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Partie I. Hybridité et surexposition

Over/exposure in The Atlas by William T. Vollmann

Françoise Palleau-Papin


Cet article étudie la manière dont Vollmann se sert de la photographie et de l’écriture en une composition en palindrome dans The Atlas, entre autres figures de symétrie, pour offrir un cadre à l’autre comme soi-même.

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1In his novel The Atlas (1996), William T. Vollmann inserts eight photos at the beginning and at the end of the book, forming “a palindrome in their own right” (letter to Françoise Palleau-Papin, 2008), and writes his chapters in a thematic palindrome as well: the first chapter deals with similar issues as the last one, the second one echoes the second to last, etc. His style also reflects this pattern, in the use of symmetrical figures of speech. We will see how the echoes between his text and images and within the text alone allow him to create a frame for what escapes representation or even clear apprehension. In the void or chamber of echoes created by his symmetries in style and composition, the narrative figure exposes himself, and lays bare his relationships to the world and people around him, trying to connect the self and others. By using such formalism and patterns, Vollmann’s personal cartography of the globe brings new insight into old questions: the difficulty for the artist to see and to relay the world as authentically as he wishes; the claim to retain something of experience in an Orphic attempt to capture what has already gone by; and finally, the attempt to see through the other’s eyes, and to come closer to understanding the relationship between the other and the self.

2What is at stake in Vollmann’s novels, and in The Atlas in particular, is the difficulty to share experience, i.e., the aporia of sympathy: how far can the narrator expose himself to experience—his own, and through compassion, to that of others—without destroying himself and without losing himself in the other? The old issue of the artist’s commitment to mankind and his involvement in the world takes a new form in this particular novel, a carefully assembled collage of mostly very short chapters, except for the central story which gathers elements from all the other vignettes and recapitulates them into a multi-faceted reflection. In the episode entitled “The Prophet of the Road”, the narrator remembers rescuing a woman who was being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Canada, and as he describes the experience as “the most horrible thing [he has] ever seen” (40), his graphic description ensures that it becomes the “most horrible thing” we remember from the book. At this point his generalization could be a comment on his whole philosophical and literary purpose, using the very vivid metaphor of a mosquito bite after the mosquito horror that has just been described:

When I remember that summer, which now lies so far behind me, I must own myself still protected, in a fluctuating kind of way, and so a question hovers and bites me unencouraged: Which is worse, to be too often protected, and thereby forget the sufferings of others, or to suffer them oneself? (38)

3The question balances rhetorically between others and oneself, with the echo of “sufferings” and “suffer”, bouncing off the mirror that the other’s face presents to my own. I see myself in the other, the other sees himself in me, but how does that mirror image actually function? Is symmetry the only model for something unattainable, yet necessary to hope to comprehend the self as well as otherness? Vollmann answers that nagging question in his life by going out of his way to see the places and meet the people he describes, and in his art by framing his novel in recognizable patterns which give further meaning to his descriptions, bouncing off from one occurrence to another, from one echo to another, and inviting the reader to become an active agent in the connecting game of the symmetrical relationships. I would like to examine a few examples of the various patterns this teeming novel suggests, to explore Vollmann’s formal response to such issues. I will first consider the echoes to be found between the author’s photographs, which not only “form a palindrome in their own right” but find further resonance in the text of the novel, to examine the interchangeable personae of the observer and the observed. The second type of examples will deal with the stylistic figures of speech forming echoes and symmetries in the microcosmic realm of the sentence, and the pauses they provide in the text. Such mirroring figures of speech build up a trope to suggest the center of the palindrome figure, the abstraction of an elusive union between the self and others, an asymptotic goal defining a new form of lyricism.

Photo and text for interchangeable personae

  • 1  Letter to Françoise Palleau-Papin, postmarked Sacramento, CA, 5 November 2008.

