A Dream of Californication
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.
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").