America's No. 1 Tree Killer

By Walls, Seth Colter | Newsweek, May 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

America's No. 1 Tree Killer


Walls, Seth Colter, Newsweek


Byline: Seth Colter Walls

A William Vollmann tome of only 528 pages? (At least the subtitle is hefty.)

William T. Vollmann's bibliography reads like the result of a drunken dare between literary rivals, with each concept one-upping the last. "How about an 832-page novel about World War II, with Dmitri Shostakovich as a character?" asks one. "Done," replies the other. "But let's see you write a journalistic manifesto on the no-man's land of Southern California that runs to more than 1,300 pages." Then there are the writerly ambitions that are too large for any one Vollmann volume to contain, such as his in-process series of seven novels about the Native American experience, or his 3,000-page-plus treatise on the history of violence and its uses. Any of these projects could be a life's work, yet he manages to turn out these tomes at the rate of nearly one per year. This is all evidence of an impressive mind at play, but it's also created an odd work ethic. From time to time, between doorstops, Vollmann gives us his version of a quickie book, as if he's trying to clear his intellectual palate. Of course, with this writer, "quick" is an approximate term.

This season's palate cleanser is called Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater. It weighs in at a mere 528 pages, though it comes with a logorrheic subtitle to its own subtitle: "With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines." In short, it's about whatever he wants it to be about, like many of the best Vollmann books. But this time peripatetic flights don't serve him as well, since Kissing the Mask is at its strongest when he focuses on the main subject. Despite a raft of apologies--he doesn't speak Japanese, he reminds us; the craft is best understood only after a lifetime of immersion, which he lacks; early on, he demurs that this entire book is an excuse to write off vacation receipts on his taxes--Vollmann does yeoman's work explaining the ins and outs of Noh theater.

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