A Dream of Californication
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...