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Sexual Conquests

White man, brown woman: William T. Vollman boils American history down to an essential inequality.



William T. Vollmann must have three pairs of hands. While setting endurance records for typing, the California novelist-journalist-john has tapped out travelogues about Afghanistan and Cambodia, stories of San Francisco streetwalkers, and--his most ambitious project--"Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes," a series of novels about the collision of Europeans and Native Americans.

Vollmann's work ethic, or compulsion, is extraordinary. For him, writing is an athletic act. He used to sit at the word processor for 16 hours a day, until he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Then he upped his schedule to 18 hours, thinking it would strengthen his wrists. Eventually he began scribbling in notebooks, and now he's experimenting with voice-recognition software to rest his 42-year-old hands. He wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, by hanging around the office after finishing work as a computer programmer.

"Sometime I would stay all week. After everyone else left, I would be sitting at my desk, and I wrote Angels on their computer real late at night. I would eat candy bars from the vending machine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, when it was time to sleep, I would just get underneath my desk. I'd put a big waste basket in front of my head, so the janitors couldn't see me when they were vacuuming."

This was in San Francisco in the mid-80s. Vollmann was single, unkempt, and antisocial. He developed an interest in the hookers of the city's Tenderloin district. Several of Vollmann's books--The Rainbow Stories, Whores for Gloria, The Royal Family--draw on interviews with prostitutes. But he was also a customer, whoring his way from bay to breakers with the motto "AIDS is a state of mind" as his talisman. As Vollmann's career blossomed, he began exploring third-world trouble spots too sordid even for Graham Greene, often as a correspondent for Spin. He came back with some horrifying stories. In Bosnia, a car he was riding in hit a land mine, killing the driver. He met Pol Pot's brother in Cambodia. "Afghanistan Picture Show" was about his first adventure--he'd saved up enough money from a secretarial job to vacation with the mujahideen, who were then fighting the Soviet Union.

The blithely curious American sailed unharmed through the world's most violent countries, avoiding bullets, mines, and sexually transmitted diseases, always making it back to his Mac II in Sacramento to record his experiences during extreme writing sessions. The mounting stack of paper now amounts to 6,000 published pages--which doesn't include "Rising Up and Rising Down," a 4,000-manuscript-page essay on violence that's finally found a publisher.

I discovered Vollmann through my interest in Norse explorers, the subject of The Ice-Shirt, first of the "Seven Dreams." The following year I saw a Vollmann story in Esquire. It began thusly: "Once upon a time a journalist and a photographer set out to whore their way across Asia. They got a New York magazine to pay for it. They each armed themselves with a tube of cool soft K-Y jelly and a box of Trojans." I was baffled. Why would a man who wrote such dense, painstakingly detailed historical novels devote the other half of his career to depicting the acts of prostitutes? Vollmann once offered an answer to an interviewer. The "Seven Dreams," he said, were spawned by The Rainbow Stories, "because Rainbow Stories was all these parking lots where the whores were doing their business. I thought to myself, 'What was the country like before all the parking lots were here?'"

I have now read all four of the "Seven Dreams" thus far published. They are growing in size, as Vollmann's compositional endurance builds. The Ice-Shirt was a compact 415 pages, including maps, glossaries, appendices, and Vollmann's pen-and-ink illustrations. The latest, Argall, is as big as a cigar box. After over 2,400 pages of reading--which I was able to complete only because of the mental endurance I've developed in 20 years as a long-distance runner--I've concluded that the unifying theme in Vollmann's work is white men having sex with young brown women.

This is actually a classic topic in movies and literature. The Moon and Sixpence, Shogun, The Quiet American, Mutiny on the Bounty, Marlon Brando's behavior in Tahiti during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty--all feature white men who find love and sexual adventure in exotic countries. It's always a white man and a native woman: the relationship represents the colonizing culture seducing the so-called primitive. Getting laid is a spoil of empire. It's also a way of demonstrating racial superiority: we can touch your women, but you can't touch ours. On every southern plantation, there was a black woman whose children were a few shades lighter than everyone else's. But if a black man even stared at a white woman, he'd end up swinging from a tree. Even today the pattern persists in marriage markets. I have an uncle who basically bought a Filipino bride through a lonely hearts pen-pal club, but I can't imagine an American woman traveling to the Philippines in search of a husband.

Argall perfectly fits with this convention, and with Vollmann's libidinous fascinations. It's the story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, our continent's first great interracial romance at the beginning of the Anglo culture's conquest of North America. I haven't seen the Disney cartoon, but I'm told it didn't portray the couple as they actually were, and as Vollmann gives them to us: a grizzled English adventurer, disappointed in love back home, and a ten-year-old Indian princess.

Smith meets Pocahontas when he's taken prisoner by her father, Powhatan. After he sends a written message to the Jamestown colony and receives one in return--containing information he could not have discovered while in captivity--the Indians decide he is a sorcerer. They throw him a feast, where, for the first time, he sees "a little squaw," a "girl-child." As Powhatan and his advisers debate Smith's fate, little Pocahontas saves him: she "wraps her arms about Sweet John's head; she lays her cheek against his." Later, Pocahontas joins Smith beside the fire, stripping off her furs and amusing him with naked cartwheels.

