Vollmann, William T. (1994), Whores for Gloria, Penguin
William T. Vollmann has acquired a reputation for writing thick, elaborate novels with an broad historical scope. Writing Seven Dreams (starting with The Ice Shirt,1990), a series of 7 novels about American history, and Europe Central (2005), a novel about art and the second World War, focusing on figures such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Roman Kamen and General Paulus, has been a large part of that. In these, as in other books of his, Vollmann’s purview has always been enormous. He’s not content to muse about violence, for example, instead he writes a seven volume dissection of the phenomenon (Rising Up and Rising Down, 2003), the same applies to his reports from the fringes of the world, whether it’s Afghanistan (An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992), the borderlands between Mexico and California (Imperial, 2009) or the down-and-out life as a hobo (Riding Toward Everywhere, 2008). Vollmann’s work, whether in short stories, novels, nonfiction books or short essays, is remarkably consistent. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, mostly, I think, because Vollmann’s interest in nonfiction isn’t analysis or clarity, it’s storytelling and rhetoric. In his fictional work (as in most fiction) we find strong characters, strongly molding the world in accordance with their perception of it. We see things through their eyes, and the same applies to nonfiction where Vollmann, far stronger than journalistic practice usually mandates, sets himself up as a character, a narrator for the world he shares with us, although he never segues into gonzo journalism.
Beyond facts or analysis, Vollmann’s work, through storytelling and rhetoric offers us a feel for a topic, an indelible impression of a landscape or the people in it, and his strong moral concerns further buttress our understanding of them. In those respects and several others, Whores for Gloria, originally published in 1991 as Vollmann’s third novel, is fairly representative of his work. Its length is the only aspect of the book that makes it stand out among his oeuvre, given that it is a remarkably short book. The similarities of Whores for Gloria to Vollmann’s general aesthetic are perhaps most significant where the book’s attitude to fiction and reality is concerned. In the short first chapter, the author informs us that the contents of what follows are “fictitious”. However, he goes on to tell us, “all of the Whore’s-tales” in the book “are real.” This is beyond discussions on the nature of reality and fiction, or on the amount of truth that an invented tale can carry. Discussions like these are well known by now and can frankly be somewhat tiresome. Like many excellent writers, Vollmann manages, in all his books, to hand us a sliver of truth, an impression of it, seen through the vapor of his admirable passions. There is an insight, if not into reality, then into the workings of certain coherent world views. We see how elements of knowledge, and a perception of the hard cobblestone groundings of reality can congeal to a kind of certainty, perceptual and moral. What we as readers learn is how things could be connected, what connections are possible, and how we might arrive at an understanding of them.
Seeing connections, listening to others’ making sense of the world, enriches our own understanding of it, or so I always thought. Learning, to me, means listening, and puzzling, and bumbling our way through the oddities of our environment or of texts, images, sounds. But here, we are not talking about these common elements of reading. Vollmann’s claim here is explicit and must be read as part of the text, it’s hence to be taken with a large grain of salt. There is even an informative appendix to Whores for Gloria, which, while seeming to support the nonfictional elements of the book, the essentially journalistic parts of it, the parts that “are real”, are curiously readable, soft-bellied profiles of “the Tenderloin street prostitute”. Lists of “Street Prices for Hair, Sex and Other Things” are similarly best read as enhancements, elements of style, filling in blanks in the tapestry of his fiction. We know that this is the case because the stories that make up these profiles are scattered throughout the novel, and within the context of the plot, we see how the stories adapt to the circumstances, how they mirror aspects of the narrative as a whole in general and the listener’s situation in particular. Its impossible not to assume the same for the stories told in the appendix, because there is, within the stories themselves, no marker that differentiates one kind of “Whore’s-tale” from the other. This is significant, because it adds an important element to the reading of the narrative, a bracket, so to speak.
