Sunday, January 09, 2011

Short-a-Day: William T. Vollman's "Too Late"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 2.

You never know what you're going to get with Vollman, but it's probably going to be overwritten -- he simply knows too much. Even in the short story form, he overflows a basic concept -- a man reminiscing over the path not taken -- by writing fantastic (not in the good sense) metaphors for it. Our white-rabbit-like hero wanders through the cold streets, looking to amply-described prostitutes for pleasure, his grayed flesh marking his limited time, until he at last decides to enter a giant tower, one which shoots up hundreds of floors into the sky. There, he looks out through the twin telescopes -- one of which may be a kaleidoscope -- and thinks: 

There was also a telescope pointed due west, and it showed me the brassy sun fleeing across the Pacific. This comprised futurity, and I longed to see my destiny here. After much labor I finally saw myself on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands, on my ninetieth birthday in a nursing home. I asked the lovely dark-haired nurse to kiss me but she wouldn't because I was so old and gruesome. So I begged her to spit in my mouth because that way I wouldn't contaminate her, and she kindly did. I had to hurry now; this sunbeam was speeding on!

Is this his future? If so, can we take it seriously? We're chasing rainbows and sunshine, and the story leaps around so quickly, in such an unnatural rhythm and setting, that the mind has to do a lot of abstract thinking. Mind you, I like Vollman -- Europe Central is one of my favorite novels of the decade -- but he's hard to take, especially when he's doing full-on Pynchon. Gussying up a very basic concept in this fashion -- kitchen-sink prose -- doesn't accomplish much, and in this case, it doesn't even impress.

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