cover image The Rifles: 8

The Rifles: 8

William T. Vollmann. Viking Books, $22.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-670-84856-0

The Rifles is the ``sixth dream'' in Vollmann's staggeringly ambitious Seven Dreams sequence, which promised to be an imaginative charting of the European conquest and settling of North America. And it is the third dream to be published (Vollmann is breaking chronological order), following The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows , which detailed the Viking arrival in Newfoundland at the end of the first millenium and the French foray into the St. Lawrence River region in the middle of the second, respectively . The Rifles jumps to about 1850 and chronicles, in a highly impressionistic manner (though, like all Vollmann's work, it is prodigiously researched and gracefully written), Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. By now, more than 2000 pages into the Dreams project, an evolving structure is becoming evident. Whereas in the previous two books, contemporary references were kept to a minimum, in this volume the authorial present, in the guise of Captain Subzero, is a strong structural element. In fact, the central imaginative conceit is that Subzero/Vollmann (the author's own trip to the Arctic Circle is detailed in the endnotes) becomes a spiritual ``twin'' of Franklin, even sharing the same Inuk woman. Readers wishing for a dramatic re-creation of Franklin's expedition will be disappointed, for Vollmann is more interested in the cultural clash between Europeans and Arctic natives, and the rough fates of both. The elliptical, frenetically snapshot style grows tiresome at times, and one has the sense that Vollmann is desperately at work on historical material that is yielding little that is new, making his own increased presence a necessity. (Feb.)