Not to be too confusing, but this is a review of Butterfly Stories, written eons ago in the time before time (1993 to be precise) for Boston Globe Books. It came up in conversation just now, and I looked to see if I still had a copy. It was on a disc of old files in my safety deposit box. Go figure. I liked what I wrote. So here you go.
By William T. Vollmann
200 pp.; $22
William T. Vollmann is a certified literary phenomenon. In his early thirties, he already has seven books to his credit, including two installments of a multi-volume fictional history of the North American continent. His journalism appears in high profile glossies like Esquire magazine. The Review of Contemporary Fiction recently hailed him as a writer destined to “eventually achieve historical importance.” He even runs his own publishing house, specializing in limited art editions of his work selling for thousands of dollars.
Vollmann’s latest novel Butterfly Stories — not part of the projected continental magnum opus — harks back to the author’s earlier and continuing obsession with prostitution. In The Rainbow Stories (1989), for example, Vollmann wrote about hookers and hangers-on in San Francisco’s slums. The Review of Contemporary Fiction spread features photographs of the author with assorted prostitutes — in one the author has his hand up the skirt of a black prostitute identified as an AIDS victim. His self-published The Convict Bird sports a bookmark made with a lock of a prostitute’s hair.
This time Vollmann, or Vollmann’s fictional alter-ego — identified as “the journalist” — ranges through Thailand and Cambodia with a photographer accomplice, flitting like a butterfly from one prostitute to another, tubes of K-Y jelly in one hand and packages of (mostly unused) condoms in the other.
The journalist catches an amazing array of sexually transmitted diseases. He worries about Pol Pot and the terrible things some of his whore-lovers and their families have suffered. He falls in love with a Cambodian hooker named Vanna who vanishes. Then he returns to the United States so haunted by Vanna’s disappearance that he divorces his wife and devotes himself to tracking down the missing prostitute. He also discovers that he has won the STD lottery and is carrying the HIV virus.
Butterfly Stories is a startling amalgam of self-destructive behavior, seedy detail (so much as to raise the issue of puerility, though perhaps this is a reaction the author intends), arcane philosophizing, and over-ripe prose that works by virtue of its very strangeness. Butterfly Stories reads like a cross between Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs and something written by a kid with a green mohawk, EAT MOMMY tattoos, and nails in his ears. Or it reads like one of those postmodern art installations — chaotic, temporary, challenging in its bad taste, and riddled with scattershot culture-bashing.
“The journalist never tried the photographer’s condoms,” writes Vollmann, “because he didn’t even use his own as much as (to be honest) he should have; but the photographer, who tried both, decided that the journalist had really made the right decision from a standpoint of friction and hence sensation; so that is the real moral of this story, and those who don’t want anything but morals need read no further.” [p.26]
This is interesting, this is new, this is weird. No doubt about it. This is the death of modernity with a vengeance. And what we are left with, Vollmann seems to say, is not Nietszche’s Superman or existentialism’s romantic loner but a kind of Judeo-Christian moral sludge. This moral sludge, with its self-absorbed pop spirituality, neo-racism, platitudinous liberalism, and open acceptance of violence as a form of human interaction, is the dominant philosophical system in America today.
The argument of Butterfly Stories is rigorously logical. Pol Pot persecutes prostitutes (Vanna wears the scars of her persecution on her back). America persecutes prostitutes. Therefore, America and Pol Pot are identically tyrannical, fascist, and genocidal. This simple syllogism turns all our cultural assumptions upside-down, and wanting to catch AIDS from a Thai prostitute named Oy or Toy becomes an acceptable ethical choice. The homely little HIV virus becomes the Holy Grail of an inverted universe of values. (It is important to note that these prostitutes are not real characters. Nor is this book titillating or even informative about prostitution. Prostitutes are simply Vollmann’s shorthand metaphor for the mudsill, bottom-level victims of society.)
In this new universe, words like “love” begin a strange migration. Thai chambermaids say, “I wuff you.” Having sex with a sick partner without a condom is love. A prostitute allowing a john to kiss her on the mouth is love. Trying to get an erection, despite debilitating illness and lack of interest, so you won’t hurt a prostitute’s feelings is love. Buying a prostitute drink after drink so you won’t have to sleep with her and be unfaithful to another is love. And, conversely (since, in the world of moral sludge, consistency is a fascist value), being unfaithful, sleeping with another prostitute, though regretting it, is love.
Butterfly Stories ends up being a parody of the traditional romance novel in which the knight errant-journalist falls chastely in love (love is just wanting to hold a prostitute without having sex) with an unreachable, ideal woman who becomes the goal of his adventures. Vanna disappears only to become Western man’s traditional absent love object (the fantasy wife as opposed to the real wife at home doing the laundry). The fact that she may just be hiding out from a tiresome john is heavily ironic, even comic.
The joke, finally, is on the journalist-hero who wanders through Butterfly Stories sick and sick at heart, toiling in the coils of romantic calf-love, and spreading disease in the name of sexual adventure. He doesn’t even have a name. He is Graham Greene’s ugly American and he is Everyman. He is the new hero, the epitome of moral sludge, a walking, talking, self-incriminating critique of the Western world.
Vollmann goes farther than any American writer in expressing his national self-disgust. He consigns his readers to a region of despair where even the hope of hope is lost, where even the consolation of some fragmentary beauty is denied. Butterfly Stories is one long, intricate and disturbing epitaph on a dying civilization.