It's not a romance of equals. Smith brings the girl gifts of pink ribbons and tells an Indian friend that "she is promised to be my wife once she hath ripened." Pocahontas calls him "father." The author's interest in Pocahontas is less paternal: he describes every burnished inch of her body, from her "prepubescent breasts" to her "well-ochered buttocks." Yet the relationship is never consummated. Smith is called back to England before his child-fiancee ripens, and so she remains ever pure to him. There is a real historical parallel between the story of Pocahontas and the colonization of Virginia. Vollmann is quite free with the sexual imagery of the thrusting English invading fertile America. The James River is compared to a vagina. A pond shaped like a uterus is described as "the Womb of Virginia."

Smith's chaste love for Pocahontas, right there at the first kiss between the English and the Indians, is a vision of a gentler America in which settler and native could live placidly together, sharing a humid Eden of corn and tobacco. It didn't turn out that way. Not even Smith was paladin enough to preserve the innocence of the New World. When a werowance, or chief, named Opechancanough refuses to sell corn to the English, Smith leads a raid on his village and takes the uncooperative "Salvage" prisoner. "This was the moment" the New World became the Old World's bitch, Vollmann declares portentously. The beginning of the rape that's lasted four centuries.

As the chief is dragged away by his hair, "Opechancanough...tremb'd, either with fear or shame," Vollmann writes, in his imitation-Elizabethan prose. "Was this the moment, then? That tall, twice-subtle Werowance, now violated forever before his merest subjects, led to & fro like a dog, shame-faced, yes, panicked, ruined in his glory."

Once Smith leaves Virginia, the colonists treat the Indians even more despicably. Led by the black-hearted Captain Samuel Argall, they massacre entire villages and kidnap Pocahontas. The girl, now grown, is married off to a different Englishman, John Rolfe, who attempts to civilize her. Rolfe renames her Rebecca and forces her into modest English dress. To Vollmann's credit, he portrays Pocahontas as an independent-minded woman, a handful for her husband.

"The 1st year or 2 of Maister Rolfe's marriage was spent in vanquishing the willfulness of his wife, she who used to turn naked cartwheels at her own pleasure." Eventually they move together to England, where Pocahontas learns to read and covet gold jewelry. Thus the Eve of our continent is fallen.

Affairs between European men and Native American women run through all the "Seven Dreams." In The Rifles, the arctic explorer Sir John Franklin takes up with Reepah, an Eskimo woman. In a parallel story meant to serve as a modern version of that romance, a Vollmann stand-in named Captain Subzero visits northern Canada, moves in with a simple local girl, and impregnates her. Before she can bear the baby, the girl commits suicide.

In Fathers and Crows, about the French Jesuits and the Iroquois, Vollmann offers the same equation of sex and colonization we see in Argall. An Iroquois named Born Swimming is raped by a French trader.

"As he got on top of her, he felt at last that he was truly in Canada, that it was his Country, that he was in fact a conqueror of the kingdom of Dreams where anything could happen," Vollmann writes. "The squaw's shrieks and struggles were lavish flourishes beneath his signature; he signed the deed of Canada."

Despondent at carrying a child of rape, a child of the Iron People--"pale bears" who came to Canada in floating islands--Born Swimming puts on black mourning paint. In these novels, intercultural sex is an act of destruction, shattering civilizations as it shatters maidenheads.

Which is ironic, because the affairs in the "Seven Dreams" resemble the author's own method of dealing with unfamiliar cultures. Vollmann is now married to a Korean-American woman, but in his wilder days, when he arrived in a place like Bangkok or Rangoon, he would shack up with a prostitute.

"Paying for sex is always an easy way to get into a woman's life, if she's a prostitute," he said back then. "It's always great for me when I travel someplace. If I really want to know what life is like in one of those countries, just pick up a prostitute and live with her for a while. I see life as she sees it. I feel like I'm doing something and knowing something real fast. In a week, you learn as much as you would if you stayed in a hotel for a year. It's really great."

Vollmann wants more from prostitutes than just a quickie. He says he admires them, because "they have everything interesting in life all together: there's love, sex, and money." But his dealings in developing countries have an even deeper purpose. Vollmann is an avowed technophobe--he doesn't watch TV, and he wants to abolish the automobile--but he is a child of the most technologically advanced society on earth. These women allow him to partake in their "less civilized" state; sex with them is an act of absorption, almost a return to nature. Is he so different from his French rapist, who doesn't feel he's truly discovered the New World until he's burrowed into one of its women? Is he so different from John Smith? Vollmann venerates Pocahontas as the real virgin of Virginia, and Smith is a perfect Vollmann hero because he loves Pocahontas as an Indian girl, unlike the priggish Rolfe, who wants to remake her as an Englishwoman.

One of Vollmann's most touching stories was a Spin article about his rescuing a young Thai waif from prostitution. When he first spotted her in a provincial brothel, he saw a "beauty with a pale yellow face, part Chinese perhaps, whose eyes were so heartbreakingly vacant I knew she was dead inside." Vollmann wanted to restore her to life. One of his compatriots paid the pimp for an evening in a hotel with the terrified girl, then spirited her to a shelter in Bangkok. On the drive to the capital she vomited repeatedly, while Vollmann held her hand and promised he would never violate or beat her. At the shelter she was taught an honest trade: sewing.

"We were kidnappers," Vollmann writes. Captain Argall was a kidnapper too. But unlike Argall, Vollmann returned a girl to purity. Perhaps, in Thailand, he was stealing back Pocahontas.

Argall by William T. Vollmann, Viking, 746 pages.

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