4The Atlas presents a gallery of people who have been scarred by life, both literally on their skin and psychologically. The seventh photograph from the beginning, for example, represents a man severely scarred around his neck in what looks like torture or an assassination attempt. When I asked Vollmann about that picture, he answered that he had taken it at a “safehouse on illegal route from Thailand into Shan State, Burma (at that time the territory of Khun Sa, the Opium King)1”. Although the man from the photograph does not appear in the text, we find thematic echoes of his scars in several chapters, in particular in the initial section of the first “Butterfly Stories” (gathered in chapter 14). The whole story revolves around the image of cutting with a razor blade. In this third-person narrative, the focal character goes to Cambodia, looking for a prostitute he calls his wife. The first chapter goes back to the moment when he met her during his first trip there, and to the striking episode when she shaved his moustache. The shaving scene is first introduced by the precise and haunting description of the razor blade the character has just bought. He then explains how the friend he is traveling with, a journalist, used to fantasize as a boy on the horror of having one’s throat cut: “But the boy who was going to be a journalist had known at once that the most horrible thing would be to have his throat cut, to feel the razor sawing and slicing through the skin and muscle and soft cartilage of his neck. For years it made him go weak just to see barbed wire.” (58) The barbed wire connects to the barber whom the focalizing character keeps going to for a shave, and the innocuous gesture of shaving a man’s beard is charged with awe and a sense of danger. The barber cuts the man, just as his wife had when she shaved his moustache, and both occurrences illustrate the danger the character exposes himself to when he goes out of his way to have a relationship with people who are so far removed from his world and his culture, but most of all from his stable financial situation and comfortable way of life.

5Many other examples from other chapters tend to prove that there is danger and misunderstanding in relationships closer to home as well, and that the danger lies in any attempt to make contact with others. Those examples show that hurt cuts both ways. The foreign characters whose lives the American traveler briefly shares are not left unscathed by his passage. When he flies away from them to go back home, he leaves false hope behind and the acute realization for both parties that he may escape when they cannot, as illustrated with the scarred woman in the besieged city of Sarajevo who bitterly keeps reminding him that he could not possibly understand (10).

6In a different perspective, an episode from a previous chapter describes how an old Inuit man butchers a walrus with great skill:

And the knife went in. In seconds the old man had begun to lay bare the walrus’s yellowish ribs and blue-green membranes behind. His head turned from side to side as quickly as his knife and he grinned a little with effort as his reddened wrist flowed with perfect skill and confidence through the flesh. (23)

7This could be read as a metatextual metaphor on the art of writing for Vollmann. The writer’s imagination and skill can also “flow with perfect skill and confidence through the flesh”. Likewise, the writer butchers the flesh of life to write about it, his pen/knife deftly taking apart the substance of any living person who becomes his prey. For example, he is the discreet vampire of a prostitute when she leaves “her jacket behind as a hostage” (56), thinking she has swindled him, in the chapter entitled “Brandi’s Jacket” (55), since he can actually read so much from this piece of clothing that he feasts on her in her absence, “robbing her of her soul” (56). Using his imagination, he probes into the pockets and recesses of Brandi’s jacket, and deep into the holes of its lining to find everything she keeps hidden, having transferred her sense of privacy from her rented body to “the whole lining of [her] jacket”:

I found three lighters, a tube of Vaseline, lots of dirty tissues, a hamburger wrapper wet and yellow with oil, a broken cigarette, some matches, and finally, like some sweet secret, a little Tootsie Roll. Something about the Tootsie Roll touched me, I don’t know why. It was like her, the dearness of her that the badness drew on and exhibited and used for its own selfish work. (56)

8To escape the set dichotomies of the good and the bad, Vollmann exposes the way “the dearness” and “the badness” of the drug addict bounce off each other in her split personality, just as he explores the way she touches him and is “dear” to him even though she has lied to him. The sentence follows the intricate reflexive movements between the two parts of the woman at war in her, “dearness” and “badness” playing upon each other, one turning into a relative (“that the badness drew on”) and a possessive of the other (“for its own selfish work”, my emphasis). In this passage, the narrator exposes the character of the drug addict, just as much as he exposes himself: “Something about the Tootsie Roll touched me, I don’t know why.” He exposes his capacity to be touched by and to observe others, to make sense of the most common things hidden in the “lining” (56) of their secret places or in the recesses of their psyche because they could be his own, in a mirror image capturing the elusive sense of self one may only see when it is reflected in others.

