard are often knocked for a kind of surface gleam that is said to prevent deeper emotional resonance. I believe this criticism is misguided, but it’s founded on the density of Stoppard’s wordplay: it’s not uncommon for viewers or readers to have to work so hard to keep up with the language that the material is drained of emotive intensity.

In Vollmann’s work, this is not the case. He certainly engages in pyrotechnic displays of both structural and linguistic virtuosity, but the material he covers is generally so compelling – or so distasteful – that it never flags into coolness.

Argall features Vollmann’s most mannered linguistic game to date. The entire book (save the eighty or so pages devoted to glossaries, personal and place names, chronology, and exhaustive sourcing notes) is written in a kind of neo-Elizabethan English, complete with shifting spellings of common words, names, and places. The frontispiece of the book announces the game. It emulates, with a modicum of winking, the frontispieces of any number of pre-modern publications, with their exhaustively florid typography presenting a long-winded précis featuring the citation of a higher being. The higher being is Okeus, the name that Powhatan and his people gave to their god or patron demon. Reader, mark it well.

A passage, selected at random:

While his Soldiers doff’d their armor at last, then cleansed it by rolling it in a barrel of sand & vinegar until it glistered again like unto new, Sweet John (fearing to un-brigandine himself, on account of President Radclyffe’s malice) strolled about the Fort, discovering that most were sick or idle, as ever, and the rest dissatisfied.

–page 286, Argall

It might seem that the lingo, daunting as it is, would prove wearing. Vollmann has such control over the language that one readily adapts to it. This is partly due to a sort of stagecraft. The language he employs is a gesture to genuinely antique language, but once one adjusts to the unexpected frills of “doff’d” and “glistered” and “un-brigandine,” the architecture of his stage-flat stands revealed as contemporary spoken English.

Under the surface of the ornamented, metric prose, Vollmann’s up to still more trickery. He writes of social activity between the people from whom Pocahontas comes in plain language, if there’s no European on stage. While retaining the rhythms of the rest of the prose, he employs shorter sentences and has “doff’d” the flowery ornament-words. When the narrative centers on this or that individual in the company of the English colonists, a similar shift in voice occurs. Vollmann notes in the end matter that he has sought to employ not only temporally appropriate phrasing and floridity in the prose and speech but also to use vocabulary elements that are regionally specific to the region of England that the individual character in question came from.

The sum effect of this meticulous craftsmanship is to cast the characters in the book into remarkable relief and definition. It’s truly striking, as one swiftly gains a sense of the persons he’s writing about without fully apprehending how it’s done. He allows the character’s voice to overflow the directly attributable quotes and thoughts and to momentarily appear to inhabit the authorial space.

Of course, for all this mummery, it’s Bill, Bill, Bill behind the stage, and as is customary, he interweaves direct personal narrative – of his visits to England, his visits to the strangely barren site of the original colony in Virginia. He looks at the graves and rusted buckles of the multitude who perished of starvation and disease. They lie next to a river so full of fish that it was a constant source of comment by the starving, poxed aristocrats of the little fort by the River James.

Adding to my enjoyment of the book was my family’s Christmas Eve, 2000 visit to the colony site itself. The visit enabled me to more clearly visualize certain aspects of the locale. Additionally, while I was reading the book, National Geographic’s earlier article about recent archaeology at the site was consulted. They published a reconstructed view of the stockade and information about the Starving Time, when so many of the colonists died.

Vollmann closely focuses the book on the historical relationship of Pocahontas and John Smith, concluding that there was no lovers bond between them, but as he imagines it, a loving relationship as between an uncle and niece or even siblings, of a sort. The Native girl was truly a child when they first met and eventually married another man in the colony before traveling to England with her husband, were she died still quite young.

He pulls no punches, evenhandedly recounting the ways of low-intensity conflict on all sides. He renders the intricate political and social relationships between the Native Americans in their villages and the complex weave of familial relationships and personalities that constitute their society. He carefully delineates the dangerous ground of class and privilege that both fires the ambitions of and regularly kills off the Englishmen in their rusting helmets and listing stockade.

In fact, he’s obscurely chosen to name the book after one Captain Argall, in mocking contrast to the failed ambitions of Smith. Argall was a sea captain who was intimately bound up with the colony from its’ inception, and whose journeys of resupply gave him much the advantage of constant exposure to the swirl of London court and royal politics. The lesson of the book, based on Smith’s unfortunate trajectory, appears to be: do not serve your masters with the sweat of your brow, but with the bended knee, the embroidered lace cuff, and with large quantities of gold and treasure obtained in any way whatsoever.

As noted previously, of the published books, Fathers and Crows is surely the most accessible of the published works in the Seven Dreams to date. However there’s simply no question that Argall, with its’ intricate construction and obsessive craftsmanship, is the highest literary accomplishment in the series thus far. By now, I suppose it’s possible that the next Dream may be deep in final editing: from a purely selfish perspective, I surely hope so. If Vollmann continues to leap forward from book to book in this manner, there’s simply no way to know what to expect.