English, Department of


Date of this Version



Presented at International Society for the Study of Narrative, 25th Annual Conference, Cleveland, OH, April 9, 2010.


William Vollmann’s career exemplifies the importance of the historical moment in the life of a writer. It is hard to imagine his writing temporally outside the very specific circumstances of the last thirty years, a context that has shaped his work’s hectic, cosmopolitan energy. Born in 1959, Vollmann is a writer of the 1980s and 1990s, an author who witnessed the emergence of a radically-globalized world. Vollmann’s fascination with central and eastern Europe (as in the 2005 fiction, Europe Central) looks back to the Cold War; but the insistent non-Western focus in much of his reportage and storytelling, as in An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992) and Poor People (2008), the subjects of this paper, herald a new stage of literary globalism. The end of the Cold War, a newly-energized globalization, and the ‘crumbling’ (in Don DeLillo’s phrase) of one culture into another: more than any American writer, Vollmann has been shaped by tectonic gobal transformations, the ‘chaotic situation in the world-system’ diagnosed by political scientist Immanuel Wallerstein. There is a restlessness to his writing, a volatility of form and setting that fits the contemporary tumult. Crucially, his imaginative movement out of the United States has not been confined by the already-established pattern of expatriate movement to Europe. Unlike the writer-adventurers of the 50s and 60s, Vollmann is uninterested in Western Europe (though Eastern and Central Europe fascinate him). His work shares certain affinities with the Beatnik travels of Paul Bowles or William Burroughs in its engagement with non-Western cultures. But while their sense of the exotic led primarily to the international enclave in Tangiers, Vollmann pushes heterocosmically into a range of territories: Southeast Asia, the frozen North of the Arctic, Belize and Guatemala.