Tracing Global Formations in William T. Vollman’s The Atlas

Auteur / Author: 
JACOBS, Karen (University of Colorado Boulder, USA)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 8:30


William T. Vollman’s 1996 The Atlas engages with the orderly yet random miscellany of the atlas form as it foregrounds the traces, inscriptions and subjective imaginations of global space. The novel’s geographic range is extensive, encompassing Australia, Burma, Egypt, India, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, and Vatican City. The Atlas resembles a short-story collection in that there are fifty-five stories, most of them made up of four or five brief vignettes, which read as prose equivalents of postcards or vacation slides; and the novel is bookended with actual photographs and maps that are also scattered across the text, although they don’t in any literal way correspond to its narrative itineraries. As Vollmann explains in the preface, the book is organized like a palindrome, in which the first story is linked to the last, the second to the penultimate, and so on. At the center of the novel is a story called “The Atlas”, which weaves together episodes from the rest of the book.

As a book of maps, the atlas may be a mechanism of classification, but it relies upon an open structure that can in theory accept later entries, emendations, and so on; it therefore resists its reconstitution as a totality. In keeping with this resistance, The Atlas conjures post-Cartesian or postmodern methods of mapping that are best understood as spaces of interaction more than of record. While Michel de Certeau has persuasively argued that stories “traverse and organize places; they select and link them together… [as] spatial trajectories”, Vollman’s The Atlas, I argue, also offers resistance to any definitive linking; it is, so to speak, destructive of place, and through the self-same gestures with which it establishes and articulates it. For that reason, I evoke the metaphorics of the trace to signal the novel’s construction of a migrant space always in the process of disappearing or reconfiguring into another spatial form, another story. This paper will explore the ways the novel’s text and images collaboratively aspire to encompass a trace atlas — a subaltern or alternative cartography — toward the production of tactile, potentially interactive spaces secured through attachment rather than distance, and anchored in the proximate relations of visibility and touch. This trace atlas eludes, interrupts, or disperses forms of power as it aims to redescribe individual and collective remembering.