William T. Vollmann has seen the insides of his FBI file, and they aren't pretty. That shouldn't be a surprise, since the prolific writer has travelled to Afghanistan, the desert of the Imperial Valley that is used to make illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico and has expressed unabashed affinity for prostitutes, substances of varying legality, and a bevy of radical causes. Most recently, he has been agitating for the rights of the homeless in Sacramento, Calif., where he lives.
But while Vollmann has long been the interest of literary nerds and graduate students, he appears to have caught the attention of the federal government — in the worst way possible. In an essay for the September issue of Harper's entitled "Life as a Terrorist" (subscription only), Vollmann writes about having obtained his FBI file, which runs to 785 pages — 294 of which he was able to obtain via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Describing the contents of the file as "alarming and ludicrous," The Washington Post's Ron Charles writes that "the FBI once thought he might be the Unabomber, the anthrax mailer and a terrorist training with the Afghan mujahideen."
Funny, we just thought of him as the Deep Springs and Cornell graduate who burst onto the literary scene with 1987's You Bright and Risen Angels. The Vollmann we know has written among the most thorough explorations of violence in recent history and won the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central, his fictionalized history of World War II.
Maybe the FBI was thinking of a different Vollmann. After all, it flubbed the spelling of his name and, consequently, his Social Security number. The file also "incorrectly claims that he owns a flamethrower," according to Charles. Vollmann reportedly does not own such an instrument.
None of this is funny, however. Vollmann delivers a blistering critique of the law enforcement operatives he calls, collectively, "the Unamericans":
How can I begin to characterize these interesting creatures? First and foremost, they do not truly honor the American Way of Life. Perhaps they love it in their way and even imagine that they are protecting it. But when it comes to people like you or me, they are quite willing to limit or violate it, to monitor and snoop.
It has long been known that the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover kept close tabs on writers, actors and artists it thought dabbled in subversive activities; there have even been suggestions that Ernest Hemingway's suicide was precipitated by his belief that he was being followed by the G-men. However, that the FBI of 2013 could not distinguish from an unconventional writer and a potential terrorist is troubling, suggesting that the agency is only very well read, but potentially clueless.
Indeed, Vollmann — who also spoke to NPR about the article — is full of rage at the government's misplaced interest. For example, his file notes that "anti-growth and anti-progress themes persist throughout each VOLLMANN work" and that "UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing.” That kind of literary criticism wouldn't pass muster in a late afternoon high school English class.
“UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN...insists his book be published without editing.” If you STET, the terrorists win: http://t.co/WqI2IJJzCg— Guy Cunningham (@GuysLibrary) August 22, 2013
Comes as it does in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's reach into our private lives, the article is an unambiguous, resounding defense of personal liberty:
My motives for writing this story are conventionally American. I value my freedom to be what others may not wish me to be. I am proud to read whichever book I want, from The Satanic Verses to S&M pictorials to the speeches of Saddam Hussein. Although I sometimes write about politics, I do not consider myself political — or is it in fact political to hold some degree of disrespect for whichever fellow citizens have been set in power over me? In this, if Steinbeck is to be believed, I am very American: “Americans almost without exception have a fear and a hatred of any perpetuation of power — political, religious, or bureaucratic.” Yes, like my father, I am proud to be an American, at least sometimes. (Shortly before he died, in 2009, he told me: “I used to be proud to be an American. Now I’m ashamed.”) I’m proud that when I’m ashamed I can say so without being hauled off to a secret prison. I must love any government that allows me to excoriate it.
Perhaps most depressingly, Vollmann notes that his file isn't likely to be sent through an FBI file shredder anytime soon. As an investigator told him, “Once you’re a suspect and you’re in the system, that ain’t goin’ away. . . Anytime there’s a terrorist investigation, your name’s gonna come up.”
It's good to know that our country is safe from complex postmodern narratives.