Authors like to flatter themselves by imagining for their work an “ideal reader,” a cherubic presence endowed with bottomless generosity, the sympathy of a parent, and the wisdom of, well, the authors themselves. In Carbon Ideologies, William T. Vollmann imagines for himself the opposite: a murderously hostile reader who sneers at his arguments, ridicules his feeblemindedness, scorns his pathetic attempts at ingratiation. Vollmann can’t blame this reader, whom he addresses regularly throughout Carbon Ideologies, because she lives in the future, under radically different circumstances—inhabiting a “hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet.” He envisions her turning the pages of his climate-change opus within the darkened recesses of an underground cave in which she has sought shelter from the unendurable heat; the plagues, droughts, and floods; the methane fireballs racing across boiling oceans. Because the soil is radioactive, she subsists on insects and recycled urine, and regards with implacable contempt her ancestors, who, as Vollmann tells her, “enjoyed the world we possessed, and deserved the world we left you.”
Carbon Ideologies is a single work published in two parts, No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative, the bifurcation due to the insistence of Vollmann’s weary publisher and the limitations of modern bookbinding. Of all the writers working today, Vollmann must be the most free: He writes fiction, essays, monographs, criticism, memoir, and history, usually merging several forms at once, taking on subjects as diverse as Japanese Noh theater, train hopping, and the Nez Perce War, all the while dilating to whatever length suits him. (After 25 books, his career word count now rivals Zane Grey’s.)
As is often the case with Vollmann, his decades-long war of attrition with his editors spills over into the pages of the finished book. Carbon Ideologies begins with the confession that the original manuscript was “several times longer than its contractually stipulated maximum”; after “anxious negotiations,” his publisher “finally agreed to indulge me once more.” Not, mind you, his nonfiction publisher—which he walked away from after it proposed an advance that was less than the amount of money he had already spent on research—but his fiction publisher. (“I sincerely hope that someday all this will be worth it to you,” he writes in a loving acknowledgment.) Viking did hold the line when it came to the endnotes, which run to 129,000 words and can be examined online or in Vollmann’s archive at Ohio State University.
The 1,268 pages that remain are as gloriously and maddeningly unclassifiable as most of Vollmann’s work. The closest analogue is Rising Up and Rising Down, his seven-volume, 3,300-page treatise on violence, which Vollmann calls a companion text. Carbon Ideologies is about another kind of violence, the violence inflicted by the production of coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear energy. The victims of these carbon ideologies are not only the species of fauna and flora that are going extinct, the fragile ecosystems that will collapse, and the future generations of humans who will have to subsist on insects. The victims are us—we who are now living and who deny, to varying extents, the degree of damage we are inflicting upon ourselves. Carbon Ideologies is a chronicle of self-harm.