The author’s persona, visible already in the first chapter, becomes a visible and meddling presence even in the rest of the novel which seems to be wholly restricted to the protagonist’s point of view. In a novel that charts a search for meaning in a darkly violent world, Vollmann’s persona is staged as another seeker for truth and resolution. This is not to dismiss the protagonist and apparent third person personal narrator. Although the Vollmann persona adds a subjective level to the book’s structure, this is not, while reading Whores for Gloria, the predominant impression, or the world-view that most preoccupies the reader’s imagination. That is the role of the protagonist, Jimmy, a Vietnam veteran, who spends his SSI checks in the dirty streets of the San Francisco quarter called “Tenderloin”, in the company of pimps and prostitutes, moving from bar to bar and from whore to whore. In Jimmy, Vollmann has found a way to talk about veterans from the war without engaging in a long and sentimental discussion of their problems and issues. In what’s a typically meta-fictional hint, Vollmann includes a character called Code Six, who has been so broken by the war and its aftermath, that he now lives on the street, having lost everything else. Code Six is a stereotypical, though marginally moving, character; the likes of him fill shelves full of books and movies. I take his role, in part, to be a suggestion where Jimmy, as a character, might have ended up, in the hands of a different writer. The contrast between Code Six and Jimmy is a kind of bragging about the fictional subtleties Vollmann is able to pull off.
It is not until the very last chapter and its very last sentence that the importance of the Vietnam war background of Jimmy’s biography and the connections he has to Code Six become crystal clear and obvious. Just as with the appendices, we need to wait until the end of the book to be informed about a conceptual structure spanning the whole of Whores for Gloria. While reading it, we’re following just one long conceptual arc, Jimmy’s search for Gloria, who, we are led to believe, is an old lover or girlfriend of his, maybe a whore, maybe not. I think the book is, intentionally, less than clear about this. Jimmy himself doesn’t have a strong concept of who Gloria is. Gloria, to him, is more like a phantom, the ideal girl, and his search doesn’t involve a scouring of his world for a trace of her bodily presence. Instead, he has several prostitutes, some of whom he has sex with and some of whom he hasn’t, tell him stories from their lives, their childhood, their experience on the streets of the Tenderloin, hawking their bodies for small amounts of cash. Listening to these stories, taking them in, and shuffling the different stories and his knowledge of the world as well as his fragmented memories of Gloria, he revives her, to an extent. He creates a vision, a disembodied presence of her, which, for him is enough. He imagines her with him in his rooms, with him in his bed, he is happy imagining her with him, but this is a fleeting illusion, one that needs to be constantly fed by the stories the whores tell him.
Jimmy can be sexually fulfilled without engaging in a sexual act: that’s how strong this illusion is. He will tell others about Gloria, he will share details of his illusion without making it apparent to others that it is actually not true. But then, for him, the illusion is true. He is living a lie, but it makes him, whenever he manages to create it, happy or at least content, for however short a while it lasts. Jimmy, unlike Code Six, is relatively healthy and strong, his body is fit, while his mind is broken. But in many ways, Whores for Gloria is a ballad of broken bodies. Despite the copious amount of sexual intercourse that is described in the book, none of it is enticing, nor is it meant to be enticing. Nights spent with Gloria, presumably sensual encounters, are not described. We don’t know how immersive Jimmy’s illusion is, and whether it manages to fake a sexual act for him, but the fact of the matter is that this, the only potentially positive sexual act, is not described. All the other sexual encounters in the book are harsh, exploitative, brutalized encounters. With a sure eye for the exact detail, Vollmann describes the horrendous conditions of life as a Tenderloin street prostitute, and the unappetizing circumstances of sexual services rendered on those streets. There is a dark loneliness, a deep need that Vollmann suggests to us to be the main motivator to have sex with a hooker on her grimy floor. Granted, Jimmy himself isn’t driven, not explicitly, by lust, but his observations of the prostitutes he consorts with show how unpleasant a sight these whores might offer to a prospective customer.
Their bodies are riddled with needle marks, they are either bone thin or ridiculously fat. This passage exemplifies the tone and visuals of the novel’s descriptions of its prostitutes
There were three pimps or dealers sitting on the steps by the garbage can and Peggy said to them would you mind taking a little walk while I do my business? When they left, Peggy pulled her dress up above her waist and knelt down in the filth of the street and stuck her ass out with her cunt bulging down beneath it as if only its matted and sticky hair kept it from bursting out between her legs; that stinking bush of hers really resembled a black spider lurking there and clinging here, and Peggy’s legs were covered with dark ovals and boils and there were scabby bumps on them as satisfying to the touch as the pleasure-dots on a french tickler, the sorii on a fern-leaf, and Peggy raised her ass high and dry to make it easy for Jimmy to get into her cunt and she buried her face in her crossed arms on the highest step. (…) When he was done, Peggy wiped herself (.)
