It is impossible to read this, William Vollmann’s 2500-page examination of the morality of violence, without reflecting on one’s own relationship to violence. And so here is a story:
During my undergrad years I helped pay my tuition by working in a small mom-and-pop video store with an extensive (for our location, anyhow) pornography collection. I worked by myself in this brightly-lit closet for about four years, mostly without incident. It was boring, as almost by definition any clerking job must eventually become, but I used the time to read novels, do homework, and watch episodes of The Simpsons and incompetent direct-to-DVD horror films behind the counter. One day a man came in with his girlfriend. I had seen him before. He wore a backward baseball cap, thick glasses, white running pants and a white jacket that looked like an altered prizefighter’s robe. I don’t remember much what his girlfriend looked like, probably because she stared at the ground and didn’t say much of anything. I remember everything the man said very well. He walked up to my desk. There was nobody else in the store.
Hey you, he said.
You go back there? Inching his head to the right, towards the door that led into the pornography room….You go in there, huh? Heh.
Yeah, sometimes. I mean I work here.
Okay. You know about any new movies, huh? Like in the past year? I’ve been in prison for a year or so, huh? Know why I was in prison? Because I made too much money. I made too much money. Now what do you think of that?
Huh, I said, not believing him but even beneath that not caring much either way.
I made too much money so they put me in prison. But now I’m out and making money again. I make even more money than when I got put in. Come here–and here he gestured toward his girlfriend, who had been browsing the stacks of the old comedy VHS, old thin cardboard encased in clear yet yellowing dusty translucent plastic shells, those badly drawn cartoon images of John Candy, Howie Mandel–come here.
She came there.
Now we want a movie, he said. Look what I got here. We want a movie. I haven’t been home for a year, you know?–he talked like this, asking questions of himself, performing, like I was not even there–So what’s new?
The new movies are on the center racks in alphabetical order, I said, not wanting to speak with him any further. Alright, alright, he said, and dragged his girlfriend behind him. She whispered something and he whispered back. And then he hit her in the face. I couldn’t tell how hard he’d done it; all I know is that I was able to hear the blow and once he’d done it she bent over a little and scrabbled at her nose in pain, alternately gripping it and letting it go. I didn’t see any blood. And of course I didn’t do anything about it: said nothing, did nothing. At the time I was working 30+ hours a week and taking 18 credits in an attempt to make up for my pathetic high school track record by overachieving in college. I had probably not slept more than four hours the night before. These are reasons, not excuses. I had not even done anything to indicate that what he was doing was wrong: he might have studied my (non) reaction and assumed there was nothing the matter with what he’d done. I had no empathy, and I was afraid. I still think about it.
William Vollmann’s book is a monument to empathy, to understanding. He does nothing by half-measure. He is shot at by snipers. Two of his friends are killed by a landmine. He kidnaps a child prostitute and gives her over to social workers, telling the child’s father to his face that he will kill him if he ever finds out he’s sold another one of his children into sexual slavery. He excoriates the parents of the dead children at Columbine who used the event as a political tool to help ban assault weapons, calling them “vultures”, and speaks with admiration of men like Bo Gritz and Ted Nugent. He speaks at length of his own weapons, many of which are now illegal.
The book is designed to offer a moral calculus for violence–when it is okay to kill or harm another human being (or animal, or the Earth itself) and when is it not okay? The first half of the book offers a series of potential justifications for violence (honor, war aims, defense of gender, defense of class, etc.) by analyzing the actions of various “moral actors” throughout history (Gandhi, Hitler, Robespierre, Trotsky, Lincoln, etc) and the second half offers a collection of Vollmann’s journalism and experiences throughout the world. Something few have commented on is how this structure almost undoes itself–the first half, such as it is, attempts to build an edifice of truth and understanding regarding violence (here is what should be done, and how, in order to live morally) and the second half totally destroys it. The first half is scholarly, the second half is the real world.
The first half is probably the less useful section of the book; while interesting for devotees of Vollmann’s ridiculously baroque writing style, it doesn’t quite work as history (Vollmann’s too much of a character motivation-obsessed novelist to totally subsume himself within his material the way a great writer of journalistic nonfiction like Robert Caro does) and if you’re not already familiar with the time periods described Vollmann certainly isn’t going to clear things up for you. What is worthwhile here is watching Vollmann attempt to carve his way through history’s thicket and impose order upon it. Vollmann also often discusses photographs and pieces of art in detail that do not appear in the book; in a book with a great deal of art, this is a serious lapse.
The second half is far more terrifying and essential. Vollmann offers personal tales of violence that beggar description and make one fear for the soul of humanity; I found the Soviet Union’s disguising of landmines as toys in order to lure Afghani children to their deaths to be the most horrible example but everyone who reads this is going to probably find their own example of violence to give them nightmares. Vollmann is not afraid to tell you his opinion, and for this I admire him. We know exactly what he thinks about everyone he meets and yet rather than make him seem judgmental it makes him seem more human. Two of Vollmann’s friends die horribly in Bosnia, and he has no compunction about saying that he hates and wishes ill on those who killed them. This is how we would all feel and to sugarcoat it is a lie. Each and every one of the conflicts described in this section is insoluble. Vollmann offers no answers because they’re aren’t any. For nearly 1500 pages we are pounded with this message: poverty, fear and something ineffable in human nature breeds violence, and there is nothing that can be done about it–but we have to try. Trying will most likely do nothing, but we have to. We have to. This is an incredibly significant work. –Jonathon Walter