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Under Fire

William T. Vollmann, «The Rifles»: A Critical Study

Edited By Françoise Palleau-Papin

This study of a novel by William T. Vollmann offers a port of entry into his fiction. Like other titles from his planned «Seven Dreams» collection, The Rifles deconstructs the historical novel. Following in the steps of the nineteenth-century English explorer John Franklin, the contemporary American character Subzero risks his life in the Arctic, looking for a way to transcend the history of colonization and his personal limitations. He ventures out on the permafrost of his memory, both private and collective, haunted by history as he revisits the Gothic genre. Deploying the poetry of an anachronistic errand into the white wilderness of snow and ice, in the wake of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab and Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, the narrator plays with avatars of the author as an explorer, a historian, a cartographer and a sketch-artist to encounter otherness, whether Inuit women or men, or fellow travelers who exchange with the authorial figure in his search for meaning. This critical analysis uses close-reading, ecocriticism, cultural studies and comparative literature to examine an innovative novel of the post-postmodern canon, by one of the finest contemporary American authors.

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Chapter I: From Franklin’s Narrative to Vollmann’s EcoGothic Metafiction


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Chapter I:   From Franklin’s Narrative to Vollmann’s EcoGothic Metafiction

Abstract of Chapter I: A Postmodern Deviation from Sources

A challenging read, Vollmann’s novel destabilizes the reader to offer a complex historical perspective which questions both today’s situation and the historical impact of nineteenth-century journeys of exploration. To begin with, Vollmann’s Rifles presents the North as a troubled ecosystem, highlighting cultural degradation and common addictions, as well as the impact of the “relocation policy” of the fifties, and the Inuit’s current inability to make their voice heard and obtain compensation. A playful pastiche of Moby-Dick, the novel’s eponymous central chapter points to the dissemination of rifles as the main cause for decay.

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