Sex on the street is a constantly improvised act, the book tells us, and while there is a kind of hostility to matters of the body, as the extended allusions to the Plague show, Jimmy detects and reports a certain attraction to ugly details. The body as an object regulated by society and its invasive and often violent norms is replaced here by another body: the body as a serviceable entity where function is bother over- and under-emphasized. Additionally, there is a strong role that transsexual prostitutes play in the book, who are refereed to both by male and female pronouns, blurring distinctions. Although bodies are there to fuck and be fucked, the book has little in the way of restriction in the form of norms, such as heteronormativity. When Jimmy rejects the advances of a transsexual, whose erection is visible and obvious, he does so by invoking taste, not his putative heterosexuality. Although the idealized relationship at the book’s center is (presumably) a heterosexual one, it’s also an illusion and ultimately doomed. This profound ambiguity on matters of normativity and sexuality reflects one of Vollmann’s biggest strength, which his best work displays: to use observations, stories and literary tools to create ambiguous scenarios, dissolving easy oppositions. In his weakest works, like Europe Central, he opts instead for moral simplicity and narrative clarity, simply reproducing traditional oppositions and narrative trajectories.
That clarity in Europe Central is achieved in part through his use of short chapters, shuffled and arranged like stories. These short chapters are a kind of trademark in Vollmann’s work which he also makes use of in Whores for Gloria, but they do not always serve the same narrative goals. In the book under review, instead of enabling clarity, the short chapters emphasize the fragmented nature of the story offered to us. They also underline the heavy debt owed to the work of Lautréamont. What we find in these chapters is a smattering of stories, not arranged hierarchically. While the strict arrangement in books like Europe Central puts an emphasis on order, Whores for Gloria opts for careful disorder. Jimmy’s story is told chronologically, but his fantasies, things he may really have experienced, and the whores’ stories are mostly given their own chapters, taking away, to an extent, the reader’s ability to tell fact from fantasy. There isn’t a privileged narrative. The white male Jimmy comes to listen to the stories. Although he takes notes, we don’t get to see them as written documents, they are integrated as voices into Jimmy’s story, itself a voice. Jimmy doesn’t put a spin on the stories, and they, not he, begin to shape the image of Gloria. Although earlier, Jimmy insists that a particular story can’t be Gloria’s “because he wasn’t in it”, this presumptuous attitude leaves him as his quest continues. Truth, for Jimmy, isn’t up to him, but up to the whores and the extent to which they cooperate with the narrative frame he would like them to adopt.
From this precarious balance of narrative power, various complex implications arise, complexities that are exacerbated by the persona of the author, which reflects this discussion on the novel as a whole. The status of this novel as an artifact worth creating or reading is questioned, as is the integrity of Vollmann’s voice and the accuracy of his reports and facts. Indeed this cuts both ways, creating an ambiguous situation, balanced between doubting journalistic accuracy and pointing out inequalities in narrative voices. The book is, I think, not providing us with a suggested solution for the non/fiction truth quandary, but it does put a great emphasis on individual voices and stories. Hence I think, as mentioned earlier, that listening, hearing the gospel truth, that this is what Vollmann projects as an ideal (an odd ideal for a writer maybe). This ideal is, however, affirmed by the epitaph for the book, drawn from Loyola, which, from the start, asks us to read Whores for Gloria as a perverted kind of doxology. Gloria as a character thus becomes an angelic presence of sorts and the book as a whole comes to tell us not just Jimmy’s quest for the vanished whore, but, at the same time, the author’s quest for epistemological certainty. As Roland Barthes points out in the marvelously readable Sade, Fourier, Loyola, it isn’t until the advent of modernity that seeing was privileged over hearing, and modernity brought more ambiguities, more insecurities to accompany that change. The firm, unwavering clarity of pre—modern beliefs, the strength of religious, philosophical and scientific faith, this is what the author’s persona in Whores for Gloria pines after. The result, however, is a small masterpiece, a brilliantly executed, searching novel, often strikingly beautiful and sad. It’s regrettable that the mind behind the book has spent the following decade accruing more certainty and abandoning doubt in favor of a secular, moral faith.