By Jeff Bursey
Adventurous novelists are not common, and here I don’t mean experimental ones (though they’re small in number, too), but ones who have decided, or feel compelled, to embark on hazardous treks, whether in foreign locations or in the seamier districts of large cities. When we find such writers we read them for the pleasures and dangers that we only want to be brushed by in prose.
William T. Vollmann (b. 1959) is that kind of author. He has ranged across Afghanistan (An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992), Asia, Russia, Africa, and throughout Europe and North America. He has a liking for length that strikes some as excessive, but which appeals to those who value extended deliberations and an encyclopedic approach. There is the seven-volume, 3,300-page study of violence (Rising Up and Rising Down, 2003; [abridged in 2004]), a seven-novel saga titled Seven Dreams of which four volumes have been published so far (in reading sequence: The Ice-Shirt , Fathers and Crows , Argall  and The Rifles ), portraits of the indigent and unfortunate from around the world (Poor People, 2007), riding the rails with hoboes (Riding Toward Everywhere, 2008), a 1,300-plus page socio-economic-environmental exploration of a region of California and Mexico (Imperial, and its companion volume, Imperial: Photographs [both 2009]), and Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater (2010).
His fiction has won awards (the National Book Award went to Europe Central ) and raised eyebrows for its subject matter. Whores for Gloria (1991), The Butterfly Stories (1993) and The Royal Family (2000) feature much on prostitutes, and Vollmann has been criticized harshly for his involvement in and fascination with the lives of street women. A reviewer for the New York Times sniffed at this interest when considering Poor People: “As his devotees have come to expect, many of these tantalizingly spare settings involve prostitutes or drugs.” That’s as juvenile a streak of criticism as chastising Dickens for his concentration on the poor or Austen for inspecting the limited freedom allowed women of a certain class.
Vollmann’s stance is that of a man who would rather listen patiently to than argue with drug users or soldiers of the mujahedeen; a writer who, despite his cracked pelvis, runs to hop trains in the US for illegal rides; and a libertarian who defends his rights against, for example, the FBI that has him under surveillance, as written about most recently in “Life as a Terrorist” (Harper’s, September 2013) and “Machines of Loving Grace” (Foreign Policy, December 2013), where he discloses that someone once thought he might be the Unabomber. He has been, and likely will continue to be, interrogated at border crossings, his mail arrives opened, and there are clicks on his telephone line. He pushes the boundaries of the state authorities, of reportage, and of his own limits.
The Book of Dolores (2013) records Vollmann as he adopts a female persona, the preparations for mingling with the world dressed in women’s attire, and what that looks like in a variety of images. “In commencing this project, of course, I looked forward to exploiting myself with ruthless abandon, without regard for courtesy, dignity and all the rest of it.” A character named Dolores appears in his as-yet-unpublished novel, How You Are, “in which I imagined myself as a transgender woman,” so he has made an effort to come as close as he can to knowing what life as a woman might feel like.
The more some acquaintances saw and heard of what I will call my research, the more degraded they considered me. This encouraged me to embellish what they called my degradation. So in the book [How You Are] I became a physically unattractive Mexican street prostitute. How could anyone believe that women, Mexicans, prostitutes, street people are by nature inferior?… In fine, I found that because there were some who looked down on me, I grew ashamed. When I put on my dress and prosthetic breasts, it felt frightening to go out into the night. This was, as a good friend would say, information.
The images that fill The Book of Dolores show Vollmann as himself, on his way to becoming Dolores, and then as his alter ego, described in one place as a “vain, young, inexperienced woman.” Looking steadily at the (mostly sad) images we can appreciate the gamble he took: not only losing the regard of his acquaintances, but in the loneliness of the journey, for there is little in the way of companionship.
Vollmann describes how he poses Dolores (often referred to in the third person), and the outcome, regardless what method is used to take the photo—laptop, silver gelatin, colour or black and white, gum bichromate, or in drawings, watercolours and woodblock prints—is often dispiriting. Dressed as a party girl, maybe accompanied by a necklace and noose (how close are those things, in Vollmann’s mind?), as an apparently carefree woman out for a walk, or in a cave, Dolores’ pictures are taken without benefit of Vollmann’s best vision, as he always removed his glasses, and this can result in some marvellous shots. A drooping eye, a sad face, a pocked complexion, and an overall slackness of skin are present:
By then Dolores had had many humiliating experiences of taking off her glasses, primping and posing for the camera, exposing herself to truth’s light, and then, her glasses back on, inspecting the portrait, only to discover that she did not look as pretty as she had felt. If only the camera had envisioned her as she did!
