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The Oregonian
Thursday, April 15th, 2010
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Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater

by William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann's Kissing the Mask is 528 pages, One of the Author's Shorter Books

A review by Ellen Urbani

An interviewer once posed the following question to William T. Vollmann: "Continuing to adhere to a Tolstoyan vision of the novel -- its immensity, grandeur, complexity and size -- how have you been able to survive in the marketplace with an uncompromising vision completely outside of the mainstream?"

Volmann's answer was uncharacteristically succinct: "When I write my books, I don't care about the marketplace."

With a rogue's attitude toward everything from money to mores, Vollmann has amassed a back catalog of 20 books -- both fiction and nonfiction -- which notably includes the incomplete seven-novel cycle "Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes" and a treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, that took him 23 years to complete and extends to 3,352 pages (twice the length of the standard Bible); Vollmann describes it as his life's work.

Along the way he's accrued a National Book Award and a slew of entranced reviewers -- "[Vollmann's books] tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, huge ambition, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation and sardonic wit," according to Steven Moore in The Washington Post -- but also has embittered and exhausted many a lay reader. Levi Asher, in his blog, fumes that "William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It's all an endurance act."

Vollmann's latest book isn't likely to win over his doubters, given that the title alone clocks in at a profligate 34 words: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater With Some Thoughts on Muses (especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines. The book includes five appendices; a glossary, bibliography and chronology; and notes on the illustrations (rendered by Vollmann himself) and photographs (including at least one of the author in drag, the memory of which lingers in the most disturbing of ways). Still, comparatively speaking, at 528 pages it is a mere hiccup in the Vollmann oeuvre.

Characteristically peripatetic, Kissing the Mask rambles across vast territory in an effort to corral -- or at least contemplate -- the concept of feminine beauty. Throughout, Vollmann focuses an obsessed and adoring lens on the Noh master Umewaka Rokuro, the Kabuki geishas, and a transgender community in Los Angeles while simultaneously traipsing through Indian, American, European and Norse cultures in an effort to identify what it is (presumption? physiology? carriage?) that makes a woman a woman. Along the way, he pays homage yet again to his pet subject -- prostitutes -- about whom he has notoriously raved and written throughout his career.

Courting controversy, flouting convention, Kissing the Mask is classic Vollmann, right down to the dilettante manner in which he inserts himself directly into his subject. The words may go on (and on and on), but they are not minced:

Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese, innocent of formal study in any discipline of art, a graceless dancer afflicted with bad eyesight, I may not be the perfect author for any essay on Noh drama. Fortunately, this is no essay, but a string-ball of idle thoughts." [A footnote inserted here begins: "Moreover, it's not precisely about Noh drama, either" and then extrapolates for another 15 lines stretching over two pages.] "Rarely able to compose a short sentence, let alone a short book, I admit that this attempt of mine to extol the beauties of understatement may well approach the ludicrous. All the same, can't a man praise the woman he loves? Can't he describe her? Without presuming to be her, or to know her as she knows herself, can't he claim acquaintanceship with her moods and ways? In brief, rather than a primer prepared by a Noh expert, this short book is an appreciation, sincere and blundering, resolutely ignorant, riddled with the prejudices and insights of an alien, a theatergoer, a man gazing at femininity.

The vista Kissing encompasses is -- for the most resolute of fans, or for the reader with a lot of spare time on his or her hands -- a uniquely Vollmann-esque one. Which is to say: Fascinating in the most dense and loquacious of ways.

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