The Atlas


Hailed by Newsday as "the most unconventional—and possibly the most exciting and imaginative—novelist at work today," William T. Vollmann has also established himself as an intrepid journalist willing to go to the hottest spots on the planet. Here he draws on these formidable talents to create a web of fifty-three interconnected tales, what he calls 'a piecemeal atlas of the world I think in.'

Set in locales from Phnom Penh to Sarajevo, Mogadishu to New York, and provocatively ...

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The Atlas

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Hailed by Newsday as "the most unconventional—and possibly the most exciting and imaginative—novelist at work today," William T. Vollmann has also established himself as an intrepid journalist willing to go to the hottest spots on the planet. Here he draws on these formidable talents to create a web of fifty-three interconnected tales, what he calls 'a piecemeal atlas of the world I think in.'

Set in locales from Phnom Penh to Sarajevo, Mogadishu to New York, and provocatively combining autobiography with invention, fantasy with reportage, these stories examine poverty, violence, and loss even as they celebrate the beauty of landscape, the thrill of the alien, the infinitely precious pain of love. The Atlas brings to life a fascinating array of human beings: an old Inuit walrus-hunter, urban aborigines in Sydney, a crack-addicted prostitute, and even Vollmann himself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Last year could be remembered as a year in which the prolific young Vollmann did not publish a book; early 1996, however, shows that he wasn't sitting on his hands. This massive tome collects "tales" and "snapshots" of his travels over the past five years into something resembling "The World According to Me." Although Vollmann's style is to play it coy with respect to what is fact and what is fiction, there is no mystery as to who is doing the talking here: it is the same persona we've seen in all his books (The Rifles; Whores for Gloria; etc.), a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port. And indeed, Atlas sports quite an itinerary: from Mt. Etna to Zagreb, with stops in dozens of places, none of which will surprise readers of Vollmann's previous travelogues. Unfortunately, for all the traveling, Vollmann never manages to escape his own obsessions. Whether he is discoursing on drinking beer or shooting heroin or smoking crack or chewing khat in San Francisco, Bangkok or Kenya, the reader is treated to the same lovelorn teddy-bear pining after a devastated whoredom, as if the world can be reduced to a rainy afternoon in a bug-infested hotel room. The Vollmann character throws money around (within limits), makes halting efforts at moral education, professes his love and then starts another chapter. Is this the noblesse oblige of the post-partisan American? Despite a structure that Vollmann says, in his preface, is a thematic palindrome, intrepid readers may find it a thematic monotone. (Apr.)
Jim Paul
In The Atlas, William T. Vollmann arranges 53 gritty travel narratives as a kind of card deck of the world, plus one. At the start, a "Compiler's Note" offers various alternatives for the book's use. "Slide it under your buttocks when commencing the night's revels," Vollmann recommends. "Slay the nightmare flies of sleep with its hard covers."

There are nightmare flies aplenty in what follows. Each of these disturbing stories -- the book is a combination of fiction and autobiography -- is headed with a location and a date, as this obsessed and gifted chronicler globe hops from Sarajevo to Inuit Canada to Rangoon to dozens of other locales. Wherever the setting, the place is hell. Its residents live in torment, and Vollmann's own character is as vulnerable and wounded as anyone. Often the accounts concern whores and their johns. In Butterfly Stories (1), the narrator returns to Phnom Penh to look for his wife, a dance hall girl with the unlikely name of Vanna, whom he left there two years previously. In the end, he thinks he recognizes her as he buys her for a dance, understanding "the rule, which was as brutal as life: As long as he could keep dancing with her (and paying to dance), she'd still be his."

"White boys inhale too fast," says the hooker in The Best Way to Smoke Crack, "'cause they think if they do they'll get more high." This is a place nonfiction doesn't often go. In the second of the Butterfly Stories, a furious hooker berates the narrator, then makes him have sex with her without a condom, at the same time telling him that she has AIDS. "Can you feel my death crawling inside of you?" she asks. It's a world of pain, in which the narrator uses the temporary drug of perpetual motion because to stop would be to die.

In the title story, the narrator takes a train north into Canada, exhausted, yet flipping through the rest of the book's places in his head. "Everywhere he went, he'd say to himself: There's nothing for me here anymore. No more nowhere nobody." Leaving that nearly still center of this palindrome-like book, we re-enter the dangerous turf Vollmann takes for his own. Formally and otherwise, The Atlas is a tour de force. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
Making a bid for the bleakest book of the year, Vollmann (Butterfly Stories, 1993, etc.) fashions a world-wide web of despair in a palindrome of 53 stories, each having to do with sorrow or loss, and often involving the hopeless lives of whores from Cambodia to Canada.

From the jungle to the tundra, from the smog of L.A. to the fog of Hong Kong, from bullfights in Mexico City to firefights in Sarajevo, these stories, often drawing on Vollmann's own travels and life, mingle autobiography and invention, creating a provocative, sometimes dizzying, hybrid. Among the most resonant pieces are the unsparing description of childhood loss of a sister, and a tale set in Bosnia, involving an incident when a friend was shot dead in a car in which the author was also riding. Loves lost also figure prominently: the tender prostitute Vollmann met during his first trip to Phnom Penh; a lame Ojibway in Winnepeg, whose husband took him on a drunk; his first girlfriend, now married with children and locked in a battle with breast cancer. Diverse adventures, which also have a way of distancing the writer from his world, mingle with the sexual ones. He pays to go on a walrus hunt with an old Inuit and his grandsons and is mostly ignored, cuts short a night of ringside kickboxing in Bangkok when the sport's brutality overwhelms him, and is tolerated by urban aborigines in Sydney only as long as the beer he's bought holds out. Despite their distanced quality, these fantasies and terrifying visions of underclass reality at every latitude and longitude are poetically, damningly precise.

As in other recent work from Vollmann, however, repetitive images seem to reiterate rather than advance the theme, turning terrific writing into tedium. One weeps somewhat reflexively for the lost souls mirrored in these fragments; more heartfelt, unfortunately, is a horror at the squandering of such a prodigious prose talent.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140254495
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 1,136,732
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 7.92 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and Rising Up and Rising Down, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. Vollman's writing has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, Esquire, Conjunctions, Granta, and many other magazines. He lives in California.

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