Among contemporary writers, perhaps no one deserves a retrospective anthology at midcareer as much as William T. Vollmann, whose staggering rate of production has made it all but impossible to keep up with him—just blink and it seems he has brought out yet another doorstop. Since his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon, appeared in 1987, he has completed four outsize installments of his magnificent Seven Dreams project, a "symbolic history" related through novels that stretch back in time to the first Norse incursions into Greenland and Newfoundland, and portray the clashes of European colonizers and their descendants with indigenous North Americans. He has also published The Atlas, a collage of dispatches from some of the world’s riskiest locales; An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World, a memoir of sorts recounting his 1982 trip in search of mujahideen at war with the Soviets; Europe Central, just out this spring, a collection of fictionalized portraits that explore the lives of intriguing and often morally ambiguous figures who lived under the twin totalitarian evils of Stalinism and Nazism, with emphasis on the war years; and five books, set in the present, that have emerged from his abiding fascination with prostitutes, mostly, along with a supporting cast of urban-underbelly types. Alternately hard-edged and lyrical, lurid and incandescent, Vollmann’s visions of contemporary life—especially in Whores for Gloria and the monumental Royal Family, in which he’s forged a phantasmagorical urban realism to chronicle San Francisco’s lower depths—are shot through with brutality, yearning, and fever-dreams that fuse squalor and transcendence.
As extensive as this listing of works is, it falls well short of encompassing the full cyclone of Vollmann’s creativity, which also includes poems, reviews, occasional pieces, and even numerous "book objects," which feature his own artwork along with contributions by collaborators such as photographer and friend Ken Miller. At the core of his oeuvre, though, is what he himself describes as his life’s work, some twenty years in the making, the seven-volume, 3,352-page treatise Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, first published by McSweeney’s in 2003 and reissued in a single-volume abridgment last year by Ecco Press. Toiling in a sweatshop of his own devising, clocking up to sixteen hours a day at his desk, the forty-five-year-old Vollmann has exacted a considerable toll on his body at a relatively young age. In his 1998 essay "Writing," considering his "swollen and aching fingers," he tells how "sometimes the ache oozes up to my shoulders, sometimes only to my wrists; once or twice I’ve felt it in my back. Poor posture, they say, or ‘repetitive stress injury,’ or possibly carpal tunnel. . . . Writing is bad for me physically, without a doubt, but what would I do if I stopped?"