Review: The Ice-Shirt, William T. Vollmann (1990)
Dewey Decimal Classification: 813.5 V924 J2 1
In 1993, Vollmann responded to a question put to him by an interviewer about his “absorption as a kid in books”: “My primary world is just this one basic "dream world" that I've been in from the time I was a kid.”
Another online piece describes the Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes series of books as “a historicofictional account of the settlement of North America”. The Ice-Shirt constitutes volume one in the series. It is wonderful. In it, one reviewer says, he “encourages his readers to enter a time when myth and history overlap”.
A New York Times review is available for this book. It makes much of the American aspect of the novel. But the trip that the overweening woman Freydis and her compatriots from Greenland — another colony of the Norse Vikings — actually make to Vineland (or Wineland, as it is alternatively dubbed in the book) only starts half-way through. There are also many stories of other Greenlanders. Stories of outlawry, settlement, disease, family, step-children and more are thrust forth into the reader’s consciousness by Vollmann’s fine prose. And fine it certainly is. More than fine: superfine. It is shot through with poetry, peppered with clusters of Shakespearean compound nouns, mostly hyphenated, that raise the narrative to a level that can encompass themes of shape-changing and magic — the ‘trolls’ or Skraelings the settlers meet are endowed with magical powers — that accompany the Greenlanders on their adventures.
Like Jose Saramago, there is also much dry humour to enjoy in this book. Although a tale of adventure, the irony of many utterances works to bring the narrative down from the heights of poetry to the level of the every-day. This is satisfying and apt, and allows us to get close to the feelings of individual characters, regardless of their proximity to the other-worldly or their distance from us in time. As in Saramago’s excellent Balthasar and Blimunda, there is magic that can become real: a flying machine in Portugal that levitates using the power of people’s souls or a god with BLACK HANDS (the capitals dot the pages) named AMORTORTAK living in the wastes of the icy north can coexist with living, breathing humans. In this sense, Vollmann adheres to the fabulist tendency of much modern fiction, stretching from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Haruki Murakami. And is he up to the demands of such exalted company? Yes, I say. He is. Very much so.
Will I be purchasing more work by Vollmann? Absolutely. It is also of interest to me that these dream worlds derive from the same pen that writes about prostitutes and war zones. His output is Herculean, but the quality is extremely high. Is Vollmann himself satisfied with this ambitious book?
“The first three-quarters of The Ice-Shirt are OK. I think that the last quarter I'd do differently. I was still trying to figure out how to mix history and fiction as I went. That was the first attempt at the seven. It was harder with The Ice-Shirt. I wish that I had more money too. For instance, I would've liked to have gone to Norway and Sweden for that one. If I had, that part would have been longer.” This from an interview at McSweeney’s, who in 2003 published his magisterial, seven-volume work, Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, which has been dubbed "a moral calculus for violence". It was originally published for $US120.00 but now sells second-hand for three or four times that on Amazon.
Have you read any books by Vollmann? What do you think of his work?