Friday, August 23, 2013

Life as a Terrorist

by William T. Vollmann

It's been a long time since I've heard anything from William T. Vollmann, an author I've been following since I was eighteen.  For a while there, he was publishing books almost as quickly as I could read them, but he's published nothing since his Imperial.  This article is his first in Harper's in over two years, so it made me very happy to see his name on the cover (alongside Nicholson Baker's - it's like this issue was written just for me).

In this article, Vollmann recounts the experience of acquiring, and reading, his FBI file.  Well, 294 out of at least 785 pages of his file, much of it padded with duplicated papers (although not consistently redacted ones).  When I saw what the article was going to be about, I wasn't all that surprised that Vollmann would have an FBI file.  After all, as a young man, he travelled with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and has reported in his own unique style from a number of the world's more anti-American regions.  He also once resuced a young girl out of prostitution in Thailand.  To my mind, these are some of the things that can lead to problems with a spy agency.

What I didn't expect to learn was that Vollmann was once considered as a suspect in the Unabomber case.  Sure, over a thousand people were considered, but the FBI went so far as to put his home under surveillance at one point.  That's the kind of thing that rattles you, when you learn it about yourself, I'm sure.

Vollmann's writing is as clear as ever.  He develops compassion for the agents who wrote about him, even imagining that one of them may have fallen in love with him (a very common occurrence in his writing).  It also helps explain his difficulties in crossing the border back from Mexico, which he talks about in Imperial.  His story has some pretty clear connections to much of what is happening in America in the area of government surveillance, and is very relevant, and alarming.

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