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Butterfly Stories (1993)

by William T. Vollmann

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252979,205 (3.58)4
Butterfly Stories follows a dizzying cradle-to-grave hunt for love that takes the narrator from the comfortable confines of suburban America to the killing fields of Cambodia, where he falls in love with Vanna, a prostitute from Phnom Penh. Here, Vollmann's gritty style perfectly serves his examination of sex, violence, and corruption.… (more)

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» See also 4 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
I was not prepared for this novel. I thought, Vollmann has been called "a Pez dispenser of career-capping megavolumes." Maybe starting with a 275-pager would be "easier" than tackling one of the solid bricks, denser than Neolithic ice, of his other books.

It was devastating.

Sprinkled with his occasionally grotesque pen drawings of naked women crouching in surreal jungles, I only became impressed after the first dozen pages. I noticed trademark integrated dialogue. No quotation marks, like ticker tape reportage, narrative suggestions scattering like frightened butterflies.

The first part, taking place in America, establishes the narrator's psychological need for women, which he calls love. This does not translate into respect for their bodies, but into a morbid obsession and a helpless compulsion in the face of a raging libido.

Michel Houellebecq, most notably in Platform, came to mind during the sections in Croatia, Turkey and Cambodia. In fact, you might plaster Michel's face onto the journalist's body if you want to have a laugh. But the protagonist is clearly both suicidal and self-destructive. I began to sink into the aggressive prose, so hypnotic and immersive that I actually had to force myself out of the trance of reading to take breaks.

WTV conjures an incredible sense of place, laced with existential terror, as he describes with crude elegance and constantly surprising word choice the underbellies of undeveloped places, and the downtrodden people who suffer there, in the semblance of what they can only call living. And yet, the mouthpiece of the novel observes greatness in people in proportion to how much suffering they've endured.

It evolves into a novel of compressed experience and expressed progression toward moral outrage.
Combining reverence and disgust for the sanctity of the human body with righteous indignation and clinical frankness. Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup used shock value to jolt the reader out of comfort zones, and propel the narrator into existential crises. I recalled the subliminal layers in Bataille's Story of the Eye, and with chills, let the heat and lusciously cloying atmosphere of this book supersede those experiences...

It is about a journalist fascinated with women, who possesses a sympathy and desire for prostitutes to an unhealthy degree, who embraces dichotomies, and relishes monstrous depravity while somehow exuding moral forthrightness, and a disdain for ruling oppressors. He becomes the embodiment of the butterfly which first drew him in in childhood, this motif - the flighty, nectar-craving, frail being, the soul cocooned in flesh.

Unlike William S. Burroughs, I got the sense that the author was in complete control of his powers, and letting his mind slide into dark corners, far beneath the everyday stomping grounds of polite society. The audacious style and the uncanny realism of the pinyin English (or the Khmer equivalent) are inimitable. It was a quick read, comprised of a couple hundred micro-chapters, exploring unapologetically, the tenderness latent in troubled hearts, the pathos buried in human contact, with affectionate regard for love's myriad forms and manifestations.

Vollmann is clearly the enfant terrible of American letters. A writer Pynchon himself could read and enviously admire. It goes without saying that he is well-read, well-traveled, and that his overwhelming talent has produced well-researched unmerciful tomes, determined to take up as much shelf space as humanly conceivable, unconcerned with appealing to a wide audience, and so he remains, quietly toiling in his unadorned warehouse, chronicling the inner workings of the human psyche, which mirror the gearboxes of the macrocosmic world.

If you are brave enough to read this book, you will encounter, among the dross of startling human-insects, the stark inner need for human comfort, bought and sold, in a land deprived of warmth and humanity. Concluding brilliantly in Thailand, and the Arctic, converging in a surreal spiral, like the butterfly's pulsing proboscis, tunneling toward internal, dissipating hellscapes, inescapable ends, dread and somnolent nescience, having traversed the dives and infested hotels and brothels of war-torn, bomb-penetrated landscapes on the edge of inhabitability - "To gain more wisdom than others one must do abnormal things."

