Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Atlas by William Vollmann


The Atlas is a collection of essays written by William Vollmann during his travels as a journalist, many times in war zones.  The places written about include the following; Sicily, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, various parts of the United States, Madagascar, France, Canada, Thailand, Cambodia, Germany, Israel, Jordan, Hungary, Egypt, India, Australia, Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Mauritius, Tasmania, Somalia, Switzerland, Poland, Belize, Bosnia and Croatia.  

These are not happy traveling essays.  Rather they depict the underside of society, the poor, the ill, the desperate.  Most of the essays took place in the early 1990's and there was war in many places.  AIDS was the epidemic that was sweeping the world and the people Vollmann associated with were most at risk for it; poor, sex workers and those willing to do anything to stave off the boredom of their lives.  He spends a lot of time with prostitutes as they seem to be his love interest but the women tend to cheat him of his money and leave him after false promises.  It is a life where one can expect little of others and even that little tends to be too much to expect.  

Vollmann is an interesting writer with books such as Europe Central which won the National Book Award.  This collection is a glimpse into his mind which is an uncomfortable place to visit.  He seems to seek out the dregs of society and make his friends among those who society chooses to ignore.  It is a place of depression and anxiety where hopes are crushed and life is brutal and short.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers and those interested in Vollmann's life and thoughts.

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