Both the emphasis on photographic technique and, especially, the lack of historical context are seen as faults by Stephen Burt of The New Yorker, who laments that Vollmann “writes about his own cross-dressing, his own re-incarnation… without conveying much sense that other writers and artists interested in femininity, in drag, or in unstable genders… have been there before,” and the review is useful in providing the names of others interested in the topic. As Vollmann has not steeped himself in the theory or the writings of others when it comes to cross-dressing in this book (unlike some of his other non-fiction books where sources and books are identified), though he does with photography, one has to ask about his purpose here.
I believe isolation is part of what Vollmann is trying to convey. It’s not that he’s uninterested in knowing the thought processes of other cross-dressers—no one would accuse him of being unread—but what he has sought to get across, throughout his career, is an unmediated experience, and this at times requires a disregard for what others have done (such as quoting Burt, who has written on his own liking for cross-dressing). As Vollmann put it in the opening pages of Kissing the Mask, ostensibly about Noh theatre, “this short book is an appreciation, sincere and blundering, resolutely ignorant, riddled with the prejudices and insights of an alien, a theatergoer, a man gazing at femininity.” Similarly, The Book of Dolores is not a scholarly work but a personal one; not all-inclusive and filled with answers, but layered with sensations and conceptions (some half-digested, some more carefully discussed), and unanswered questions.
In a further misunderstanding of motivation, Burt classifies the “forbiddingly technical discussion” of the images as a drawback. Yet the two main concerns of this book are announced in the first sentence of the first chapter: “The young woman whom you see on the facing page, somewhat veiled by the flash of her 35 millimeter Contax camera…” The struggle with the capturing of images is discussed frequently:
Shooting film is almost as instant as making paper negatives, but not quite, since I hire my friend Jeff to develop the rolls for me. He runs the last black and white lab hereabouts… He drives in to my side of town to pick [the rolls of film] up, and then we take a long lunch and chat about someday making daguerrotypes [sic]. The most interesting part of that activity will be learning how long we can hold our breaths while bringing mercury to a boil.
… Silver gelatin is not yet arcane enough for me to detail the process here. However, the diptych of Dolores beside her jar of weeds deserves an anecdote. Its pair of negatives were 8 x 10” Kodak Tri-X sheets, which as I write have just gone out of production. I shot them in my ancient Kodak 2D field camera…
… Recently [an old Leitz Focomat enlarger] shorted out, so I picked out a nearby electrician from the Yellow Pages… Taking the enlarger apart… we discovered that it had been insulated with tiny hand-lacquered rings of brown paper. So it seemed the wires had lasted since the 1950s… Since the incandescent light bulbs it employs are disappearing, I bought a handful of those.
Using old film stock and equipment that are hard to obtain is a frank statement about craftsmanship and the hands-on approach to learning old methods that Vollmann prefers. (In Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader  a set of small books done in limited editions, incorporating watercolours and drawings, are art objects made by Vollmann, so he is building on this expertise.)
How does that relate to cross-dressing? On the technical level, the craftsmanship exhibited around photographic equipment mirrored Vollmann’s efforts to look like a woman. The arduous nature of working with gum bichromate (“…I stagger into the shower, sweaty, worn out and impregnated with sinister chemicals…”) is matched by the discomfiture in becoming Dolores (“… sweating in her makeup, which she never learned to apply excellently without help…”). The tension between how he thinks she would appear and what she indeed looks like is paralleled by his search for the perfect photo: “But now I wonder whether I ought to try again, coating the silver more dilutely and printing longer, or heavier and longer, or something; then I would surely get it right.” He struggles in both realms, both are worth knowing about, and there is nothing intrinsically more difficult to read about film development than about putting on women’s clothing.
In 1990 Vollmann addressed the lack of risk in his country’s writing in a wonderful little essay, reprinted in Expelled from Eden, called “American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease.” There he indicts a class of writers for “producing mainly insular works… Consider, for instance, The New Yorker fiction of the past few years, with those eternally affluent characters suffering understated melancholies of overabundance. Here the Self is projected and replicated into a monotonous army which marches through story after story like deadly locusts.” (Naturally, one thinks of Alice Munro.) Apart from the longueurs that every writer exhibits, there is nothing small about William Vollmann’s ambition. His intensely inquisitive spirit results in books that are welcome and needed counters to the safe choices offered by many mainstream writers, and in The Book of Dolores he demonstrates, once again, how to keep an independence of mind.
The Book of Dolores, by William T. Vollmann | powerHouse Books | 200 pages | $45.00 | cloth | ISBN #978-1576876572