A genre is dissolving. If the novel breaks out of its gate with Daniel Defoe’s mock-diary Robinson Crusoe and the implausible epistolary excess of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and the weird, hysterical fantasies of the Gothics, the form almost immediately turns stolid at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century authors winked at their readers, hardly expecting literal belief in their high concepts, but rather enjoyment, empathy and perhaps enlightenment. The aim of the nineteenth-century novelist, with some exceptions–Dickens, say–was to render the parlor conversations, the romantic entanglements, the financial manipulations and the Continental wars of the world beyond the author’s study.

Sadly, fictional realism, a misnomer from the get-go because artists have always highlighted one aspect of experience and ignored another, calcified into naturalism, which claims absolute fidelity to brute existence. Thus we have Zola’s tedious Nana in place of Tolstoy’s luminous Anna. This is doubly dulling because, at the same time, new technologies and media have made pure literary verisimilitude superfluous. Not that the shape of the novel is circumscribed by its competition; journalism, photography and film are termites nibbling at the basically sound foundation of the house of fiction, but the rules have indeed changed. Upton Sinclair could still write The Jungle, which swayed legislation, but Jacob Riis’s slum snapshots accomplished the same thing in an instant. When it comes to representation, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So what’s a writer to do? Compelled by nature to string words together, loath to take up a squeegee instead of a pen, the novelist shifts to the less easily representable. Literature moves in an ascending trajectory from the Modernist peregrinations through internal consciousness of Joyce, Proust and Woolf into the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, and then into a uniquely contemporary crackpot realism exemplified by “world writers” like India’s Salman Rushdie, Israel’s David Grossman, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and Japan’s Haruki Murakami. They’re not world writers merely because they’re foreign–au contraire. Rather than using literature to examine the world, they use their world–or a quirky simulacrum thereof–to examine literature. Their home is neither the steppe nor the prairie but the library. They write in an international format that transcends locality and irks some critics, who see them as navel-gazing, if occasionally brilliant, solipsists who avoid the moral and emotional core of life that “ought” to be the proper domain of the novel.

These critics–reporters really–who disdain works not easily fact-checked are wrong. What these writers are aiming at is not facts but truth.

Among the Americans usually named as part of this cohort are the founding fathers, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, and their literary offspring, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers and, the brattiest kid of all, William T. Vollmann. Vollmann is included in this family portrait because he too has written what critic James Wood would call a “‘big, ambitious novel.'” Wood is otherwise one of the finest critics around, yet his yearning for a return to Chekhovian realism reveals an astonishing blind spot to the most significant literature of today. Note the pejorative quotation marks with which he surrounds “big, ambitious novel.” Would he prefer a “small, lackadaisical novella”?

Vollmann is frequently mentioned in this company for many of the wrong reasons and a few of the right ones. Yes, he’s ferociously smart, unabashedly interested in ideas and information, and passionately dedicated to the word in an era that worships images; but he’s placed here mostly because he’s a white man of a certain age whose books are more than an inch thick. Actually, he couldn’t be more different from his peers.

Vollmann, who has previously written vast historical panoramas about the colonization of North America and war reportage from Afghanistan, is old school at heart. His new novel, The Royal Family, begins as the most bluntly realistic novel in years. Its first tightly packed 400 pages–approximately half the book–are a day-to-day chronicle of “the life” of a loose-knit group of San Francisco streetwalkers. They’re being investigated by a private eye named Henry Tyler, who has been hired by Jonas Brady, an elusive magnate who is planning to open a vast “virtual” brothel in Las Vegas. Tyler’s specific assignment is to determine whether a figure known as “the Queen of the Whores” is real or legendary.

Also known as Africa or Maj, the Queen turns out to be quite real. She’s a middle-aged black woman, with whom Henry falls in love after the devastating suicide of his Korean sister-in-law, Irene. Henry also finds sustenance among the Queen’s seedy crew, the “family” of the ironic title, at a fraught moment when they are under siege by the forces of money and respectability. Urban midtowns are being cleaned up all over the country. The so-called Tenderloin’s porn palaces–like Times Square’s–have become Disney stores, and its rent-by-the-hour rooming houses have become swank boutique hotels. Vollmann balances the presumed integrity of the Queen’s “humid commerce” against the soulless corporation represented, literally as well as metaphorically, by Tyler’s straitlaced, go-getting attorney brother, John.

