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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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1.   A Californian Balzac

William T. Vollmann may be considered a Californian Balzac. Not only does he favor historical fiction, which he deconstructs in the way Balzac remodelled Walter Scott’s historical novel, but he also aims at representing a society in its entirety. His works fashion a world-book, in which each volume presents a facet of a vast, panoramic view of History and of the violence one people may inflict upon another. He is concerned by how both the past and poverty weigh upon people. Each of his works may be read separately, like a variation upon a common theme, but one gets a better grasp of his scope and the cumulative power of his novels when they are read together. A master of paradox and irresolution, he both presents and eschews the question of historical heritage. He attempts to take stock of individual responsibility in the decisions we make (or don’t make) to perpetuate or to impede the consequences of the past. He has publically spoken for the right to carry a weapon and has justified violence in the case of self-defense. One of his novels is entitled The Rifles, the plural noun encapsulating the tensions between principle and action. The Rifles takes up an American argument as analyzed by Tony Tanner in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Deerslayer, the hero of Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking Tales”, carries an emblematic rifle. Summarizing the contradiction between myth and fact, when Deerslayer leans on his rifle, he...

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