Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Royal Family, by William T. Vollman

This dark, degenerative epic is clearly Vollman's submission to the big-boy's club; clocking in at around 750 pages, it strides in scope alongside the works of Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster-Wallace. That said, it's contents are classic Vollman: location: San Francisco, particularly the Tenderloin; cast: prostitutes, pimps, johns, junkies, vagrants, with plenty of double- and triple-dipping into categories; plot: a man (at first possibly and increasingly likely of unsound mind), searches for a lost love, which search masks his true pursuit: a reason for living.

In a sense, then, this is a more developed version of Whores For Gloria, or perhaps a kind or prequel. We first meet private investigator Henry Tyler smoking crack with a prostitute while he questions her about the Queen of the Whores, whom he has been tasked by a client to find. But this is not a pulpy P.I. novel, a contemporary, seedy Dashiell Hammett. Although Tyler frequents the TL, pays prostitutes, and takes the occasional hit of rock, like WFG's Jimmy, he's less interested in the physical than emotional payoff of these activities; what he wants from these women are their stories, their companionship. If he shares their drugs or sex, it's only to gain their trust by entering their world.

One gets the sense early on that this won't be a detective novel; the simple search for the Queen won't support so many pages of text, and indeed, less than a third of the way into the novel, Tyler's client fires him, certain that the Queen is just a myth. Tyler continues the search anyway, driven by something he doesn't quite understand, but knows must be related to his illicit desire for his brother's Korean wife, Irene (Irene will, to Vollman insiders, reprise Jenny of The Blue Wallet in The Rainbow Stories). Irene, pregnant and unhappy with her unaffectionate, type-A husband (who, incidentally, has no love for his brother), commits suicide, sending Tyler down the chute of dark desperation. Along the way he will find and fall in love with the Queen of the Whores, who will ameliorate his pain by pissing* down his throat. Soon enough, though, she too will disappear, and Tyler will become a freight-train riding vagabond, traveling from squat to squat, asking once again if anyone has seen the Queen.

The height of the novel is the middle, in which Vollman develops the "royal family," the Queen, a small but strangely powerful black woman, ageless, whose breath is more potent than crack smoke, and whose saliva serves as a drug to the group of girls she cares for. These prostitutes—a violent blonde called Domino, a Mexican runaway whose street name is her real name, a girl called Strawberry who has a boyfriend (the Queen's right-hand-man Justin) in spite of her line of work, amongst others—stay together in a network of squats around the TL, the Inner Mission, South of Market, and occasionally across the Bay in Oakland when the heat is on, paying 10% of their take to the Queen's fund, which in turn helps them get well** when they don't have the cash, bails them out when they're arrested, and buys them protection—or at least retribution—when they are done wrong. Think of it as a union.

I've always felt that Vollman deals rather fairly with the subcultures he explores; the book is graphic in the extreme (sensitive readers, for example, will be horrified by the unflinching presentation of the character Dan Smooth, a child molester who goes long unpunished because his connections are of use to the police department in pursuing bigger criminals of his ilk), but Vollman never writes to condemn, nor does he write to titillate (though there may be slightly more titillation here than in his earlier works). Ultimately, the obsessive love that Tyler transfers from Irene to the Queen is a manifestation of his isolation, his sense that he doesn't fit in the world his brother so facilely inhabits. He lacks an internal driving force, and thus seeks it in a series of impossible affairs (cf. The Green Dress in TRS). And so, Tyler's crumbling world is quite tangible, and our feeling for it is pure tenderness. The demons here are not the prostitutes, nor the kindly if sloppy-drunk johns, but the justice system, which unjustly sets bail arbitrarily (Vollman proposes a prison triage system that sends junkies to rehab and the insane to asylum, rather than throwing them in a cell with actual criminals), and the capitalist abusers who parade as wholesome while hypocritically indulging their dark side (Tyler's brother John becomes Domino's customer; Tyler's client Brady, who instigates the search for the Queen, opens a Vegas casino called Feminine Circus, in which men hire "virtualettes" for sexual abuse; these virtualettes are said to be unreal, but they are, in fact, actual women, mostly mentally and physically disabled, who are bought into sexual slavery by Brady and used until they die).

Unquestionably, the work is dark, but it's not the smut for which one might mistake it, reading the first few pages. In pushing toward the epic, Vollman does indulge in a few excessively broad strokes, but if you look past the sequins on the street whore's miniskirt, you'll notice the dirt under her chipped fingernails.

*I considered using the more delicate "micturating," but it wasn't in keeping with Vollman's tone.

**in the narcotic sense

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