Sunday, September 11, 2011

Steven Moore | Review of Vollmann's Butterfly Stories

Butterfly Stories, William T. Vollmann. (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1993)
Review by Steven Moore

The search for love has rarely been portrayed as joylessly as it is in Butterfly Stories. The unnamed narrator—variously called "the butterfly boy," "the journalist," "the husband"—moves through different sorts of jungles, some literal, some metaphorical, so lonely and so anxious to be happy that he can't help but fall in love with almost any woman he meets, beginning with a girl who defended him from the school bully, continuing with a lesbian met on a train to Istanbul, and finally a Cambodian whore name Vanna, an literate taxi dancer with whom he can't even converse.

To maintain the bleak, hopeless nature of the narrator's quest for love Vollmann reins in his often extravagant style for bare-bones recitation much of the time. The novel moves from America to Europe to Asia, to northern Canada, to England as the narrator flits about like a butterfly: not a symbol of lighthearted caprice but of ceaseless wandering and searching.

Towards the end the narrator tests HIV positive, but that is nothing to the despair he feels at the loss of Vanna. The narrator's lack of shame and pride is almost ascetic in its self-abnegation, giving him a pure quality despite his incessant whoring. Butterfly Stories follows from Vollmann's Whores for Glora and Thirteen Stories to explore the desperation that lovelessness can lead to. [Steven Moore, The Review of Contemporary Fiction]

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