Vollmann catches the mundane details of his characters’ lives with a sharp, unsentimental eye, and his novel provides a few dramatic events–beatings, an arrest, an abortion–but mostly it’s cheap and cheesy sex act after sex act interspersed with just about every form of drug abuse you can name. Much of the book is written in terse dialogue (without quotation marks, as if the author doesn’t want typography to distinguish between his voice and the family’s). Here’s one of the tamest of innumerable similar exchanges:

Hey, the man said, have you seen Sunflower?…
   You want a date, honey? Maybe I can help you out?
   Well, actually, I was looking for Sunflower, he said. I feel something special for her.
   You know, said Bernadette, Sunflower and I were good together.
   Ah, said the man.
   I actually feel very pretty today, said Bernadette.
   So she’s not around? the man said.
   I’m sorry, baby. You won’t see her around anymore.
   What happened to her?
   Overdose. I’d rather not talk about it.
   Ah, the man said again.
   So do you want a date or don’t you?
   The man hesitated. Come on, said Bernadette. I give really good head if that’s what you’re into.
   How much?
   Sunflower gave pretty good head for ten.
   Well, honey, Sunflower’s dead so you gotta respect the living.

Fascination with the kinky underbelly is nothing new. From the Satyricon to Henry Miller to Danielle Steel’s latest, writers have been drawn to sexual abandon; yet Vollmann delivers more human fluids and secretions than any volume since Doctor Spock’s. Blood, semen, urine, vomit and pus practically drip from the binding. The Queen spits in the mouths of those she favors.

At first, the effect is grossly compelling, but as pages slip past by the hundred and The Royal Family‘s spine is still barely cracked, exhaustion sets in. Vollmann’s novel is the epitome of naturalism–another day, another trick, another fix. Maybe Vollmann intends to convey the repetitiveness of the whores’ lives, but there is so much filth, degradation, abasement and decay here that one finally feels it’s, as he says elsewhere, “all stuck together like dogs fornicating in epoxy.”

Whoa! There’s a line worth repeating to your mom, and there are plenty more like it, explosive charges like mines planted randomly in a swamp. Vollmann is a master of the tarnishing anthropomorphization (“a white, foggy afternoon crawling with obsequious light”), fancy vocabulary (“pretty little exomphalous court clerk”), surreal imagery (“like a shower of scorpions”) and lists of the shabby that turn shocking (“With its bruises, varicosities, scars, scabs, burns, bites and abscesses, her flesh resembled one of those Hungarian sausages”).

As in the style–oceanic tedium illuminated by flashes of genius–so in the structure. Most of The Royal Family can be summarized by Tyler’s doleful statement toward the very end:

Well, I loved my brother’s wife and she killed herself. Then I loved somebody just for having the same name she did, and that didn’t work too well. Then I loved my Queen, and she died. And my mother died, and I lost the job and my car and my house…. And that’s how I ended up here.

Yet plot occasionally, thankfully, bubbles to the surface. Midway into the novel things start to get not merely gross but significantly weird. Dan Smooth, pedophile, FBI informant and self-described “master of stains,” enters the picture, and Brady opens his “Feminine Circus” in Vegas. Just as no one can initially tell if the Queen is real, it’s uncertain if Smooth’s depredations are criminal or the stuff of his despicable dreams, or if Brady’s erection is a 7,000-bed whorehouse or computer-generated wizardry. Here, where reality and imagination intersect, where Vollmann also tosses in everything from “an essay on bail” to an excursus on the Canaanites of the Bible, is the place where he gets not only big but genuinely ambitious.

This is also the place where his work echoes the “world writers” distrusted by advocates of verisimilitude. Like them, he wrestles with the ominous difference between the virtual and the actual. Similarly, his hyperbolic inventiveness sometimes shatters into discontinuous fragments and sometimes connects with absurd predetermination. He doesn’t cavort with the crackpot realists’ trademark giddy playfulness, but he does share their deadly serious moral center, created out of sheer mortal terror of the social, economic and technological dislocations of modern life. Families aren’t what they were; work isn’t what it was; politics has become imagery and image-makers have become demigods; even money no longer seems solid when some kid with a new gadget is suddenly richer than Rockefeller.

A genre is dissolving because realism has difficulty coping with the new world disorder. In fact, “realism” has become wishful-thinking fantasy at a time when relativism is wreaking havoc in academia; going public is the rage and privacy is on the edge of extinction; cloning and the map of the genome are changing the definition of human fate; and we’re all flies in the World Wide Web.

As the world simultaneously shrinks to the size of an integrated circuit and sprawls further out of control, the simultaneous sprawl and interconnectedness of the big ambitious novels are counterintuitively representational. Of course, ambition does not inevitably lead to accomplishment, but it’s a necessary precondition, and not all such books are successful. Nonetheless, they are the only ones that, by replicating the disorder, are attempting to create order in a painfully inchoate universe. Their various tongues blend into a single voice that aspires to no less than rebuilding Babel. From its beginnings until now, this has been the ultimate task of fiction.

Hysteria is the only sane response to life on the precipice, and where Vollmann is “unrealistically” hysterical he’s got his typing fingers on the edge of the cliff. Unfortunately, he’s too infatuated by the endless repetitive cycles of “love’s abattoir” to do more than visit that vital edge before he recedes into an arid, naturalistic lassitude. I’ll take him sentence for sentence over just about any writer in the country, but not for sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence…