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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 IV: Narrative Voices


Reading The Rifles may be quite a chaotic experience for those who expect a smooth journey through the legends of Captain Franklin and his crew. There can be no doubt that William T. Vollmann’s project is not that of writing a historical novel. Combining fiction with historical events, the writer challenges any categorization of his book. To quote his own terms, Vollmann wants to offer his reader a “symbolic history”, which is more akin to a vision than a historical account; a collection of tales narrated by a teller rather than a historian. Questioning the relation between history and truth, Vollmann is concerned with the way literature mediates the past. As a way to protest against a one-way perspective on history, the author suggests parallel and fictitious discourses on the past. The point of this chapter is to prove that these variations on the past are made possible by the constant confusion and multiplication of narrative voices.

As a background to his experiment, Vollmann chooses Captain Franklin’s fourth expedition to the Arctic, a XIXth-century outline which constantly collides with the XXth-century narrative of John Subzero, a Franklin epigone who is merely wandering about the ice shelf, spending some of his nights with an Inuit girl named Reepah. Trying to evade both time and space, Vollmann chooses the Arctic setting to allow the possibility for history to be reinvented on these white and virgin lands. The image of melting ice is also frequently used as a metaphor...

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