Review of The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

ISBN 014100200X (ISBN13: 9780141002002)

Swept away by the alternately sensuous and utilitarian prose, the incredible diversity of emotions I encountered while reading this book defied strict categorization and boggled my mind. 

It felt like my brain had tipped sideways and any trite notions of innocence I might have held in reserve in the untouched corners came tumbling out.

Through the course of these 780 closely packed pages we are made to witness strange intimacies and acts which at first seem unnatural, but upon closer inspection, reveal incredible human depth. The Royal Family is a portrayal of flawed loves, damaged souls, and transgression as a form of mourning. The medication of human contact is everywhere in evidence, as is the deep-seated need for love, which we bear like a curse – the “mark of Cain”. Dan Smooth’s religious dogma and hypocritical proclivities are among the most disturbing aspects of this very incendiary text. For instance, the parody of scriptural language most evident in chapter 476. One aspect of Vollmann’s trickery, aplomb, dexterity and blasé scribblings are that they are preternaturally sublime.

If the many quotes from scripture do not distract, along with the inclusion of Buddhist and Gnostic texts, the Book of Mormon, Zoroastrianism and other sects, flit through the pages with varying degrees of appreciation and misappropriation. The direct blasphemies are another form of psychological distress manifested throughout. The pleasure of self-destruction infuses the book with a dark, heady intoxication. In the end it proves to be a genuinely moving, massively detailed epic of limited scope that penetrates deeply into a closely related set of realistic characters. Clearly an outrageous masterpiece orchestrated for the precious few brave enough to drown in its effluence.

The vast majority of its action is contained in the Tenderloin district like an eternally boiling pot of cast-off unsavories. Through realistic dialogue, and an unbelievable variety and richness of slang, Vollmann’s journalistic investigation of broken lives and lives glued together with Elmer’s is by turns touching and memorable. Perhaps we all know at least one person who took a turn that led them down into dark days, someone cracked or cracking up, or virulent with amoral or physical diseases, or who somehow, in their wandering, began to resemble what we would normally dub “inhuman.” But in their wretchedness, they are often far more human than their soft-cheeked, pale, freshly laundered counterparts in their air-conditioned ranch style homes. The concept of disease in all of its forms infiltrates each layer of the district described until our notion of disease is turned on its head. Humanness is not an easily defined term. But it is easily defied, constantly on the stand, and the jury is out for most of our existence. Desperation and dependence are the bricks and mortar of these lives, as they cascade from one high to the next, skirting the law, hiking the skirt, and drawing down one John after another into the whirlpool of vice, where they might have belonged, if circumstances had been different, or their pleasure prolonged…

It takes place in the off hours, in a cacophony of haggard voices on which the city feeds. Vollmann takes his subject very seriously, as seriously as his other historical contexts in the Seven Dreams series. This is the fruit of research, not some quirky self-indulgent fantasy ego-trip. This is a magnificent display of the condensation of life. But it could very easily be labeled by some as obscene, and relishes the contradictory definitions of obscenity. Is there any way to separate the obscene from literature, and does doing so protect or harm our sensibilities? History might have settled these questions for the time being. But in the book’s defense, its intentions may not be as complex as its execution.

The tiniest details emerge as telling character facets. This is a character-driven novel, slow-moving and methodical in its unflinching examinations of the minutest qualities of human beings. Does this book’s impetus and execution stem from a fascination with transgressive individuals or an obsession with perceived injustice? Vollmann was very familiar with the real-life people on which these characters were based. He interviewed them. But how much deeper did his involvement go? How did he get some of this insight? How much is simply made-up or extrapolated scene by scene into the deep ravines of dark, unaerated rooms? As far as the interpretation of firsthand accounts go, the verisimilitude on display is astounding.

Adultery, and the art of bringing off the tacit affair is a tired trope, but Vollmann gives it life so it may function as a backdrop to his main character’s motivations. But of course, the possibility of idealized love goads our anti-hero forward. His selfish desires propel him into the heart of the district and leads him to become an adopted member of this “family.” But underlying his indulgence is a concern for the other players. The repetitive street life, and the bar-room anecdotes are his antidote, his coping mechanisms.

The novel functions through strong character development: Tyler, the Queen, Domino, Dan Smooth, Irene, Chocolate and others. Grief, aimlessness, self-abasement, the saturation of the body and the mind with need, want, love, psychological torment, the people sitting around in a bar talking, are all seminal (pun intended) glue reinforcing the moral ambiguities and lovely, simply lovely immersion the novel affords. It epitomizes the sought-after emptiness, the eager, underachieving human soul, grafted onto chaos, spurned by our own, fallen, and continually falling into the state of spiritual death.

