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SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? : THIRTEEN STORIES AND THIRTEEN EPITAPHS, By William T. Vollmann (Pantheon: $24; 318 pp.)

August 01, 1993|Larry McCaffery | McCaffery is editor of "Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation" and of the recent "Younger Authors" issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction (which includes Vollmann as one of its subjects)

Perhaps the appearance of yet another book by William T. Vollmann--a collection entitled "Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs"--will encourage reviewers and critics to quit their endless wrangling over how to best characterize the "postmodern" fiction that arose in the '60s and get on to more immediate concerns--namely the work of the "post-postmodernist" generation of authors that has already emerged, full-throated and with plenty of old-fashioned "news" about contemporary life and writing in America.

And certainly no one writing today of any generation has more "news" to relate than Vollmann, a rough-edged beast who has been slouching toward some Millenial Bethlehem with a kind of monstrous elegance, utter fearlessness, and voracious appetite that one associates with Melville, Whitman and Pynchon.

These new kids on the block include an eclectic array of talents such as Mark Leyner, Stephen Wright, Susan Daitch, Steve Erickson, Rikki Ducornet, Richard Powers, Nicholson Baker, Ricardo Cruz and David Foster Wallace--all authors whose sensibilities were shaped by a set of circumstances far different from those responsible for the law-making, psychedelicized exuberance of their '60s literary grandparents or the let's-circle-the-wagons defensiveness of their more staid parents during the mid-70s to mid-80s.

What unifies the work of this new breed of '90s authors is not a narrow set of aesthetic or thematic concerns but a more general recognition of the need for fiction to find a way to escape the quagmire of scaled-back expectations ("Minimalism"), self-distancing ironies and trendy nihilism (the "Brat Pack") and illusionist game-playing (ghostly simulations of once-radical methods like metafiction and self-referentiality that by the late '80s had become appropriated by the mainstream as empty signs of countercultural radicalism) that American fiction has found itself mired in since the mid-70s.

Which leads us to "Thirteen Stories," the most recent work to appear from the crazed, word-drunk Capt. Ahab of America's post-bog generation, William T. Vollmann. Since 1988 Vollmann has published eight books of startling originality, intensity and personal vision (two others, "The Rifles" and "The Butterfly Stories" will appear in the next year).

Vollmann's best-known work to date, "The Rainbow Stories" (1989), relies on the same New-Journalism-by-way-of-Burroughs approach found in "Thirteen Stories" to open windows onto the mostly invisible lives of pimps, prostitutes, street alcoholics, skinheads, serial killers and other marginalized people living in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

As indicated by its title, Vollmann's new book is a mosaic comprised of 13 paired "stories and epitaphs" that reflect and illuminate each other and are themselves constructed of bright, broken fragments--shards of autobiography, travel writing and reportage, anecdotes told by a rogues gallery of drifters and grifters, artists and con-artists, Thai prostitutes, crack addicts, witch doctors, gangsters and X-generation slackers--which mix together with other materials introduced unexpectedly to establish connections among topics widely separated by time, distance, and literal context.

In "Thirteen Stories" the mosaic's larger picture has to do with the relationship between writing, memory and death (death in the literal sense of bodily extinction but also in various other guises such as the death of relationships, ideals and beliefs, innocence, cultures, etc.). As explained in Vollmann's "Author's Note," the individual pairs of stories and epitaphs, as well as the book as a whole, were developed in an effort to reverse the usually linear movement of a story--which acts like a hearse dragging the readers perpetually across the page, across time, always forward to some unimaginably final period, to where the epitaphs wait--and instead allow the end-points (death, and its articulation in the epitaph form) to function as starting points for "translations to elsewhere (to) some final glorious release!"

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