William T. Vollmann: A Reader’s Guide

William T. Vollmann

Taken as a whole, the works of William T. Vollman are frequently contradictory. He’s a writer drawn to the lives of outsiders who’s also written about some of the most essential and overarching subjects facing society; his bibliography encompasses both transgressive, unsettling writing and deeply accessible forays into historical and contemporary issues.

Vollmann is one of a handful of writers equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways his body of work resembles that of Rebecca West: both have wide-ranging interests, both have explored the aftereffects of violence on the human psyche, and both aren’t afraid to take on an epic-length project if the subject demands it. Here’s a look at some highlights from Vollmann’s writing career to date. 


No Immediate Danger

The first volume of Vollmann’s massive Carbon Ideologies (followed by No Good Alternative) takes as its subject the dangers of climate change, and the threats that can arise from assorted means of energy production. In No Immediate Danger, that amounts to Vollmann’s exploration of the effects and hazards of nuclear power, with a focus on the legacy of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima–another complex and unsettling subject in a career that’s abounded with them. 


Europe Central

Vollmann’s work frequently concerns itself with question of power, the ways in which a proximity to violence can affect the human psyche, and the tragic lives of the morally compromised. In this massive novel, he juxtaposes a number of lives in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and in doing so elucidates a host of variations on the themes of art, politics, and morality. 


Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

Two sides of Vollmann’s writing come to the forefront in Rising Up and Rising Down: a penchant for gripping journalism and a rigorous commitment to theory. Here, he surveys a host of instances of societal violence in the present day and throughout history, attempting to understand when (if ever) violence can be justified. This version of the book is the edited version–Vollmann’s original edition spanned seven volumes in total.


You Bright and Risen Angels

Vollmann’s debut novel is an absolutely gripping, utterly unnerving tale of a secret war waged between insects and energy over the course of many decades. Vollmann’s telling balances the experimental and the visceral, creating a sort of secret history of the contemporary world that feels both shocking and familiar.


An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World

Throughout his career as a writer, Vollmann has written a number of harrowing accounts of combat zones around the world. His first book is no exception: it documents how, in the early 1980s, Vollmann traveled to Afghanistan, then engaged in war with the Soviet Union. This book showcases the beginnings of Vollmann’s approach to storytelling, and has taken on a greater resonance over the years. 


Riding Toward Everywhere

Vollmann’s interest in lives on the margins of society isn’t confined to his fiction: in Riding Toward Everywhere, he explores the lives of people who ride the rails and live transient lives. It’s a way of life that has no small amount of literary cachet and romanticism associated with it, and Vollmann’s book serves as a document of a more realistic view of hopping trains. 


Whores for Gloria

Several of Vollmann’s novels have been set in the Bay Area, focusing on people on the margins of society by choice or through circumstances out of their control. One such example is this slim novel, which explores questions of obsession, intimacy, and transcendence. Vollmann’s subsequent novel The Royal Family would venture into similar territory several years later, albeit on a more massive scale. 



Several of Vollmann’s areas of interest dovetailed in this massive account of life in the southernmost region of California. In Imperial, Vollmann explores questions of industrialization, immigration, pollution, and the generational shift within a place. It’s a powerful document, and one whose themes and images are directly relevant to a number of ongoing political debates in the United States.


The Ice-Shirt

Among Vollmann’s bibliography is an ongoing series of seven novels, collectively titled Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes. Each explores conflicts between the natives of North America and settlers, governments, and others. The first of these is the novel The Ice-Shirt, which focuses on early Viking settlements in North America, and the conflicts that ensued after their arrival. 


This was originally published at Signature Reads.

Photo: By Øystein Vidnes – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oysteinv/160077312/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28380622

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