And with these disturbing images, and in these daunting mental zones, we discover unadulterated beauty, or our fragile hearts make something beautiful out of what we find there. ( )
  LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
Vollmann's tale of an aimless traveler looking for connection has well crafted sentences, a creative mix of short chapters and illustrations (by the author), and the ability to give the reader a precise sense of place. Towards the end, however, (and maybe this is just my issue) the meandering character devolved into a meandering book and though the writing was never superfluous, the story structure unraveled a little too much for me and I became bored. Still, one could do better being bored by William Vollmann than reading the best work by other authors. ( )
  Adrian_Astur_Alvarez | Dec 3, 2019 |
Vollmann's tale of an aimless traveler looking for connection has well crafted sentences, a creative mix of short chapters and illustrations (by the author), and the ability to give the reader a precise sense of place. Towards the end, however, (and maybe this is just my issue) the meandering character devolved into a meandering book and though the writing was never superfluous, the story structure unraveled a little too much for me and I became bored. Still, one could do better being bored by William Vollmann than reading the best work by other authors. ( )
  Adrian_Astur_Alvarez | Dec 3, 2019 |
https://msarki.tumblr.com/post/163363705108/butterfly-stories-by-william-t-vollm...

This being only my third indulgence into the literary work of WTV it is painfully obvious to me that he isn’t an easy read. Previously a foolish premonition on my behalf perhaps, due often to his brief sentences and short paragraphs. But Vollmann makes me rather uncomfortable. And I can’t say my reading of him is “fun”. That is not to say it could be, one day, after I get past his own particular “difference” on the page. Simply put, Vollmann performs his craft in such a way as to make me see it just might be possible. Hearing others and discerning between these many voices, and then considering the foreign ideas presented in a devised, but parallel existence of deviance, can only do me some good. Perhaps my emerging tolerance for all the different sizes, colors, shapes, and smells I find in the world around me is due to this enlarging present feeling of acceptance I have evolved to not only for myself and my own differences but for the other strange ones among us.

…Something touched him. He didn’t know what it was. It was fishy and silverwhite and crew-cut soft like sealskin kamiks…

The dude can obviously write when he wants to. My complaint is he does not care enough for what I need to tender more abundant examples of great sentences. The “whore trilogy” is a supersaturation of all things that drip of sweat, disease, stink, and slime. Of course, there is in his characters a constant need for love and then their roiling indifference as it pertains to others. If this review makes no sense and seems haphazard and wanting to flit, try reading the Butterfly Stories. The title says it all. It always felt as if Vollmann was keeping me away at arm’s length. No intimacy or connection with anyone, and of course no one ever fitting in. Not knowing if this novel was truly a love story or a death wish realized, but understanding all along that we, as in my heart and mind, are never coming back. ( )
  MSarki | Jan 7, 2018 |
3.5/5 stars.
The ideas are there, but I just didn't find myself fully immersed in our protagonist's world. This book doesn't have the dazzling prose that other Vollmann novels offer, such as The Ice Shirt or The Rifles. More similar, in style and prose, to Whores for Gloria. Both books explore the same themes, besides prostitution: a man falling for a prostitute and then slowly going insane (or does Whores for Gloria start with an insane protagonist?). If you're really into Hubert Selby Jr and Bukowski's novels, this should definitely fill that niche. Definitely worth reading: I finished this one in a span of 24hrs. I'm excited for The Royal Family, but it may not be for quite some time now.
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis has a great review:
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/381198252?book_show_action=false&page=... ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
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Butterfly Stories follows a dizzying cradle-to-grave hunt for love that takes the narrator from the comfortable confines of suburban America to the killing fields of Cambodia, where he falls in love with Vanna, a prostitute from Phnom Penh. Here, Vollmann's gritty style perfectly serves his examination of sex, violence, and corruption.

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