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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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To analyze the way Vollmann’s fiction interacts with myths and history, we have considered several aspects of the novel: as a post-modern rewrite of the gothic (chapter 1); as a dream of escaping the guilt of western colonialism (chapter 2); as a narrative experience of wandering and epistemological disorientation (chapter 3); as narrative polyphony that blurs any univocal historical narrative (chapter 4); as a problematic exploration of otherness seen through female characters (chapter 5); and finally, as a hybrid novel, assessing the fundamental otherness of any writing, regarding its topic, in a neo-Romantic manner (chapter 6). The Rifles displays both escapism and commitment, it wavers between loving involvement and isolated reticence in its focalizations. After The Ice-Shirt and its reinscription of Norse mythology, Vollmann in The Rifles gave textual body to the poetics of whiteness, following the traces of Poe, Melville and Gass. Melville, about whom Vollmann wrote an essay,116 sailed the oceans in pursuit of the white whale, while Vollmann ventured to the whiteness of the North Pole. We could apply to Vollmann Claude Richard’s comment on Moby-Dick and its narrator:

Let’s drop the pretense: the narrator speaks about himself, like Narcissus. To sail out is to venture on the universal mirror, amongst imaginary projections of the self upon the world, a world Narcissus would like to see in his image. But the surface of the sea is not the glaze of mythical lakes upon which the lethal image of the self is to...

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