Tranvestite and National Book Award Winner William T. Vollmann

For some strange reason, William T. Vollman recently came across my radar. I hadn’t heard of him before, yet another testament to how out of the loop I am on contemporary literature.

First, there was a the Newsweek article “The Lush Life of William T. Vollmann” from November 6th, two weeks ago; quickly followed by a New York Times piece “William T. Vollmann: The Self-Images of a Cross Dresser” on November 13th, four days ago.

The articles have been published to promote the release of The Book of Delores, who is Vollmann’s alter-ego when he cross-dresses, something he has been doing for a long time but only decided to “go public” with now. (Although he comments in the NY Times article, he has ‘shielded’ his wife from his cross dressing, and he asks the reporter not to interview her since she doesn’t know about that part of his life.)

I came to find out in my wanderings that Vollmann won the National Book Award for Europe Central in 2005, and he also won a PEN award for The Atlas, a 450+ page tome of short stories.

All the recent coverage, plus the evocatively strange personality of the writer, drove me to find out more about the author’s work. (Yes, it’s no surprise: titillation sells.)

Yesterday I went to The Strand (my favorite bookstore in New York City) and piled my basket with Vollmann tomes: The Book of Delores, Europe Central, The Atlas, and Rainbow Stories – the last two being collections of short stories. I hopped on the elevator to the third floor Rare Book Room and ensconced myself in an overstuffed armchair to begin digging into the texts.

The Book of Delores is what it says it is – the investigation of Vollmann’s alter-ego Delores over many years. Vollmann has had a long standing fixation with prostitutes, and has sought out these sex workers all over the world and then written about his experiences in his many works. In Delores, he portrays himself as a painted whore, with all the trappings of the trade.

Vollmann as Delores

Vollmann as Delores

I found the images grotesque.

I’m not sure what Vollmann hopes to accomplish with the publication of this book. Perhaps the breaking down of taboo barriers, although I don’t believe this book will do that. “Delores” doesn’t accurately represent femininity, or masculinity either.

It seems self-indulgent on Vollmann’s part to inflict this particular face to the world; although it is his right to do so as a part of his artistic expression.

After my tour of Delores, I picked up Europe Central. After reading the first three pages, I was reminded of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While it seems like it might be readable, it confronts the reader at every turn to defy narrative. I freely admit I didn’t give Europe Central more of a chance, and put it back in the pile of books I wasn’t going to buy.

Then I picked up The Atlas. As with Vollmann’s other works, the collection (from what I’ve read thusfar, about 60 pages) is obsessed with prostitutes in exotic locations. But the language is stunning, and the emotional resonance of some of the shortest stories is intense.

Yes, that’s probably the best description of Vollmann: intense.

But why is it that when men write about whores they win writing awards and make names for themselves?

Earlier this year I wrote about Arnon Grunberg’s Blue Mondays, which I stumbled upon in an Amsterdam bookstore. I had simply asked for a well known local author who had been translated into English and was handed the book. I had no idea what it was about. Grunberg won a Dutch award for best debut novel for that work, which is an account of a young man’s many experiences with prostitutes in Amsterdam.

Where are the women writers claiming their own sex as a right of passage in their literary works and making big names for themselves?

Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus? Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness where she describes her life as a lesbian, cross dressing as a man? Or how about Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, a memoir where she explores being sexually abused as a child, and then a disastrous marriage, miscarriage, devolving into severe drug abuse etc. Perhaps Elise Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls, a short story collection I reviewed earlier this year, with women characters who really scared me. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Lolita is a classic, taught every year in universities in mainstream literature classes. If it wasn’t for my Women’s Studies classes, I would never have known about The Well of Loneliness, which I read in college. I should add, I never attended a lit class where I was required to read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook either.

But none of my rantings take away from William T. Vollmann’s command of the English language, and the force of his artistic vision as I understand it (so far) in The Atlas. His character studies of the prostitutes and the world in which they live is emotionally compelling reading.

I just wish there were some highly decorated women writers who have positively claimed their sex as a part of their writing too and made their careers more successful by doing so.

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