Don't expect easy definitions from William T. Vollmann. His latest book, Argall, says conflictingly on the cover: "A Novel." Then lower: "The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith." Further confusing Argall's identity is the fact that it's the third book in Vollmann's ongoing series of "Dream" novels. With its wildly Elizabethan prose and bewildering punctuation, this is a strange book indeed.
Taking the story of the Virginia settlers as his topic, Vollmann reminds us that historians are always dreaming of past events from the comfort of their present beds. And there's nothing that Vollmann, the unrepentant lover of prostitutes and junkies, likes to do more than shake out our sheets and show us a few stains. He upsets how we view both the past and the present, calling into question the very nature of history.
But a terrific engine of mental and artistic power burns and throbs in this book's unsettling frame. Vollmann is Shakespearean in his blending of history and psychology. The noxious Argall, planning his conquest of Pocahontas, decides that as both a princess and a "savage," she would be her own undoing. He asks himself: "She may be able to withstand you, but how can she o'erthrow herself?" And so he waits, planning to give her to another man, "for bestowing a soul away can be a deeper & amp; more hurtful mode of taking." Scenes like this -- barely a page in length -- transcend volumes of moralizing and political correction. What we have are the aspirations and contradictions of a nation devoured by a literary character. It's breathtaking, and it will probably make Vollmann one of America's future Nobel laureates.
Argall is a wonderful corrective to readers who think that a novel only progresses in one direction. With Vollmann, the pages go along in order, but the novel itself can move in any direction the author's imagination wants to travel. This can be frustrating -- intentionally so -- and with more than 700 pages and a historical subject to tackle, prospective readers deserve a warning. But any difficulty is worth the masterstroke of the final chapter. Nothing more than a list of current landmarks in Pocahontas' country, it shows that maps are written by the dominant culture. Centuries later, the colonizers have themselves been conquered -- by Hooters and the savage Whopper. Ha ha... and ouch.