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The Rifles by William Vollmann
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Much like Vollmann's earliest works, there is a hefty ick factor in The Rifles surrounding his advances on an Eskimo woman. That plot recedes and is supplanted by an account of his time camping above the Arctic Circle and a historical recreation of the doomed Franklin expedition, the latter is deftly paced situated: an absurdist comedy of manners. There is a curious essay iwthin about the advances of firearms, which I found intriguing but ultimately disparate. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
I'm falling in love with William the Blind. So far I have only read the abridged version of Rising Up and Rising Down (4/5 stars) and The Atlas (4.5/5 stars). I really loved The Atlas, as I felt there was real beauty and true human loneliness dripping from that book. Vollmann actually manages to get you to share a deep human emotion, which is all too rare. He just comes off as so honest and sincere...and oh so lonely.

The Rifles is the best of the three, sharing features from both. It is part historical novel about the Franklin Expeditions, part historical account of the (in Vollmann's opinion) forced migration of people from a region in northern Quebec to Resolute Bay...where they then experienced sexual and physical abuse, and forced labour, and humiliation, and what I can only surmise and part fiction party autobiography of the narrator's love (?) affair with an Inuit woman named Reepah. There is also a beautiful chapter about Vollmann's attempt to camp up at the Magnetic North Pole...which ends in disaster.

The book manages to tell these stories in a post-modern way, with Franklin becoming Captain Subzero (the narrator) and Cpt Subzero becoming Franklin, Subzero's wife becoming Miss Jane Franklin and vice versa... all the while exploring the history of rifles and how they changed Inuit culture (along with European and colonial influence), the transformation of Reepah into the Inuit goddess Sedna, and so much more.

The novels begins with:
“The gravel- ridges were endless, they were all around you like the waves of that Arctic ocean that you had tried to reach; now you were in the middle of it and there was nothing else but its rising falling insidiousness; nevertheless you insisted on following your stream to its origin; you were determined to come to someplace definite …. And you went over another little rise and there was a lake whose waters rippled black and blue and orange and silver, and there was a jet-black ridge behind it topped with blue clouds, and the lake went on and on and on and there was another lake behind it and streams ran out of that lake in all directions and at last you understood that the river you had followed had no one source; that these lakes were from permafrost melt; the whole island was permafrost; when you were on the island you were in a world of rivers that came from everywhere.”

from enotes.com:
"This novel is volume six of Vollmann’s ambitious series entitled SEVEN DREAMS: A BOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPES. The first and second segments, THE ICE-SHIRT (1990) and FATHERS AND CROWS (1992), have also been published. THE ICE-SHIRT deals with Norse landings in Greenland in the year 981 and the Norsemen’s subsequent interaction with the native Inuit population. FATHERS AND CROWS recounts in exhaustive detail the sixteenth century French settlement of present-day southeastern Canada and the European-Indian conflicts over two centuries.

Proficient in history, with well-developed side interests in anthropology and sociology, William Vollmann focuses here on the forced 1950’s Inuit relocation by the Canadian government to regions north of the Arctic Circle. His focus is especially on the small group relocated near the physically daunting Resolute Bay where his sometimes autobiographical protagonist, Captain Subzero, first meets Reepah, a twenty-four-year-old Inuit, whom he impregnates.

Throughout the novel, the protagonist shares a second, almost doppelganger, identity with John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, who roved widely in the area where the novel is set and whose fourth and final voyage in quest of the Northwest Passage proved fatal. Vollmann concocts a fictional Reepah who supposedly was Franklin’s paramour, a supposition lacking historical validity, as Vollmann freely admits.

In this work, Vollmann moves toward creating a new fictional genre, doing so impressively. The novel and the larger work of which it is a part are massive undertakings that hold considerable literary promise." ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Another damned good book by Vollmann. His descriptions both of the tattered Inuit society and of the Franklin expedition are bone-chilling. Felt shivers throughout. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
In the last couple of years I've read a fair number of arctic and antarctic stories, including Christoph Ransmayr's well-reviewed 'Terrors of Ice and Darkness.' My wager is that when enough time has passed, they will all fade away except this one.

The reason is simple, although it's not entirely clear from the other reviews here or on Amazon. Vollmann really put his heart into this: he lived in the North (he fell in love there, and he may even have fathered a child there), and he subjected himself to brutal conditions near the North Magnetic Pole. The result is naked writing: there is no comforting sense of traditional heroism, no stage machinery of clearly predestined tragedy, no armchair spinning of dusty tales from yesteryear, no recondite reporting from the archives (as in Ransmayr's book). This reminded me, in a different register, of Peter Matthiessen's 'Far Tortuga.' They are both naked, and reading is like looking at the author's skin.

Vollmann's drawings are hokey and childish, his persona is often over the top, his theories about rifles are as heartfelt as they are slippery and abstract, his conceits about time are artificial and distracting, his sense of form is entirely undependable (the book could have been 5,000 pages, or 50, and it ends with a funny fizzle), but his emotions have unbearable strength and his distance from his subject is subatomic.

A tremendous achievement. It puts the other arctic books on lounge chairs in a tropical resort. ( )
5 vote JimElkins | Jul 23, 2009 |
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