‘I Rush Through the Japanese Night’
Illustration by Stina Löfgren
By PICO IYER
KISSING THE MASK
Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines
By William T. Vollmann
Illustrated. 504 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99
I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann. I can’t fail to admire his tender heart and wide-awake conscience, and it’s hard not to appreciate his energy, his intensity, his unstoppable curiosity about the world and everything in it — women, violence, death, war zones, the night. Who else would give us a subtitle, as in his new book, that spills over and over, and begin a work of 504 pages, complete with bibliography, glossary, chronology and five appendixes, with a modest disclaimer about his “short book”? Actually, it is short when compared with his seven-volume 2003 treatise on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” and the 811-page novel, “Europe Central,” that won the National Book Award in 2005. It’s now been all of 10 months since the 1,306-page Vollmann opus “Imperial” appeared, serving up everything you’d thought to ask about the Mexico-California border, and much you probably hadn’t.
In the age of Twitter and 24-frame-per-second attention spans, such almost demented obsessiveness is itself an exhilaration. My problem has been that paragraphs that seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure, or suitcases into which you push every scrap you’ve ever collected, underwear and index cards spilling out the sides. These go a little oddly with a 24-page chapter (as in “Kissing the Mask”) on “What Is Grace?” Whenever I read about another of Vollmann’s earnest attempts to rescue a prostitute from the life she’s possibly chosen, I applaud his romantic hopefulness as much as I worry about his Quiet Americanism. And if any place would seem profoundly ill-suited to his hyper-wordy, over-the-top, madly indulgent approach — his love of gaucherie, uninflectedness and analytical filler — you’d think it would be the land of haiku and Noh plays. As they say around Kyoto, there’s a reason humans were given two ears and only one mouth.
Reader, I was wrong — in part. “Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese,” as the author writes in his opening sentence, with customary cheerfulness and charm, Vollmann presents himself at the Noh performances of Nara and Tokyo as more or less a professional bungler, an “ape in a cage,” staring through binoculars at a startlingly esoteric and nuanced theatrical art of which, as he tells us (often), he cannot understand a word. His evocations of its death-haunted stories, its eerie masks, its male actors playing women, though occasionally gushy (Zeami, the 14th-century Noh theoretician, indicates “the infinite heights of beauty”), are so electric and strange, so enchanted, that they made me long for the very dramas that have often sent me toward the exit before the intermission. Best of all, he registers, and seems to relish, the contrast between Vollmannic effusions and a culture that speaks in pauses and implications, when it speaks at all. “Kabuki is the way that I so often write,” he offers, in one disarming confession; “Noh is how I would write if I were more ‘spiritual,’ more understated or perhaps just older.” The romance of the Other has rarely been so eagerly embraced.
The only difficulty is that after scores of pages of weirdly riveting descriptions of torchlit Noh performances and respectful interviews with the masters who make masks and the ones who wear them, Vollmann starts to ponder — and ponder and ponder — questions like “Who is a woman?” When he poses this koan to Hilary Nichols, a 38-year-old “well-muscled, tall, Aryan” photographer from San Francisco whom he’s never met before, she informs him that “our spirit is our life force,” and then, still less Nohishly, that men “definitely do feel a prowess around the more the merrier.” Vollmann’s own responses are even zanier, as he measures the lower-lip-to-chin proportions of a girl in a book of Japanese pornography and then compares and contrasts Kate Bosworth with Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. “The longer I have loved women,” he assures us, while also identifying himself as promiscuous, “the more deeply and sincerely I love them.” I’m not sure how well-muscled, tall Aryan women feel when middle-aged men say that to them in bars.
It’s customary at about this point in a review to tell the reader what’s in the book under investigation and how it proceeds. In this case, sadly, I wouldn’t know where to stop. Vollmann describes spending $1,000 an hour and more to watch a geisha and her apprentice dance for him in Kyoto. He spends an additional $700, while invoking Gandhi, to get himself professionally made up in Tokyo and dressed as a woman (an unexpected extravagance for a man who, just three years ago, gave us a book called “Poor People”). He throws in a chapter on Andrew Wyeth; he offers an appendix listing adjectives in Sappho; he thinks of buying women’s clothes from a Guatemalan cowboy turned transvestite he’s met near Sunset Boulevard, trawling for new friends. He gives us sketches of temples, photographs of suggestive grass patterns in eastern California, assessments of Mengloth in the Norse saga “The Lay of Svipdag” and pictures of himself in drag. There are 49 pages of endnotes and compulsive footnotes at every turn (“What is fetish, what is stylization, and what is simple specificity?”).
If the Oxford English Dictionary had a listing for “all over the place,” Vollmann would take up the entire entry. And the next one. Suddenly, apropos of not so much, he starts telling us about a “ghetto prostitute” he met at a bus stop in California. In the next paragraph he’s discussing Heinrich Böll (“whose Nobel Prize was in my opinion otherwise deserved”). Then he’s on to Cicero reporting to Atticus about a man in woman’s clothes who stole into a Vestal Virgin sacrifice at Caesar’s house. The beauty of this procedure — for the admirer — is that you never know what’s coming next, and all the world and its works seem to be part of one huge scroll that could unroll forever. The challenge is that reading for more than 30 minutes at a time can induce headaches, seasickness and worse.