9By paying close attention to the style and the grammar connections in language as much as to the actual relationships between people in life, Vollmann formalizes the gap between himself and others in the whole novel. To examine the difficulty of any relationship, he uses figures of symmetry as a scene on which the interplay of the relation can happen, conveying the dynamics of the difficult exchange.

Figures of symmetry

10Vollmann structures his writing in this particular work in the form of a palindrome to convey the depth he perceives in the world, as he explained at a reading:

  • 2  Reading at the Village Voice Bookshop, Paris, June 12. I am gratefully indebted to Odile Hellier, (...)

My feeling is that the main characteristic of reality is that it is infinitely dense and infinitely expansive; it’s always going to be greater than an ability to perceive it. And so the job of an artist is to make something that seems to be greater than you are, that has some kind of depth, so that you don’t exhaust it when you look at it. Any additional patterns you can add, even if they’re only perceived subconsciously, are going to create a little bit more expansion and delay the inevitable moment when you’re tired of this particular piece of art and you want to go to something else. (Reading 2007)2

  • 3  I wish to thank John Sears, from Manchester Metropolitan University, for bringing this study to ou (...)

11What is more, patterns of symmetry and echoes add intensity and volume to what they repeat in the here and now, enlarging the present, according to Andrew Benjamin in his analysis of versification patterns: “repetition will work to delimit the present, turning it into a site of intensity.” (Benjamin 120)3 Thus the fleeting moment that so often eludes our grasp becomes a resonating chamber of echoes inviting recognition and the possibility of understanding.

12In this work, figures of symmetry abound, not only in the structure of the novel as a thematic palindrome and in the echoes between chapters, but also in the echoes within the helicoidally structured chapter sections. The first section of the chapter entitled “At the Bridge” plays on variations of the same sentence to stress the loneliness of the observer. The first sentence is matter-of-fact: “I came to the bridge and there was no one there.” (156) The narrator goes on to explain that children usually swim by the bridge, and that he sees the traces of their presence in the graffiti on the bridge, before adding: “And no one was there.” (157), a phrase in which the conjunction “and” connects the children’s absence to his sense of loneliness. He then observes people waving at him from “the road above” him, and the conjunction becomes paradoxical: “But I was alone.” (157), just as he watches others play without being able to connect: “I stood at the bridge and watched them playing.” (158)

13In an essay on the art of Lawrence Stern, Virginia Woolf describes the writer as standing on the “narrow bridge of art”, which could be read as a direct comment on the writer’s position in Vollmann’s chapter “At the Bridge”:

For, unfortunately, it seems true that some renunciation is inevitable. You cannot cross the narrow bridge of art carrying all its tools in your hands. Some you must leave behind, or you will drop them in midstream or, what is worse, overbalance and be drowned yourself.

  • 4  I am gratefully indebted to Nicole Terrien, professor at the University of Rouen, for this referen (...)

So, then, this unnamed variety of the novel will be written standing back from life, because in that way a larger view is to be obtained of some important features of it; it will be written in prose, because prose, if you free it from the beast-of-burden work which so many novelists necessarily lay upon it, of carrying loads of details, bushels of fact—prose thus treated will show itself capable of rising high from the ground, not in one dart, but in sweeps and circles, and of keeping at the same time in touch with the amusements and idiosyncrasies of human character in daily life. (22)4

14Between the pitfalls of overexposure to experience, which Virginia Woolf calls “overbalance and be drowned yourself”, and the overburdening of the text with “loads of details”, Vollmann uses patterns of echoes to create a framework “in sweeps and circles” and to shunt longer descriptions, while staying “in touch” with his subject.

15In a final occurrence, the narrator concludes the chapter on his solitude in the midst of friendly people enjoying themselves: “I was at the bridge and everyone was there. And I was alone.” (158) Such echoes build up the paradox more forcibly than a long demonstration would. They set up a framing device structured helicoidally to present the situation ostensibly, yet with great stylistic economy.

