Books

Is It A Book Or A Blunt Object?

This month, novelist William T. Vollmann is publishing a 3,000-page treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney's, $120). No, really -- 3,000 pages! Not surprisingly, mainstream publishers passed on the project, perhaps because Vollmann refused to make cuts. ''In this life we have to prostitute ourselves most of the time, and almost every prostitute I've met has one thing she won't do,'' says Vollmann, 44. ''She won't kiss or there's one particular part of herself she saves for her boyfriend or girlfriend, or whatever -- and with me, my one tiny little zone of integrity is I want my books to come out exactly the way I want them to come out.''

Vollmann has indeed slept with prostitutes -- and been jailed in the Congo and dodged Sarajevo snipers and watched in Bosnia as two friends were killed ''either by snipers or by a land-mine trap, depending on who you ask'' -- during the 23 years of researching and writing his seven-volume book. Painstakingly dissecting various justifications for violent acts, Vollmann attempts to define a ''moral calculus.'' His big conclusion? ''The Golden Rule is not just a good idea -- it's a practical sort of thing.''

A cult figure for 800-page novels like ''Argall,'' Vollmann usually writes 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, except when he's off gathering raw material for his work (hence the prostitutes). ''It's our entitlement as human beings to explore every world that we can and have as many experiences as we can, as long as we don't hurt other people,'' he says. ''Although sometimes we can, if those people are hurting us.''

Originally posted Nov 14, 2003 Published in issue #737 Nov 14, 2003 Order article reprints