Rarely has a book evoked in me such deep abiding disgust (and that's a compliment, definitely a laud) over what I'm witnessing described that I cringe practically every page, close my eyes every other paragraph, almost vomit in my mouth each chapter, feeling simultaneously repelled and yet compelled (how does William T. Vollmann do that?!) to continue reading.
Don't confuse William T. Vollmann's royal family for the refined royal family residing in Buckingham Palace. Vollmann's royal family exists in various fringe netherworlds of San Francisco's Tenderloin District: an abandoned underground parking structure (home to the prostitute Queen who reigns over her Royal Family of prostitute apprentices and host of degenerate dealers, freaks, and johns), seedy bars and sleazier brothels fronted as run down motels reeking their rank semen stench out onto the filthy streets as far removed from the red carpets and gold awnings of a Ritz Carlton as Heaven is from Hell.
Sample sentence from The Royal Family so you know I'm not just full of stinking hyberbole:....
"This is the heart of it, the scared woman who does not want to go alone to the man any longer, because when she does, when she takes off her baggy dress, displaying to him rancid breasts each almost as big as his head, or no breasts, or mammectomized scar tissue taped over with old tennis balls to give her the right curves; when, vending her flesh, she stands or squats waiting, congealing the air firstly with her greasy cheesey stench of unwashed feet confined in week-old socks, secondly with her perfume of leotards and panties also a week old, crusted with semen and urine, brown-greased with the filth of alleys; thirdly with the odor of her dress also worn for a week, emblazoned with beer-spills and cigarette-ash and salted with the smelly sweat of sex, dread, fever, addiction -- when she goes to the man, and is accepted by him, when all these stinking skins of hers have come off (either quickly, to get it over with, or slowly like a big truck pulling into a weigh station because she is tired), when she nakedly presents her soul's ageing soul, exhaling from every pore physical and ectoplasmic her fourth and supreme smell which makes eyes water more than any queen of red onions -- rotten waxy smell from between her breasts, I said, bloody pissy shitty smell from between her legs, sweat-smell and underarm-smell, all blended into her halo, generalized sweetish smell of unwashed flesh; when she hunkers painfully down with her customer on a bed or a floor or in an alley, then she expects her own death."
William T. Vollmann didn't simply research and imagine his Tenderloin Inferno as some novelists might do, sitting in a library or a safe home study in a comfy wing back chair; no, he lived, endured, his research literally on the Tenderloin streets. He hung with prostitutes for days on end, risking arrest (or worse) to accurately learn their slang and idiosyncratic syntax -- the street whore's lingo -- in order to see past the standard hooker stereotypes, to the hearts and humanity of these desperate, hurting, and victimized human beings -- to the genuine godforsaken lives they truly lived. Once invited and allowed to remain in the inner sanctum of their harrowing existences, Vollmann made even the questionable decision to smoke crack with them, to prove his mettle to them in their eyes, because he wanted to be deemed credible and get the whole truth and nothing but the truth out of them, and to not be perceived too as just another shallow invasive reporter with a camera and a deadline looking for higher ratings on the six 'o clock news. In so doing, Vollmann indisputedly got the ugly unsugarcoated story from his studies, and it is a vile story, it is beyond what the words "repulsive" or "repugnant" can denote -- it is beyond "gross" -- so much so his publisher nearly wouldn't publish it. Vollmann, in fact, took less of an advance in order that not one word of the 774 page novel be excised by his editors. That's committment to an artistic cause. The seedy cover photograph of The Royal Family, featured on the 2000/2001 Penguin editions (see image above), displays an unflattering scene of three nude prostitutes, some of the very ones Vollmann lived with and interviewed. The photo, in fact, was taken by Vollmann himself. Vollmann's not your average novelist; he's much more ambitious and willing to take unheard of risks for the sake of his art (or fetish), and The Royal Family's not your typical novelistic fare, not by a long shot, so, like Juliette or American Psycho, enter at your own risk.
Now should you decide to enter, you'll meet one of the most self-destructive, heart-set-on-Hades protagonists this reviewer has ever met, Henry Tyler, perenially broke and on the brink of bankruptcy, private-eye who once loved his alienated brother's (John's) wife (Irene) until she committed suicide. Happy, heart warming stuff. Emotionally ruined by Irene's suicide, Henry, private-eye intuition working counterintuitive, maybe, or on something of a whim of fate, as if being led by the aged hand of Virgil, descends into the fetid, inhumane bowels of the Tenderloin in search of the mysterious Queen. However, unbeknownst to him, his brother John, big-time attorney, is presently handling a case for some seemingly nefarious Vegas enterprise known as Feminine Circus, whose owner, coincidentally, just happens to be searching for the Queen as well, although perhaps "hunting for the Queen" would more aptly describe his ultimate aims in locating her.
Henry passes the first gate of Hell, descending circle by circle, deeper and deeper, degradation by degradation, always on the lookout for his Queen, his imagined goddess and savior. Happily (or unhappily) he finds her, but then, of course, inevitable harsh realities collide, moral chaos and murder ensues, and our anti-hero must be thinking, in the bloody aftermath, living beneath a highway underpass, that sometimes, maybe, it's better just being a scrawny private-eye working divorce cases; much better, in fact, when a person like himself doesn't receive the self-recriminating Hell he longed for.
Vollmann's long slunk about the outskirts of a polite writer's society, venturing regularly into disturbing domains, shining lights with his words on society's cockroach and rat infestations, upon the disquieting, disturbing ills most of us are happy remaining clueless about, which is probably why so few read him. Reading Vollmann, while I've mentioned some horror flicks above, is really more like watching Das Boot -- a stressful, depressing experience. His fictions (excepting his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels) are never escapist fun, and humor in Vollmann's fiction is almost nonexistent. And stylistically, he's of the same ilk as your Powers, Foster Wallaces, and Pynchons -- only he's more prolific than all of these writers combined -- so it's understandable he'd have significant critical acclaim (won the National Book Award for his most recent novel, Europe Central), but the understandable low sales because of his bleak writing topics and challenging style and erudition, despite having had forever a dedicated cult following.
So why read him if he's so consistently stressful and depressing? For the same reason you'd read Night or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or The Gulag Archipelago. Vollmann's fictional tomes have as much to tell us about our humanity (or lack thereof) and where we're headed as a culture, as some of the finest histories and biographies ever penned. But that's just more hyperbole from this amateur William T. Vollmann advocate. So, in all honesty, you should probably go read some Judith Krantz or Danielle Steele instead.