16At the microcosmic level of the sentence, the style also reflects the symmetry of the frame the writer sets up: Vollmann uses anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word of a line or clause to begin the next one, as in: “The globe turned outside of him; outside of him life sped like the winds that pressed any lighthouse cape in Oregon where golden grass-stalks locked the sun in a million-barred prison that continually writhed and gnashed its lips, with the wild sea all around.” (222) The beauty of “the wild sea all around” is centered on the pause marked by the anadiplosis, to convey the image of an observer standing like a lighthouse and showing the way to sailors at sea.

  • 5  After Maurice Coyaud 13-14.

17Vollmann also uses chiasmus in memorable passages, such as the following one, which seems to imitate a haiku: “Everything was good; goodness was water trickling down sunburned rock.” (216) As in a haiku, the expression is concise; it suggests the summer season, when the sun is hot enough to burn the rock; it conveys an impression; and the echo around the semi-colon may simulate the way a haiku is always “spoken twice, in echo” (Barthes, 76). Most importantly, this haiku-like sentence appears in the central chapter entitled “The Atlas” at the core of the palindrome. By imitating a Japanese poem, the traveling narrator of The Atlas suggests the same enigmatic delight in capturing a moment, in celebrating what is. Haikus were often inserted in travel narratives, like a pause at a turn in the traveler’s path, to retain a fugitive impression and find rest in the quiet of nature5. The short poem does not describe but gives the fleeting impression for what it is. To take up Lyotard’s analysis of the limits of linguistic figuration, it is a figure without discourse (see Lyotard). It does not explain what we should feel or understand; it suggests and leaves space wide open for meaning. Thus the form set up as a figure of speech is where the “I” and the “you” personae meet, where the narrator and the reader share meaning without description or prescription. The center of the palindrome and of all the figures of speech and symmetrical structures at play in the novel is a place of liberty, open to possibilities. It is the overexposed blank at the center of the figure in which creation lives.

“Reflecting everything”

18With its own set of intricate echoes, the novel is fragmented into many short stories and vignettes and minute images like a collection of haikus. Our perception of the world is thus scattered into a great many fragments, into many events which reflect the speaker and the reader’s identity without a center, as the center changes with every new symmetry, each occurrence reflecting the others in an infinite relationship. Like haikus, the mirrors of Vollmann’s symmetrical and concise formulations do not hold the image they reflect in passing, they only receive it without capturing it. They work like the empty mirror of the Tao, with its infinite capacity for reception which does not “retain” an image, as Barthes explains in Empire of Signs:

“The mind of the perfect man, says one Tao master, is like a mirror. It grasps nothing but repulses nothing. It receives but does not retain.”: the mirror intercepts only other mirrors, and this infinite reflection is emptiness itself (which, as we know, is form). (Barthes, 79)

19The form the novel takes at sentence level as well as in its composition reflects a Buddhist and Taoist syncretism which is thematically acknowledged in the text, when Vollmann jokes about his authorial character who is influenced by the Buddhist characters he meets: “He’d become a Buddhist like them.” (207) Vollmann incorporates a Buddhist worldview in this novel revolving around a center of meditation, possibly following the postmodern tendency to diffuse a form of spirituality in the secular, according to John McClure’s study Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.

  • 6  See Max Kaltenmark: « Le Taoïste, par cette méditation préliminaire, extrait de lui-même les emblè (...)

20The authorial figure in The Atlas shifts its center of location, its persona, and its viewpoint many times in the course of the novel. It takes the form of a first, second or third person narrative, it frames experience in emblematic and symmetrical images and fragments, building up a mandala or cosmic projection around him, a mental image of the world at the center of which he stands divided6. In the infinite reflections the novel organizes in its recurrent patterns, something of that persona emerges, exposed so many times in so many variations of the pattern that it is overexposed, at once omnipresent and elusive, presenting himself as well as everyone, and presenting us. In keeping with this structure, the image of a body of water reflecting its surroundings is recurrent in the novel, in the central chapter in particular, exemplifying the mirror-like pattern of symmetry at work everywhere.

