Polar opposition in dream No. 6

April 03, 1994|By Richard Dyer | Richard Dyer,Boston Globe

"History," writes William T. Vollmann, "is nothing more than a long list of regrettable actions."

In 1990, Mr. Vollmann, then 31, embarked on a series of seven novels, which bear the collective title, "Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes." These books will be a survey of the "regrettable actions" that resulted from the first encounters between various Indian populations and those who came to explore, colonize and "bring them into the present."

The first dream, "The Ice Shirt," centers on the encounter between the Norse and the natives of Greenland in the 10th century; the second dream, "Fathers and Crows," is about the clash between the Black Robes and the Huron in Canada 400 years ago. And now, skipping ahead, is the sixth dream, "The Rifles," which is mostly about the Inuit of the Arctic Circle.

With his series not yet half done, Mr. Vollmann has already created a substantial accomplishment that goes far beyond the textbook of political correctness one might expect. He is a thorough researcher who uses his knowledge to give his imagination a vigorous workout; he is an adventurer in the mode of Richard Halliburton; above all else, he is a real writer, who can make us see, hear and feel landscapes, weather, animals, people and incidents as if we were experiencing them directly. No description is a throwaway: "The old man gazed out the pTC window. Softly, as if he did not want to scare it, he stroked the tablecloth." Best of all, Mr. Vollmann can make us think about the experiences he has made us share; his own opinions are strong, sometimes unexpected, and never mere reflex.

In some ways "The Rifles" is the most immediate and striking of the books to date because it is the most contemporary; in others it is a bit disappointing, as if producing the 1,000-page "Fathers and Crows" had entitled the writer to go a little slack.

"The Rifles" is the most extraordinary collection of things, brought together by an interpenetrating dream logic. The book re-creates the heroic, harrowing dimensions, tragic, fatuous and comic, of the famous Franklin expedition, which failed to complete the Northwest Passage and ended in the death of all the participants by scurvy, starvation or lead poisoning in 1848.

It is an account of the destruction of immemorial Inuit culture as one result of the Canadian government's attempt to relocate the population in the mid-1950s, a decision with terrible human consequences. It presents a vivid picture of life in the Arctic Circle today, both what seems eternal about it and what has changed (the migration of the seals to Norway, the destruction of the caribou population, the change in climate because of the hole in the ozone layer above the North Pole).

Mr. Vollmann himself ventures alone to the North Magnetic Pole in his guise as "Captain Subzero." There are maps, charts, a chronology, source notes, four glossaries, an appendix and numerous line drawings of animals, people and places (most of them by the author, but some by Inuit children).

All these materials appear both in alternation and at once; all of history is simultaneously present, as in a dream. Mr. Vollmann is Captain Subzero who is also Sir John Franklin; an Inuit known as Reepah, "a woman with a beautiful heart," is at once an unwed mother living in difficult circumstances in the Arctic Circle today, Lady Jane's rival and a metaphor for the goal of all exploration of the unknown.

We are in the world where Inuit teen-agers don't know how to hunt anymore; they sniff gasoline, listen to rock stars, drink alcohol and Coca-Cola, and live lives of meaningless despair in an ecologically damaged landscape; but we are also in the sphere of Sedna, the Power of Plenty in Inuit myth. Reepah is probably the dominating metaphor, but the rifles give the book its title. The novel contains a history of firearms and advances the theory that the invention of the repeating rifle made the destruction of the caribou population inevitable: What was once a feat of skill, killing a caribou, became a wasteful sport.

Sometimes all the abundance in Mr. Vollmann's writing becomes confusing, sometimes it is irritating: At points he seems to be emptying his notebooks rather than wrestling his materials into artistically coherent form. He simply puts in anything that comes into his head, whether or not the story of the friend-of-a-friend who was stuck by lightning as she rode her bicycle in Washington has anything to do with coming close to the North Magnetic Pole.

But when his approach works, it really works. "Poor Jane could not smile just to smile; her smile had to mean something, unlike Reepah's; but then of course Jane was just as unhappy as Reepah. . . . Sir James [Ross, polar explorer] could make it a threesome, and you could gossip about frozen isthmuses to your heart's content, disputing the finer points of magnetism with Sir James while Jane, who could follow any thread, expressed her own views, unwrapping not the fatuous gift of eternal agreement but instead that wide-ranging sympathy which envelops in a warm and lively web, each thread of which is a statement of independent thought, but woven in most thoughtful relation to you."

No writer of Mr. Vollmann's generation approaches him in ambition; when he is at his best, as in "The Rifles," it doesn't look as if many approach him in talent, either.

Title: "The Rifles"

Author: William T. Vollmann

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 411 pages, $22.95

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