T H E P R O W L I N G E Y E S H O T
BY LEE KLEIN
Eyeshot Provokes William T. VollmannOn October 2, 2000, Eyeshot International deployed three Agents (not to mention the Eyeshot Editor/author of this account) to provoke & pester William T. Vollmann into a spontaneous act of violence.
The Agents & the Editor almost missed the event at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble, however, arriving at the Union Square location to find a few earlycomers scattered in the cavernous lecture area awaiting a reading of essays on Virginia Woolf. The Eyeshot cadre huddled to review their plot, arguing about the feasibility of deploying a final-hour revision that would provoke/pester the author of the essays on Virginia Woolf into pulling a firearm on one (or hopefully all) of the Eyeshot Team.
“The best we probably could hope for is getting something thrown at us,” Jack Monroe sighed. We all sighed with him. For this one mission, J.M. had left his anonymous brick-and-glass business bunker where he'd been deep undercover furiously configuring IF THEN ELSE IF NOT ELSE END IFisms, & was understandably irritated. When he drives in to see the Yankees, they always show up, it's alway the correct location. Not so for Operation Billy T.V.
We began to browse the magazine racks, in desperation. Giovanni Altamira admired a $20 Brazilian art-fashion mag with lots of digitally rendered naked chycks in it. He began to approach me in that way of his, equally sheepish & annoying, when he knows I know he's going to ask me for cash, especially when he knows I know that he has more money than God. When Matthew Manoyave, who delayed his rush-hour return to Newark to meet us for this mission, knocked the glossy publication from Gio's distracted hands, it (ie, this act of decisiveness) sent us spiraling from the magazine racks into a writhing pit of dark & sulfurous questions.
Where was William T. Vollmann?
What would become of our plans to have him try to kill us?
What would we do with all the questions we had prepared for the Q&A that would compel him to spray us with a foreign-born automatic?What did we do?What any group of literary terrorists would do if spitting out questions like this on the fourth floor of Barnes & Noble's Union Square location ...We stormed the information booth.
A young Asian man in bright-blue tie, bright-blue shirt, & faded-blue pants told us, after staring horrified at the T-shirt I commissioned at a Chinatown Tourist Trap, that Mr. Vollmann was reading from his latest tome, The Royal Family, at the Chelsea location. I buttoned up my flannel shirt to hide what lay beneath.
We braved the late-evening shoppers spilling out of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, TJ Maxx, & McDonalds, & triumphantly found ourselves on Sixth Avenue, in front of a large placard announcing our quarry's appearance at 7:30.
But we had no idea what time it was.
Gio, perhaps in an attempt to win back my favor, approached a seven-foot tall African man guarding a table of modern timepieces. He looked up at the African watchseller & asked if he knew the time. The African pointed a 17-inch finger to the table of watches. All the hands on all the watches pointed to all cities of the world, however. Gio pulled out a wrinkled ten & asked for the African's most accurate timepiece. The African had to bend deeply at the knees to reach all the way down to Gio's ear; he then whispered something about an antique.
A moment later a gold watch was purchased for several times more than Gio intended to spend -- he justified the expense, repeating what the African said about the watch's magical qualities, attributes that would come in handy as we deployed our offensive during the Q&A, that is, if Gio wasn't just a sucker. Gio's always been flighty like that, but he has more money than he knows how to spend, & if exchanging a sum equivalent to an average earner's daily wage attains a special something that helps us realize our goals, Gio's quite good like that.
He wound the watch & said, "It's time. Let's get 'em."
So we went in to get him. Vollmann hadn't arrived yet. We took our positions. Throop Roebling at left flank. Jack Monroe off to the right. Gio found a seat next to an important-looking man. I leaned against a pillar, at a 45 degree angle from where Vollmann would stand -- about 25 feet from the podium, right in his line of fire.
The men were rough around the edges, dirtier than the women. For someone so into prostitutes, Vollmann attracted a lot of handsome women. Women who were clean. Women whose clothes were clean. I was clean too, except for my unshaven face & the unclean thoughts the clean women inspired.
It's odd that all these clean women have shown up to hear him read. Why's it odd? Because Vollmann is known for his visits to prostitutes. It's how he meets & learns about women. "I remember when I wrote my first book," he once said, "it was very difficult for me to bring women characters alive. The best way to correct this was to get to know a lot of women all over the world & the easiest way for me to do that was to pick up prostitutes." I guess all these women just want to try to tether the whoring dog in him and give a little love away for free.
All Eyeshot Agents exchanged nods & glances as Mr. Vollmann stepped to the podium. His skin was dun-colored, as were his clothes. Short, greasy hair slanting toward a low browline meeting boxy steel glasses, a sparse mustache that fittingly seemed thicker in the middle, which for me, did two things at once: (1) evoked a rhetorical mysticism that's been missing in these relatively unmustachio'd days, & (2) made him seem like a Montana man whose only friends are his guns, his ammo, & his crockpot filled with chopped venison (on early fall mornings) -- which makes sense since Vollmann's known for his guns, his ammo, & other stuff like his writing, and this was an early fall evening.
He skipped the first chapter & started reading "a good part" at the end of his book. He set the scene along a long length of railroad tracks, where two hobos tried to figure out if they were dead. They mention holding a mirror to the lips, casting shadows, holding your breath forever. Cops come up & confirm their existence, asking for identifications, which have expired. The hobos are expired. Two hobos meeting two cops right next to two railroad cars -- one on the Southern Pacific line, the other on the Green Mountain line -- that have paused next to each other in the middle of the Californian desert.