They passed an abandoned beaver dam in a winding river that reflected everything in the hue of a sepia-tinted photograph. The river was widening, the trees lowering. Admiring the turf of the winding banks so overhung with bushes and rich grasses, he said to himself: This is Joe’s river. If Joe were here with me he’d dive beyond those grimacing branches of dead spruces to be with that virgin he loved; he’d find her here. (212)

21Names, possessives and pronouns gather many characters: “they”, and reflexively, “he said to himself”, and “me”, “Joe” and “her” in their love relationship (“that virgin he loved”) as well as ourselves, implied readers; we are all summoned and invited, in a transitive passing down of experience, to share the “winding river that reflected everything” because the metaphor of a sepia-tinted photograph makes it any old picture of our past once it has been tainted over in the same nondescript color of what no longer is. Vollmann’s mirror images and figures of speech frame the ineffable absence between what is and what is not in a non-discursive and figurative manner; they open the possibilities of an exchange at the heart of reading and writing; and they define a new lyricism of interchangeable personae, by which, to take up Paul Ricœur’s argument, we can feel the other as the self, the self as the other.

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Works Cited

barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.

benjamin, Andrew. Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism. London: Routledge, 1997.

coyaud, Maurice. Fourmis sans ombre: le livre du haïku, anthologie-promenade. Paris: Phébus libretto, 1978.

kaltenmark, Max. Lao Tseu et le taoïsme. Paris: Le Seuil, 1965.

lyotard, Jean-François. Discours, figure. Paris: Klincksieck, 1971.

Mcclure, John. Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

ricœur, Paul. Soi-même comme un autre. Paris : Le Seuil, 1990.

vollmann, William T. The Atlas. New York: Penguin, 1996.

_____. Letter to Françoise Palleau, postmarked Sacramento, CA, 5 November 2008.

woolf, Virginia. “The Narrow Bridge of Art.” New York Herald Tribune, August 14, 1927.

–––––. Granite and Rainbow: Essays. New York: Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. 11-23.

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1  Letter to Françoise Palleau-Papin, postmarked Sacramento, CA, 5 November 2008.

2  Reading at the Village Voice Bookshop, Paris, June 12. I am gratefully indebted to Odile Hellier, of the Village Voice Bookshop, for allowing me to use her recording of the event for a transcription of Vollmann’s answer.

3  I wish to thank John Sears, from Manchester Metropolitan University, for bringing this study to our attention in his presentation “Monument, Memory, Process: Enactment in Allen Fisher’s PLACE” (VORTEX seminar, University of Paris 3, November 22nd, 2008).

4  I am gratefully indebted to Nicole Terrien, professor at the University of Rouen, for this reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay.

5  After Maurice Coyaud 13-14.

6  See Max Kaltenmark: « Le Taoïste, par cette méditation préliminaire, extrait de lui-même les emblèmes cosmiques qu’il projette autour de lui, constituant un mandala mental, c’est-à-dire une image du monde au centre duquel il apparaît lui-même divisé, condition nécessaire pour entrer en communication avec les dieux. » (179).

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Françoise Palleau-Papin, « Over/exposure in The Atlas by William T. Vollmann », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 17 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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Françoise Palleau-Papin

Françoise Palleau-Papin est Professeur de littérature américaine à Université Paris 13 Nord. Elle est l’auteur d’une thèse de doctorat sur Willa Cather et d’une monographie sur David Markson (Dalkey Archive, 2011). Elle a dirigé une étude du roman The Rifles, de William T. Vollmann (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2011). Elle poursuit actuellement son étude de la littérature américaine contemporaine.
Françoise Palleau-Papin is Professor of American Literature at the University Paris 13 Nord. She is the author of a PhD on Willa Cather, and of a monograph on David Markson (Dalkey Archive, 2011). She has edited a study of William T. Vollmann’s novel The Rifles (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2011). Her current work focuses on contemporary American literature.

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