The transgression becomes so familiar you will become inured. Not one single line of the book might be expected to cause arousal, rather, the language is designed to suggest poetic forms, to coalesce into abstract wonders of dream sensations, resulting in a miasmic seething, and you are forced to wallow in a dense accumulation of disgust until Stockholm syndrome sets in – we are captives of our own fascination. Shrouded in a fogged hyperawareness, innocence is lost, desensitization is incurred, and anhedonia blossoms. But with it comes a slew of other emotions, the depression, the isolation, the cool slide into ghostliness. And the fact that aging is sort of an embarrassing, humiliating descent into uselessness and dependence and death.

It juxtaposes the sacred and profane and on at least one occasion directly equates prostitutes to saints and specific religious personas to prostitutes, weighing moral standpoints and building a case. Vollmann’s sympathies are clear straight off the bat.


Perhaps every city is diseased, and feeds on its own desires. In “obsidian darkness” families are born. The Tenderloin morphs into a surreal landscape, at times nightmarish, but beautiful in its rich perversity, luscious, hollow skyscraper cliffs hem the reader in, dripping seedy joints crowd the well-trodden streets, and sagging shadow people haunt passersby at the mouths of abyssal alleyways, against the car horn white noise and screeching cats, one can almost hear the underground seething potential energy, the sizzling beneath the grungy pavements, the potential for corruption about to burst forth and flood the leaning high-rises, which will come toppling down in a rush of bank notes and bathwater, mingling into the gutter-moat leading into that vast uncharted territory called “Otherness.”

The troubles of Cain, the life led by a modern Cain, an essay on authority and power, how “many follow one,” the concept of secular divinity in the titular Royal Family of the book, the meaning of non-blood relations’ inherently familial bonds, and how families are forged in hardship and love all occupy the central force of the novel. Many brilliant scenes make use of the same patterns of sudden, impulsive delights wrought into sad, withering despair, with a recurrent tone of heartbreaking loss, sadness and oppression hanging over it all.

The rich imagery and the character studies in the midst of life’s tragedies feed into the plot of a tired detective, seeking after the lost loves that lives on in his fantasy-world, while he further retreats into the heart of his own troubles. The humor, pathos, atmosphere, lyricism, and historical details are all on point. Vollmann is an overachiever. The language of nostalgia pervades the whole. The skittering wreckage of damaged lives are too alluring – you can’t look away. The beating pulse of city life, its ways and means and blood and marrow definitely echoes with his other illuminating novel, Butterfly Stories. I am as yet a Vollmann neophyte, but know I will traverse the rest of his oeuvre.

Abuse, deformity, pedophilia, the transgressive essence of erotic literacy, wrought out with demented surrealism, rife with innovation and condemnation, the animal in man, and the mental inertia, all point toward the sadness inherent in any examination of collective humanity. Everyone is unfaithful to something or someone. Even if only themselves.

The prolix familial squabbles add another layer of captivating cohesion, as do the casual drug deals, the professional jargon, the shifts in stresses and pleasures, the motif of royalty as a perceived allocation, the moments of twisted spirituality, the balm of charity, how kindness can relieve briefly the day-by-day despair of powerlessness. These are the domains Vollmann weaves together. Figurative language is used to communicate understated emotion. Everywhere, he is always improvising, concocting significance out of the insignificant. Life happens in the interstices, and his characters inhabit the interstices of society. Obsolescence weighs them down. Life passes by like an impressionistic blur, while the dreams the characters hold dear display photographic vividness. Shamanistic influences pervade the text, but the sources are often mysterious.

Tyler’s brooding, his surrogate love objects, his incapacitation, all lead to the conclusion that his love is his disease. Addiction is a powerful force in society, and it comes in myriad forms. But this book also touches on the justice and injustice of the System, and how people make use of harmful antisocial delusions, and get caught up in obsession, until Vollmann’s consistent moral calculus slowly clarifies and justifies the excessive inclusions, the twisted worldview of the brutally honest novel.

We all belong to mythological families, whether online or in person. We join “clubs,” which, broadly defined, are social groups, and cultivate an image for the benefit of ourselves and anyone in our circles. Sources of love and its purpose are sometimes unknown, but TRF posits many interesting theories about how such a culture of prostitution could survive.

Vollmann also inserts a dramatization of the pluses and minuses of the commercialization of sex – the oldest profession. How it is combined with corporate greed is not the most compelling statement of the novel, but it does lend a Hollywood-esque component, an inflation of grandiosity.

The marital strife, hypocrisy, octopus-minded overanalysis, the Narcisissm and social performance, the spirit of exploitation, all converge in Brady’s pet business, which is just the commodification of women. Loneliness, the power of money and memory, and the uncomforted dispossessed occupy most of the novel’s run-time. There is not as much instant gratification as you might expect, but it is ever-present in the characters’ psyches. When stated so bluntly, the almost mythic proportions of stereotypical male erotic fantasies are slightly hilarious.

In summary, Vollman doesn’t coddle you. He sticks you with the hypo of his intellectual daring. If you can pry your fingers from the covers by the end and pull yourself out of the vortex of his creation you will feel a heavy nuance of appreciation for his accomplishment forevermore.

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