William T. Vollmann’s latest opus is brilliant, but it offers no comfort to its readers.
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.”