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The Biggest Question

Scott Beauchamp

No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies, by William Vollmann, Viking, 624 pp, $40, ISBN: 978-0525558491

No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies, by William Vollmann, Viking, 688 pp, $40, ISBN: 978-0525558491

As large as the subjects of American author William Vollmann’s work might be, he has never before taken on something that isn’t able to fit snugly inside the experiences of the individual human heart. This was especially true at the beginning of his career. Books such as 1991’s Whores for Gloria or 1992’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, a novel and nonfiction work respectively, take up the immense subjects of war, prostitution, colonialism and desire, without ever straying too far from the ambit of the anodyne. Even Vollmann’s ambitious “Seven Dreams Cycle”, a series of novels about the settlement of North America by European colonists, is rendered in the most tangible language possible despite the broad chronological sweep of the project. You might say that what Vollmann does best is take large and abstract concepts and atomise them into concrete particulars. All this is a prologue to saying that his most recent project, Carbon Ideologies Vol. 1 & 2, is a subtle derivation from his typical mode. It’s almost the inverse, in fact. Climate change itself being such a complex event forces Vollmann to compose a pointillist rendering, using concrete data points and character sketches to suggest the contours of an incomprehensibly vast reality. These books might be the apogee of his career.

Vollmann is best known for his fiction. And rightfully so. His 2005 novel Europe Central, which won the United States National Book Award, is the mesmerising account of a panoply of characters forced to make dramatic moral decisions during the Second World War. This slice of life style of storytelling, of letting the narrative accumulate through a series of discrete and individual character perspectives, has become Vollmann’s calling card. With Europe Central it achieved formal perfection in his fiction. But it’s also a technique which has been present in his nonfiction for years, and the case could be made that Vollmann’s energies have oscillated back and forth between fiction and nonfiction for his entire career. It seemed around the time of the 2003 publication of Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, a seven-volume treatise nearly twenty years in the making, that some tectonic shift was beginning and his energies were coming to rest predominantly with nonfiction. 2009’s Imperial, a 1,344-page study of Southeastern California confirmed the dynamic. Vollmann has called Imperial his Moby Dick.

At the same time that Vollmann was showing greater artistic fidelity to nonfiction, the fiction that he did write took greater liberties with form. 2015’s The Dying Grass, a 1,376-page novel/poem about 1877’s Nez Perce War in the American West, is basically a free verse rendering of the oracular visions of a time-travelling mystic called William The Blind. On the last page of the volume Vollmann thanks his editor and publisher for supporting such a “stubborn, uncommercially-minded author”. What might be a humblebrag from another writer strikes a sincere note coming from Vollmann. The Dying Grass is quite an ambitious project to sell to the public for $55 a copy, and yet it’s this very ambition which justifies the price of admission. Vollmann has suffered the curse of the enfant terrible: so successful was he with his early, gritty, work, that the growing scope of his formal ambition has gone largely unnoticed by the reading public. Vollmann as a modern Stephen Crane made sense, but who besides Vollmann himself would make the comparison with Melville? And yet, as his work matured through the decades, he seemed to find a style and subject commensurate with his ambition. In a career obsessed with sex and war, who could have predicted that climate change would be Vollmann’s white whale?

If “uncommercially-minded” has come to embody the most recent work of William Vollmann, then the beginning (if one considers over two hundred pages merely a beginning) of the Carbon Ideologies series is surely the most Vollmannesque aspect of the books. The first 220 pages or so of the series are dedicated to explaining the maths of resource extraction and energy consumption. Vollmann calls this a “primer” section, but in reality it’s necessary for illustrating a larger point: climate change is a vast subject of which carbon-based resource extraction is itself only a subset and even this fragment is mind-numbingly dense. We’re reminded once again of Melville, whose double prelude to Moby Dick, presented as “Etymology” and “Extracts”, confirms the “vasty deep” of his enterprise, that it’s more than simply a spiritual allegory but sucks meaning up from roots shot deep into the material and chthonic energies of the Earth. Besides which, there’s also a practical necessity for at least offering figures and calculations even if they’re not meant to be read. As Vollmann writes, “There is nothing like imminent doom for sharpening a person’s interest in practicalities,” and if he is correct in the rest of his reporting, then a few percentage points here and there might in some not-too-distant future mean the difference between life and death. But for our purposes, here in the half-believing twilight of a changing world, it’s enough that we acknowledge the sophistication of our predicament. Vollmann writes that “In the next 200 pages I have stepped back a little, until the trees became a forest. To endeavor to see what it is to abstract; this kind of seeing comes unnaturally to me, an in-the-moment-sighted fellow who would rather admire leaves than wonder how they grew ... All I could do was my blinking, nearsighted duty ‑ which, at least as I understood it, meant taking hold of dismalness, until familiarity made it not only tolerable, but remarkable; the fog became a blur, then a pattern whose complexities rewarded me with a different kind of vision.” Fortunately, Vollmann has taken the maths work upon himself in order that he can more perfectly render a “different kind of vision” without distracting calculations. He assures us that “there will be no harm to skipping to page 219”.

