Vollmann's Ghost Stories Disappoint Instead Of Scare

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Reviewer Julia Keller says William Vollmann's new book, Last Stories and Other Stories, doesn't measure up to his previous work. (This review originally aired July 17, 2014 on All Things Considered.)


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The writer William Vollmann won a National Book Award in 2005. He's written about a wide range of experiences traveling with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, hanging out with prostitutes and reading his own FBI file. His books tend to be big and ambitious. Now he has a new one out called "Last Stories And Other Stories." Here's Julia Keller with a review.

JULIA KELLER: In his masterpiece from 2005, "Europe Central," William Vollmann wrestled the 20th century into one huge, luminous novel that bristled with insight and dread. The book was astonishing for its ability to ask and answer great moral questions about the rise of barbarity in what should've been an enlightened time. And that's why his new book is a disappointment. It's a collection of ghost stories. And yes, there are talking skulls, rising vampires and statues that come to life. But the writing is flabby and self-indulgent. And unlike Vollmann's other work, it's infested with cliches. Machine guns chitter, just like they do in third-rate thrillers. Sentences are dressed up to sound insightful, but they can't hide their triteness. Just listen. (Reading) Whatever we are used to, however unpleasant it may be, is better than being deprived of everything. That's from a story called "The Narrow Passage." Melodrama clings to this book like dirt on a gravedigger's shovel. (Reading) All the same - goes one sentence - he bravely set forth to ensnare more of the undead. In the past, I've admired Vollmann's sharp, vigorous prose. Here, though, is page after page of lazy, overwrought verbiage. Since these are ghost stories, maybe he thinks the language doesn't matter. That it's enough to throw in some fog and a spooky cackle or two. But he's wrong. Just look at the writers of sublime tales of fantasy in the supernatural like J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or H.P. Lovecraft. They create new universes. But those imaginary worlds ring true. There are two stories in Vollmann's book that rise above the mediocre - "Listening To The Shells" and "The Leader." (Reading) A night is silently torn open by a faraway shell-flash which could not keep the night's flesh from cohering again. That sentence is vintage Vollmann. It's lyrical and evocative, but it tells a hard and ugly truth. So is the title "Last Stories" literally true? Beats me. While the first line insists (reading) this is my final book, Vollmann is a tricky, playful writer. And he might be pulling the reader's leg. Or maybe he knows, on some level, that this undistinguished prose is beneath him. And the title is a way of letting us know that he is ready to get back to work.

RATH: The book by William Vollmann is "Last Stories And Other Stories." Our review came from writer Julia Keller. Her next book is "Summer Of The Dead."

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