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Under Fire

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

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 III: Composition as Infinity

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This chapter examines the composition of the novel before comparing it to the structure of other works. Vollmann reiterates the opening of the novel several times in the course of the narration, to inscribe what he deems the loss of teleological order in history, in his style, and composition. An experience in disorientation, the novel takes up the poetic echo of the opening sentence “Walking south and south […]” (3) several times, not only to stress that the English explorers and the contemporary American character Subzero are lost in time and space, as well as lost philosophically speaking, but also to indicate a reflection on the novel and a possible reading method. To walk south continuously within the Polar Circle means that one follows the course of the sun at all times of day in the summer. The redundancy of the expression “south and south” emphasizes the circularity of such a course and thus its endlessness. The novel uses the course of Phaethon as a structural topic. The son of the Sun God in Greek mythology, Phaethon drove his father’s chariot so recklessly that he risked burning the earth and so was struck by Zeus’s lightning. Like him, the explorer John Franklin and his contemporary avatar Subzero follow a course of defiance toward the fire of the sun, testing limits to great personal risk. Franklin loses his life, and Subzero endangers his sanity, and his life as well, when he stays on an isolated base at the North Pole...

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