Over 10 books and tens of thousands of pages later, it’s difficult to peer all the way back to William T. Vollmann’s second book, The Rainbow Stories, published in 1989. But I think it’s worthwhile to make the effort. This short story collection marks the introduction of several techniques and themes that Vollmann has since become known for, making it of interest to anyone interested in knowing Vollmann’s body of work. But I don’t think the book is solely of historical value; although The Rainbow Stories is uneven, it succeeds in enough places to be worth reading.
Vollmann’s book prior to The Rainbow Stories was the novel You Bright and Risen Angels. Its subtitle, “A Cartoon,” and its characters, which include insects and electricity, show that it hardly conformed to the harshly realist aesthetic (with occasional, but limited injections of the surreal) that Vollmann has adhered to for the rest of his career. Even Vollmann himself has tried to draw some distanced between that book and his later works, saying it was “.”
By contrast, The Rainbow Stories is so realistic as to often feel be journalistic. In the story “Ladies and Red Lights,” about strippers, whores, and call girls observed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Vollmann repeatedly includes footnotes that say how much each chunk of observation cost him. For instance, an hour watching a girl strip in a nudie bar’s “little black closet” cost Vollmann, or the fictional Vollmann that populates The Rainbow Stories, $7. The repeated reminder (or at least implication) that Vollmann actually observed much of the details of this story continually raises the question as to how much of this is fiction. It also gives it the feel of a magazine feature article.
Similar to “Ladies and Red Lights” in its episodic structure, “The White Knights,” about skinhead group the SF Skinz, is typical of the stories in this collection. It’s not so much a story as a collection of vignettes (mostly under a page in length) that collectively accrete a barely perceptible narrative thrust. In its 50 pages things happen to various skinheads, and by the end it seems that they’re on the verge of forced exile from San Francisco, but the real interest in the story isn’t in any plot, but just in being placed into–what Vollmann gives us to believe–are the real lives of several skinheads.
The journalistic, anti-narrative approach that characterizes the majority of stories in The Rainbow Stories would come to characterize many of Vollmann’s works thereafter. Since that collection, he’s often played with placing himself into his narratives (leading Madison Smartt Bell to say that he pulls off the trick of being in the story without making them metafictional), but as in The Rainbow Stories it’s difficult to tell how much of the Vollmann in the book is the real Vollmann, or how much of the detail in the book was actually observed firsthand. Also, since The Rainbow Stories Vollmann has continued to tell his stories in mostly short vignettes, letting these fragments slowly coalesce into a larger story.
Reviewing The Rainbow Stories in The New York Times, Caryn James hit upon another way in which The Rainbow Stories is typical of Vollmann’s books. James criticized Vollmann for not explaining, beyond some very general remarks about race and difficult childhoods, why the skinheads in “The White Knights” are the way they are. I agree in part with his criticism–when the stories in The Rainbow Stories do delve into the histories of the characters, the result tends to be simplistic and unimpressive–but I think James is missing the boat. In The Rainbow Stories and in subsequent books, Vollmann’s interest has been not in describing the factors that made his characters who they are; his interest is rather in portraying the ethical choices these characters must face as accurately as he can. In other words, Vollmann doesn’t focus on portraying a character’s past, but rather her here and now.
For instance, it is well-known that Shostakovich is a major presence in Vollmann’s most recent novel, Europe Central. In this book Vollmann never bothers to examine Shostakovich’s childhood or upbringing or years studying music. He sticks to the here and now of Shostakovich’s life, portraying the choices he must make with regard to the two competing women in his life and the pressures of the Soviet government. As far as Vollmann is interested in Shostakovich in Europe Central, he is interested in how the man resolved the moral quandaries he faced, not the factors that made Shostakovich the man he was. This isn’t to say that the character of Shostakovich isn’t draw well or realistically, but simply to say that Vollmann does not look to his past, but to his present. A focus on a character’s present, not on her past, is what Vollmann does.
Vollmann certainly focuses on his characters’ present in The Rainbow Stories, but it must be said that since The Rainbow Stories he has done this with greater and greater skill. Some of the pieces in The Rainbow Stories feel like the work of a young author still finding his way. The story “Red Hands,” for instance, juxtaposes a (it is implied, real-life) bomber who has killed for the Irish Republican Army and a scientist who kills a mouse in the course of an experiment by snapping its neck with a pencil.
The question is clear: is killing people for the IRA the same as killing mice for science? The story is meant to raise the question of how we assign morality in instances of murder, but it comes off as lacking and somewhat contrived. (Most would not waste a moment in concluding that killing people for the IRA is far worse.) As Vollmann has progressed since The Rainbow Stories, he has continued to raise moral quandaries like this, but they have become much more complex and much more skillfully presented, making “Red Hands” look like the amateuristic beginning it is. What hasn’t changed, however, is Vollmann’s reticence when it comes time to declare what is and is not moral. As in The Rainbow Stories, Vollmann has repeated raised moral questions, but has observed an intense silence when it comes time to answer them.
The Rainbow Stories also points toward Vollmann’s future books in a very literal sense. In an interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vollmann said that The Rainbow Stories was an attempt to understand America, an attempt which, according to Vollmann, failed. The failure, however, spurred him further back in time, and in his quest to understand America the The Rainbow Stories eventually led to the conception of the Seven Dreams books. For that reason alone we should be thankful for The Rainbow Stories’s existence. In addition to the Seven Dreams, this collection points to at least one other Vollmann novel: in the short stories “Ladies and Red Lights” and “Yellow Rose,” it’s quite easy to see the beginnings of Vollmann’s later novel The Royal Family.
These are the ways that The Rainbow Stories prefigured what was to come from Vollmann, but as I said before the book is still worth reading even if you’re not interested in mapping Vollmann’s career. The two stories “The White Knights” and “Ladies and Red Lights” are utterly engrossing, and–at least as far as I can tell–highly accurate accounts of some of San Francisco’s dirtier corners and people. Vollmann’s eye for detail is, typically, sharp:
In jail Yama made a gun out of a toilet paper tube. He packed it full of foil and wet toilet paper to chose off one end. Then he ground up a bunch of match heads for gunpowder and sifted it into the tube. For shot he used broken aspirin. That gun could do some damage.
Also of interest are “Scintillant Orange” and “The Yellow Sugar,” retellings of Christian and Muslim myths, respectively. They bring to mind Donald Barthelme’s radical concisions of famous novels into ironic short stories; the difference here is that Vollmann has radically expanded on these myths and has curiously infused them with details from the present. They are strange works that more than hint at the level of moral complexity that would inhabit Vollmann’s future books. Although the prose is at many points overblown, these stories also point to the level of writing Vollmann would later attain:
. . . he smiled dreamily and looked into the orange coals of the ever-glowing braziers and imagined that he was at this very instant driving inconspicuously down the desert highway, which was packed with speeding orange Porsches, and bright orange construction signs directed traffic on heart-gladdening detours, so that Meshach could admire the orange bulldozers grinding up sand on the far side of hundred-mile barbed wire fences as drivers whizzed by jouncing and nodding to the silent songs of the radios, and the highway now rose through a cut in the red-orange clay of mountains and Meshach drove past the revolving orange balls of gas stations signs, tailgating the big trucks from Redding and Red Bluff and Orange Grove, and the day got hotter and hotter until even the cool sly jazz on the tape player began to sublime into squeaking and chirring, and orange smoke gushed out of the cassette . . .”
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