It says something important about Vollmann, I think, that his passages on Noh (about which he claims to know almost nothing) are as original, precise and alive as his discussions of women (about whom he might claim to know a little) are abstract, vague and dead. When he’s racing through “snow country” in a train, poring over ancient Japanese prints and tales, sitting under the camphor trees at Kyoto’s Shoren-in temple, he teaches me much about the country where I’ve been based for 22 years, and with a darting, moonlit sense of wonder and excitement. But just as he’s beginning to suggest something important about what masks and under-kimono and Noh performances really say of a culture that prides itself on its stagecraft, he’s off again on some riff about Olaf the Peacock. Or, worse, telling us that “the core of the heterosexual coupling experience is the interaction of the complementary genitalia” (thanks, Bill) and that “like a Noh mask, a woman’s face alters infinitely and eternally as it moves.” At times the two tendencies even come together in a single sentence. “Black-and-green tree-darknesses and forests of bamboo drumbeats kept rising around her,” he begins, promisingly, of a firelit woman in a Noh performance, “her eyeslits of female darkness sometimes drooping as if with sadness while she gazed down through me.”
It’s the shock of discovery, the visual world — the empire of the senses — that seems to quicken this innocent abroad. But as soon as Vollmann turns to reflection (“Actuality reifies itself within those Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic figurines which archaeologists jocularly call ‘Venuses’ ”), he sounds a little like an undergraduate eager to grapple with the big questions at 3 a.m. after a few too many beers. Vollmann is clearly much taken with the epicures and idler-connoisseurs of the night who have long reveled in the “floating world” of Japan’s pleasure quarters; yet all his sweetness derives from the fact that he’s not a man of the world but a boy. It’s no surprise that one of the only figures who receives a cutting comment here is that arch-sophisticate Proust, “whose characterization of love is frequently pathetic” (and I don’t think he’s talking about “pathos”).
At almost every other point, it must be said, Vollmann is unflaggingly polite, enthusiastic and in a state of what could be called friendly derangement. He is clearly eager to learn from the Japanese masters, and there’s a deliberate (I hope) comedy in the way they sound perplexed or say nothing at all when he asks them, “Do men and women have different souls?” or poses variations on the questions he asks himself: “What is a woman? What is this woman? Can her soul possibly be ungendered? Could there be any unfeminine element to her grace? What makes her perfect?” Even as he tells us, over and over, how little he can describe or interpret of what he’s seeing in Japan, his depictions are dashing and vivid, his interpretations honest and heartfelt. The Quaalude factor kicks in mostly when he indulges in dewy reveries about his own sense of love and loss, while omitting the details that would give them meaning. For such a wildly subjective first-person writer, Vollmann is strangely coy about telling us anything about the self beneath his authorial persona.
Are all the crazy digressions about cross-dressing and Norse sagas something akin to the section Thomas Pynchon devoted to ninjas in the middle of “Vineland,” a case of a revolutionary writer singing his own rules into being? Not for me, alas. Pynchon’s fiction has a complexity of vision, a beauty of language and an intricate, often vertiginous sense of structure that underwrite even his goofiest detours. But Vollmann seems like someone plunging ahead with no sense of where he’s going. In passing, he cites an old writing teacher who told him that if “one’s effect feels a little off, it is time to push the offness as far as it will go.” That was wise advice because Vollmann’s originality lies in his extremism, not his ingenuousness. His asides are more involving than his meditations. When he offhandedly mentions that he bought a new set of teeth for a Filipina prostitute to save her from her “midnight smile,” I’m much more intrigued than I am by yet another description of “China’s multitudinous islands of tranquil ancientness.”
I had to read this long book in very small doses, I found, and as Vollmann characteristically suggests, the best way to enjoy it may be to skip whole chapters and zigzag around as unapologetically as he does. Vollmann is a man of parts, not wholes; a collector of obsessions rather than a stalker of any single one. A reader in search of a narrative thread or a sustained argument may suffer a breakdown. Skip everything to do with Hrapp and Grettir and the Norse sagas, I’d say, as well as the fulminations against fashion magazines, which any woman could deliver with more reason and more feeling. Alight instead on a sentence of leaping exactitude — “The world is wall and grave-core, crooked block of almost-night” — and you may, as I did, find yourself moved to look at Wyeth’s Helga paintings as you’ve never looked before.
“I rush through the Japanese night, devouring it,” our ebullient cicerone tells us at one point, and that rush and its voraciousness give “Kissing the Mask” moments of transfixed power that suggest Vollmann’s secret heroes might include Melville and Henry Miller. Yet Miller, even as he wrote book after book reflecting only on his favorite books and women of the night, stumbling around a foreign culture as a late-night bumbler, never lost his sense of felicity and robust warmth. Reading Vollmann, I was reminded that for most writers selection and structure constitute a good part of what’s considered to be our task. It isn’t our experiences or thoughts or enthusiasms that make a work interesting but the use we make of them. There’s such a thing as kindness to both the reader and the material. Still, I’m confident that none of my quibbles will deter this likable monster. By now he’s probably putting the final touches on a 700-page work on the women of Lapland. Let’s hope it’s more about Lapland than the women.
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.”