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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 II: Putting Historical Enquiry to the Test


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Chapter II:   Putting Historical Enquiry to the Test

Abstract of Chapter II: Questioning the Possibility of Historical Enquiry

The multiplication of inaugural gestures in William Vollmann’s The Rifles is, paradoxically, paired to a stubborn refusal to offer the reader a frame of reference within which it might be read. “Text”, “book” or “dream” are as indefinite a characterization as could be wished for, and all we discover on the title page is an enigmatic list of events standing in both for a generic tag and for a statement of the text’s argument. Such a strategy seems geared to dramatize the crossing of this textual threshold while referring us back to the unadulterated, inductive activity of reading which alone is capable of reconstructing a narrative sequence from this allusive and disjunctive list. Yet a certain degree of indeterminacy remains. In so far as it is generated by a writerly activity that is only hinted at by the phrasal verb “disassembled from”, this list cannot merely be considered as a metonymy of the text to come. We must recognize that, depending on how we identify what has been disassembled, we then find ourselves confronted to an array of possible readings each with its own methodology and objectives.

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