William T. Vollmann is insane. At least this is what everyone thinks. Even his greatest fans find him to be unhinged and impenetrable. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes soliciting William T. to contribute to his startup magazine. "Vollmann," Eggers writes, "writes back, in crayon, on the other side of the letter, indicating that he'd like to contribute, but would like to be compensated. Because we have never paid anyone for anything, and have less money now than ever before, we ask if there's anything nonmonetary we can do. He says ok, this is what he wants: a) One box of .45-caliber Gold Saber bullets; b) Two hours, in a warm well-lit room, with two naked women, to paint them, in watercolor." Insane, clearly.

In an old press photo, Vollmann, an anemic-looking young man with oversized glasses, presses a gun to his head while looking into the camera with a morose and unapologetic gaze. One must wonder what is going on behind those corrective lenses, between that weapon and the dead space on the other side. Europe Central, Vollmann's most recent work, begins to answer this question.

The book begins with an emblematic black telephone. Lines of communication are key. Who is talking? Who is listening? Which side of the conversation/political line/ war is the protagonist on? In this work made up of vignettes, character sketches, short stories, even a novella, the perspective is always changing. Europe Central focuses on the individuals, political parties, and events of World War II. Vollmann attempts to dive into the landscapes upon which this great battle took place in order to simply understand what happened. In the introductory pages of the book, the author writes,


So I apply myself now, on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning
of Europe; I can do it; I can almost do it, just as when coming to a gap in the wall of some
ruined Romanian fort, one can peer down upon thriving linden treetops; you can
see them waving and massing, then far away dropping abruptly down to the fields.


Vollmann holds court with stories comparing and contrasting the decisions made by key figures in the German and Soviet regimes during the war era. Despite the incredible amount of focus that he affords both sides, he never tries to bridge the gap between the warring nations- the Soviets and the Nazis. The distance is poignant enough. This book is about exploring the opposite sides of World War II. It is about the most serious kinds of disagreements and the most polarized viewpoints. It is about blame. What we see when we look down the long, quivering axes of pointed fingers, is a world drawn in absolutes. That is what war is about; coming to blows over discordant absolutes.

How can such opposites breed in such similar ground? How can such a heinous conflict have sprung up from a relatively small patch of shared earth? It is not the fault of Europe herself, Vollmann proclaims. We cannot regard her simply as the sum of her parts and proclaim, "guilty!":


What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say                 Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn't have been Europe herself, much
less Europe Central, who's always such a good docile girl.


It is fascinating to troll the William T. fan sites and web boards hosted by book retailers and publishers. The general consensus among readers of Vollmann's most recent novel was, "Well, at least I seem to understand this one a little." Not only has his work become more accessible, but it seems that Vollmann himself is opening up a bit more.

Europe Central won the National Book Award in 2005. In his acceptance speech, Vollman said, "I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what the book was about. I'm very happy that it's over and I don't have to think about it anymore." Europe Central is incredibly well researched and in-depth. William T. bravely went to a very dark place to write this book, and, based on the 811 pages that he produced, clearly spent significant time dwelling there. Vollmann has been wandering through the ugliest part of human nature: our ability to mercilessly destroy one another. What he has seen has terrified him. Is it possible that good people can be caught up in such ugliness? Perhaps Vollmann is not insane. Perhaps he is just hyper-aware of what, in the worst circumstances, can become of a human being, of a society. Perhaps he has become terrified by the knowledge of how lost we can become in the worst parts of ourselves. Not only is Europe Central more accessible than the author's previous works, but the author himself has become more comprehensible. It is now easier to understand this brilliant man because we know where his mind lives.

Upon reading the closing lines of Europe's multi-perspectived memoir, one must wonder, when her step child's memoir will be produced. In the end, what will be the whole (not the sum, mind you) of America? And what writer will write a tank-sized novel defending us as he or she enumerates our eras and personalities? Interestingly, America is only a distant presence in Europe Central. (Perhaps Vollmann did not dare to go to that dark corner.) How, 50 years from now, might we defend America? There are so many parts, so many ways to divide this country: by coasts, the Mississippi , the Mason-Dixon line. What is America Central and how will she be sketched, enumerated, and forgiven?
TAR
Send this review to a friend
More book reviews at TAR
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
next review
previous review
Nervous Conditions
a book review by Diane Goettel

EUROPE CENTRAL
by William T. Vollmann

Viking, $39.95