Mr. Vollmann seemed more stable than I thought he'd be. His weapons well concealed. A recluse in the bright lights of NYC Barnes & Noble. I got the sense as he read his possibly dead characters into life that Vollmann is, in a way, actually already dead.
How can Vollmann be dead? He has a 4,000 page essay entitled "The History of Violence," which will soon be published. He has produced a lifetime's worth of writing & he's not yet 40. If he dies now, Barnes & Noble could stack all his books one on the other for Vollmann to climb down from whatever literary stratosphere he'll inhabit. He's living history, & so, in a sense, he's dead -- I can already imagine his writing standing up & walking & casting a shadow 200 years from now.
Throop: "Mr. Vollmann, how do you react to the criticism of your latest book? It has been called, & I quote, 'a frustrating, tiresome & conceptually precious book, overwhelmed by logorrhea, a numbing repetitiveness & an underlying moral vision that, despite the electrical shock treatment that Mr. Vollmann gives it, has been old hat since the days of William Burroughs.' Do you wish you agreed with the editors & chopped it down some?"
Mr. Vollmann responded that he finds parts of War & Peace boring. "But Tolstoy is just one writer & I am just one reader," he said.
Gio: "Is your name spelled with two n's or one?"
Mr. Vollmann said "two . . . the first time they get it wrong, I pity them. The second time, I get angry."
Good, I thought, we're getting somewhere. I undid the buttons of my flannel to reveal the T-Shirt I commissioned in Chinatown. Immediately a Thai woman cackled. She wore a shiny vinyl jacket & tight tight denim -- she'd been on her knees staring at me, out of Vollmann's sight, pretending to review the spines in the Romance aisle, & when I opened my shirt, she let out a noise that isn't actually a cackle: it's more of a _________, there is no word for it in English, or there are words but I don't know them: it's the sound of eagle's wings after they've been cut off & encased in glass & after they've been dropped from a great height, & not the sound of the shattering, but the sound that's one-part rushing downward & another-part first instance of contact, including the inevitability of the shattering & expecting the aftermath of glass everywhere, not to mention the sight of the eagle's splayed wings there on the concrete. She interrupted Mr. Vollmann as he attended to a nit-picky question Jack Monroe asked about prostitution & how come if he's able to publish all these books, people must be buying them, so why not clean up a little, use shampoo, etc, get your hair styled, find a girl, settle down.
The characters on the shirt mentioned something that would be too devastating for those familiar with the language if reproduced here. I have been advised, however, to describe the calligraphy in abstract terms: although the markings form one word, there are two distinct aspects to it. One appears to be a woman with legs twisted behind her, yet somehow rolling up a platform toward an androgynous figure pulling her up to where he's letting loose what looks like killer bees or mosquitoes or little flying monkeys or something that's surely painful when applied to skin against the victim's will.
Mr. Vollmann must have recognized the image from his time in Thailand, for he paused in mid-response, pulled a revolver from an ankle holster, & fired a round just above my head into the pillar behind me, sending a cloud of white plaster into the air. Of course: chaos, screams, people scurrying along the carpet, still carrying their hardcover editions of Mr. Vollmann's new book, as if he'd start signing (row by row) once he got rid of me.
Mr. Vollmann jumped atop the podium & fired again. I hadn't moved. I saw the following image: Vollman's dun-colored journalist's shirt, his ringed hand & revolver foreshortening his mouth as it contorted in an unknown Arabic slur, his mustache squinched Hitlerian, a few dozen attendees pushing over folding chairs, & a golden-tipped bullet of unknown caliber skating on a collision course with the mole that perfectly bisects my forehead right along the brow.
Halfway between assailant & assailed, the bullet slowed to a near-halt.
Mr. Vollmann & everyone in the room (besides Throop, Jack Monroe, Gio, & this account's author) moved as though the air were suddenly gelatinous. Urgent expressions slowly became more-or-less less urgent, since nothing seemed to be happening besides a bunch of people nearly frozen in positions of urgency in a clean, well-lighted bookstore. Of course, if I stood exactly where I was when Vollmann squeezed the trigger, the bullet would explode my skull just in time for Christmas.
We took Mr. Vollmann down from his killer's perch on the podium, & questioned him about whether our provocation compelled him to attack or if it was something more . . . For the next several hours, we waited for his response to form on his lips, & patiently expected his breath to push his explanations to our ears. He said something about how he'd come to NYC with a shooting in mind, he'd come thinking that if this town were to publish such awful reviews of his work, then he'd take the marketing into his own hands & blast a chosen soul all over the stacks of bargain books -- & also all the ladies were checking me out, he saw it happening, & when the Thai woman screamed that scream she screamed, he snapped; he probably would have done me even if he wasn't already scanning the audience for someone to martyr, thereby fulfilling expectations and advancing his legend.
Once safe inside the L, heading back to Brooklyn, Gio deactivated the watch he bought & allowed time in the Chelsea Barnes & Noble to return to its usual pace. As for Vollmann, we returned him to nongelatinous life, disguised him as a Hassid, & tried to put him in a taxi to La Guardia. We wanted to get his ass back to Sacramento so he could write more novels "catering to an established, vicarious, middle-class bohemianism spiced by recreational drugs" before his time-warped bullet cracked the pillar holding up the greatest bookstore currently located at 22nd and Sixth, burying all his loyal NYC admirers. Mr. Vollmann, however, wrenched himself from us, rolled & stumbled away from the taxi, nearly got smushed by a bus, & then took off sprinting into Sixth Avenue's receding horizon of Addiction, Addicts, Pushers, Prostitutes, & Pimps.