From page 220 onward, the going is a bit more accessible. A bit more commercially-minded even. Beginning with the Fukushima disaster in Japan (and yes, Vollmann is aware of the incongruity of lumping nuclear energy in with coal, natural gas, and oil in a project called Carbon Ideologies), he uses the remaining thousand or so pages of the books to jet-set (he’s also aware of this incongruity) around the world from his home base in Sacramento, California, interviewing people living at the front lines of global resource extraction. He writes well in the traditional sense of course, sketching full and striking portraits of people from Bangladesh to Oklahoma with a double-vision that simultaneously captures their idiosyncrasies while also illustrating the unique movements of Vollmann’s own mind. He writes, but he also furiously accumulates. Mr Kida Shoichi, a Japanese decontamination specialist “with kind eyes” is “remembered with gratitude” for taking time out of his day to be interrogated by Vollmann. A “melancholy smile” comes to Don Blankenship of West Virginia as he tells Vollmann about coal. M. Archie Dunham, former CEO of Conco, is a “gracious host”. The Bangladeshi union leader Rabiul Islam Rabi, confident and suave, makes sure he’s in each of Vollmann’s photographs of the miners in Barapukuria. The characters collect like sediment, their personalities not so much contrasting with each other as blurring into a composite sketch of flawed and fragile humanity.

Carbon Ideologyies oscillates through space and time, always orbiting its larger concerns: Why do we live in such a wasteful and destructive way? Is any person or group of people to blame? What is the life like of someone who lives in the world of resource extraction? It’s in answering this final question that Vollmann is most at ease and when we enjoy him most as readers. He is generous. He sees with forgiving eyes. There’s an almost cosmic sympathy in how he relates to the people he meets, which complicates notions of culpability. It’s hard to lay something as profound as the destruction of life on Earth as we know it at the feet of people you feel a deep affinity with. And, as Vollmann himself reminds us throughout the series, the “blame” for living such environmentally destructive lives lies, in many ways and however unevenly, with us all collectively. He even begins the book with pages of description of his own wasteful life, asking rhetorically (or perhaps not) if someone from the future might think of him as “such a bad person, that [he] lived as many others did, in that easy way”? Vollmann’s sensitivity to human connection is the real strength of his oeuvre. It’s the reason why characters such as Hotsuki Minako, a 25-year-old woman he meets in a “radius of involuntary evacuation” near a failed nuclear power plant in Japan, stay in the mind long after reading. I found myself, days after reading this section, wondering about Minako’s children:

She had two children, ages seven and five. Just now they were at the park with her husband. I asked how they were managing, and she replied: ‘They’ve regressed to a younger state. At home they can do everything themselves. Here, I don’t know whether it’s from staying so long and living like this, they say: I can’t do this …’

Vollmann’s empathy works on a granular level, with such descriptions as “Ms. Hotsuki Keiko, the mother-in-law, was lying down. She sat up when we came in, smiling politely, lowering her eyes, discreetly half-stretching; perhaps she had been sleeping. She appeared to be not much older than her daughter-in-law. Bowing as respectfully as I could, I inquired how the quake had expressed itself to her …” The phenomenal world feels animated with sympathy. But he also works on a larger temporal scale, with his empathy stretching towards people who don’t even exist yet. The books, in fact, are meant for them. As he writes: “You from the future, who understandably despise us, and might well conflate these examples into one string of abuses ‑ could you have intervened in our time, I’d bet you’d have subjected us to harshly sweeping simplifications ‑ please let me ask you to fairly consider the perplexities in these matters of power and emissions. You now perceive, I trust, how limited must be the judgements of even good-willed, thoughtful minds in the absence of expert knowledge. To best evaluate each efficiency …” And he goes on to defend the complexity of measuring energy efficiency to people in the future, people to whom our present failures will be an all too obvious part of their daily lives. Let’s be clear about what Vollmann is doing here: he’s written a series of books about climate change sympathetic to the experiences of the living in order to give some kind of succour to the experiences of people in the future. There’s something almost transcendentalist in his wanting to eclipse the entropy of anthropocene world-loss with a pity that straddles the gulf of time and circumstance.

The strengths of Carbon Ideologies are so obvious that it’s difficult to find fault with the project. The shadow it casts is slight, but trails the work quietly. Yet we’re never quite sure how we got here. Vollmann gives us microhistories of places and occasional technical run-downs, but a deep historical awareness of how we got here is missing. Our material history might be easy for the intended audience of the future to reverse-engineer, but where did this obsession with material consumption come from? How deeply do we dig through the history of culture and ideas in order to understand ourselves? From where does the “ideology” come in Carbon Ideologies? Perhaps we go back to Descartes, who radically suggested that the goal of human thought is to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature”, inventing an “infinity of applications” to free ourselves from an “infinitude of maladies both of body and mind”. The Utopian Enlightenment project of liberating ourselves from “the infirmities of age” and even somehow “rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been”? Maybe we go back further, to some prehistoric fault buried in our being ‑ call it avarice or gluttony ‑ which blossoms into global warming and the Pacific trash vortex. But to peer so critically would require a tragic sense of humanity which Vollmann doesn’t share. Which he perhaps even refuses.

Carbon Ideologies is a triumph, but it might not be the sort of triumph that Vollmann intended. He might have been aiming for a moral coup, but what he arrived at instead was a conquest of literary form. He has created an artifact, imperfect and incomplete, but formed in and mirroring the strange circumstances of its time and place. Two giant books about the material consequences of our wasteful lives, both hulking as if having metastasised. Each full of sympathetic figures, familiar in their easy rapport, overpopulating the pages. Daunting in its scope, there’s a living mystery which occupies the centre of the project: what was the purpose of all our reckless consumption? It’s a question which Vollmann, his subjects, and presumably his readers, are ultimately unable to answer. In not providing an easy resolution, Vollmann has opted for the genius of negative capability over a false or allegorical sense of completion, however seductive that might be.


Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Paris Review, The New Criterion and Bookforum among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.