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Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs by…

Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (edition 1994)

by William T. Vollmann

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Title:Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs
Authors:William T. Vollmann
Info:Grove Press (1994), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library

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Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs by William T. Vollmann



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"... you left home, in short, and went north to Gualala among the blueberries and the huckleberries, and you liked Gualala because it was only half a day's drive from San Francisco and the smell of sun on the clay of the pygmy forest was so good; you loved the way that trees leaned against trees and the way that tree-twigs fared downward like the ribs of fishes, and you fed your compass sweetheart the pale young needle-shoots of spruces and hemlocks because those were the sweetest, and the earth was so luxuriously giving that you could run down an almost vertical slope without fear because your heels sank deep in the loam with every step to make steps for you; you hugged the azaleas for fun; you ate some miner's lettuce, and there was a breeze and the soft hills were like birds waving their fern-wings, but then the blackness that Elaine chew so much about was clawing at you and your heels slipped and you tumbled down the hill cutting your face on prickers and falling farther and farther north, past Willits where you and Seth had set up a tent one night and been scared by a racoon, magnifying it into a brown bear, a black bear, a grizzly bear, a polar bear, a softly terrifying monster of immense cunning prepared to smother you with its night-bulk;..." ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Exactly what it says on the title - thirteen stories, each with their own coarse epitaph appended after each one. Obsession, fragile and 'impure' love, whores, war, tragedy. I hesitate to use the phrase 'standard Vollmann', since there is little typical about his writing, but it's a fine sample of what he does.

The Chinese tunnel system in Mexicali, described in his thousand-page Imperial, makes an appearance here, as does the Tenderloin and Thailand and Vietnam and Guatemala. His favorite haunts. I almost got bored with him for a moment. This is like the other stuff he's done.

But then, he does something deeply amazing and astonishing which shocks you. Maybe it's a sentence or a paragraph or a page-long stretch, of some beautiful tragic haunting writing that tears at your chest and knocks you dead and burns you up into a little pile of sulphates, like the men in his stories.

My favorites, personally, are the Edgar Allen Poe story, the Vietnam/Thailand ones, and the jaguar and Kennedy epitaphs. But you will have to find some for your own.

As good a place as any to start with Vollmann. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
I read William T. Vollmann because he occasionally gets everything right, all at once. Tucked between pages of overwritten and sometimes annoying prose, he'll pull everything together for a few sentences that are crass, ethical, devastating, beautiful and true. I wonder if he will ever be constrained by himself or an editor to pack his finest moments into a novel all their own; it would be a formidable work.

13 Stories and 13 epitaphs, like a few other Vollmann "short story collections" is awfully close to being a shredded novel (perhaps another place where an editor less overwhelmed by Vollmann's fame might have made some suggestions). Characters recur throughout and the narrative voice is more of a presence and more of a character than, say, Anderson is in "Winesburg, Ohio."

A longer excerpt from the beginning of the eighth story offers a particularly unobscured example of Vollmann's subject matter and point of view:

"Admittedly, whatever help I offered has rarely succeeded in accomplishing anything; yet I myself have benefited so much from the generosity of friends and strangers that I have never seen reason to be pessimistic about what one human being can do for another. There are always instances, good and bad, that prove that the world does not work the way we expect it to. I remember the case of Sheet-Rock Mark, who went with my friend Ken to a Vietnamese restaurant, and Mark kept yelling what the fuck do you want to take me to this gook place for? why do you want this goddamned gook food? and I imagine that the Vietnamese lady who served them understood very well the drift of Mark's words and feared and hated Mark, and then after lunch Mark saw that the door was broken and he said to her oh you want me to fix your door? He got his tools and worked on that door for a good hour, and when he was finished the door was fixed and the Vietnamese lady was happy. It seems to me that Mark did more good than one of the people who have despised Mark for calling her a gook, who would have been polite to her and smiled at her encouragingly when she tried to speak English, but who would never in a million years have repaired the door."

This is Vollmann, matter-of-fact and confrontational, sitting amongst the people who concern him. At another point, also concerned with a war veteran, Vollmann writes with more intensity:

"Nonetheless, he had kept the dog tags of the last German that he'd killed, one minute before Hitler committed suicide. They were two cold black strips of metal, joined by a chain; they were heavy and slick with gun-oil; they had the smell of handcuffs about them. Sometimes, when the rest of the family was watching the blue adventures of Lone Shen on the old television and everybody got killed in action all over again, he went out to the garage to hold them in his hands. It was strange, the way they could suck the warmth out of him. He told no one about them, least of all his wife, because they had power and were magic. A houselight from across the featurlessly white-walled driveway shone green in the window, which was grey and of a varying texture, like pond ice. He held the dog tags up to the light and watched them glow. but they sucked him dry somehow. they left him so tired that when he pissed he could note even tell whether the ringing in his ears was piss striking the bowl or a sound in his head or maybe the ringing of a telephone."

Of course, within a minute's read, you can be mired in a twelve page, chopped up whore-dialogue of broken and accented English. Or your narrator might ask, "Which of the umpety-ump million flavors of pussy would he taste tonight?" But this multi-colored, unapologetic mess has characterized much of the Vollmann that I have read--and when I see that it characterizes another of his works (and when I see that I am not about to read a mythologized book about an icelandic power vest), I will read it.

Sometimes you are embarrassed for Vollmann and sometimes he embarrasses you. He is earnest, thoughtful, far away from what you know and allergic to the cheap laughs and the garbagey referential humor of his contemporary American novelists. ( )
1 vote fieldnotes | Jul 9, 2011 |
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