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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 VI: Generic Hybridity

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Vollmann refers to The Rifles as a book that “straddles the gap between fiction and documentary history” (409). The novel’s narrator is difficult to pin down, because of his polymorphous omnipresence and multiple narrative voices. This precludes any attempt to distinguish, within the narration, between fiction and anthropological, historical or travel discourse. This chapter, in conclusion to the other chapters of the book, aims to investigate the generic hybridization of The Rifles and the process of fragmentation of language and genres.

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