Georg Bauer: Good for Something

William T. Vollmann has traveled the world to seek out places few of his fellow Americans would want to visit and has talked to people few other people would want to meet. The results of such travels are fictional and non-fictional accounts of extreme minority cultures. Vollmann often implies that patterns of more general social interactions may be extrapolated from these extreme examples.

Recently, Vollmann has written non-fictional texts in which he explicitly stresses his wish that they be useful to the readers. Much like John Steinbeck before him, he does not want to write for the sake of writing. However, he also clearly states that he has no answers to social ills, let alone ideas for changing them. What, then, are his texts good for? Are they of any use at all? Henry David Thoreau once wrote in a letter to H.G.O. Blake: “Be not simply good – be good for something.” It appears as if Vollmann’s approach to his subjects takes more than a few pages from Thoreau’s philosophy. What exactly does Vollmann attempt to achieve with his writings? Or, more importantly, what does he achieve?

Vollmann finds it very important to write about his subjects as truthfully and honestly as possible. He lets his interviewees read the finished texts and listens to their comments as a token of respect. He makes his subjects happy, which is already ‘good for something.’ My dissertation deals with Vollmann’s thoughts on society and community as described in his ‘love’-trilogy on prostitution (1992-2000), his treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), and his book on poverty, Poor People (2007).

His ‘love’-trilogy portrays prostitution as an amalgamation of addictions and dependencies (among other things): prostitutes are frequently addicted to drugs, and Vollmann’s main characters, the johns, are dependent on being close to the prostitutes and on the affection they believe to obtain from them. In order to shed light on the mechanisms of this de jure illegal trade in the United States, Vollmann has lived with, slept with, loved, and paid prostitutes. Does this render him an expert on prostitution? What can the reader gain from these stories?

Rising Up and Rising Down attempts to give reasons and justifications for violence in various forms. Vollmann has traveled to war zones and other dangerous places to extract understanding from hazardous situations. Does this render him an expert on violence? What steps can the reader take after having read Vollmann’s 3,000-page suggestions? Are there any global implications?

Poor People shows the reader how men and women around the world deal with poverty. Vollmann always paid for the interviews, because it seemed to him the right thing to do. What good does such payment do to poor people? What is their gain? What is Vollmann’s? What, again, is the reader’s?

Does the fact that Vollmann is a male Caucasian American make him a player in the American myth of Manifest Destiny – even though he would deny any such intentions? At the turn of the 21st century, what does Vollmann attempt to do for his fellow Americans and for his fellow world citizens? My dissertation investigates Vollmann’s purpose with his non-fictional works, and the purpose of his fictions. In this context, I will discuss Vollmann’s attitude toward the US culture of hegemony, and what it means to give too little and to give too much. With such explorations, I endeavor to arrive at Vollmann’s views on interpersonal relationships and community, which, I hope to find out, are good for something.

(University of Graz)