In his new book, Kissing the Mask, William T. Vollmann asks, “What is a woman?” Reading this bizarre tome, my first question is: Who is William T. Vollmann? The thing is, I can better predict the ways of women than I can the mind that produced this great new book. And therein lies part of the answer to my question: William T. Vollmann is one of our greatest living writers.
Kissing the Mask, the author’s collected ramblings on Japanese Noh Theater—a style of musical drama performed for centuries with men in wooden masks playing both male and female roles—is not as good as last year’s Imperial, but it is the ideal book to validate such a claim, if only for its strangeness amid Mr. Vollman’s impossibly vast (and impossibly strange!) catalog. The book proves what we should already know. Nobody even comes close to Mr. Vollmann. He writes a Gravity’s Rainbow every year. He’s a narcotic Henry James, replacing repression with promiscuity, fearing nothing. He’s been Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Conrad, Nabokov and Beckett simultaneously. Here, he tries his hand at Simone De Beauvoir.
Mr. Vollmann dismisses his dense, 400-page treatise on love—told through the lens of Noh Theater technique and filled with countless extra-textual references to porn, Norse poetry, fashion magazines and geishas, among other things—as “a short book.” In attempting to answer the question “What is a woman?” he turns first to the male actors in a Noh play who wear women’s masks. Speaking of one of the masks, he writes, “It’s so real, so well-fashioned that it could almost be a real girl’s decapitated head, except that it’s not dead, nor gruesome; it could come alive at any instant.” He continues: “The masks, the costumes, those are beautiful, but Noh itself is the beauty.”
Kissing the Mask is much less a researched account of Noh and more an oral history of different people’s perception of women, and Mr. Vollmann is relentless in his search for intimate details. He stares at Britney Spears’ belly button ring in a teen magazine and contemplates her “moist pinkness.” He asks an American woman, whom he’s never met, how getting penetrated affects the way she thinks and feels. “What is a woman to me?” he concludes with another question: “What can she be, but other?” He gets made-over as a woman and thinks, “I am other,” as he looks at his mascaraed face in the mirror. And there are pictures! Horrifying pictures! To which I ask again, who the fuck is Vollmann?
Most importantly, he’s a writer so wonderful that he confines the following description to a mere footnote: “From a certain train journey in Japan I recollect sleepwalled valleys; reddish-brown foliage mixes with the green vertical streamers of the fog; and there comes a cool silent rain under whose blows the gunmetal river twitches as if trout-stirred. My window occludes the shoulder of rust-leaved mountains. For an instant, the fog offers me a single leafless branch.” Lesser writers—even great writers—spend their entire careers trying to compose a paragraph so timelessly delicate that it creates, even surpasses, the beauty it describes.
In his best chapter, he equates cosmetic surgery with having sex for money and, on the strength of his writing alone, manages to be subtle about it (I’ve hardly done justice to how shockingly tasteful this book is). When Mr. Vollmann is at the top of his game, as he is in this chapter, he functions like a more hallucinogenic Virginia Woolf, pulling the distant memories of his life—from the pain of an ex-lover’s exit to a casual rendezvous with a prostitute—into the present. He makes these recollections real by writing them down. They exist simultaneously with his druggy ruminations on invasive surgery and insulting advertisements in women’s magazines. It is like reading a mind in the midst of thought.
But eclipsing the perfection of the associative echo chamber of Mr. Vollman’s prose is the perfection of the wooden gaze of a Noh mask. For Mr. Vollmann, femininity is a mask. And there’s no getting behind the mask. “I want to kiss the mask,” he writes. “And when I put my lips against its wooden emptiness, I want to feel a woman’s tongue in my mouth.” What is a woman? The mask is only wood, of course, and kissing it does not produce any answers. Mr. Vollmann has taken on an impossible question. Aware of his failure from the outset, he keeps writing. For that, Kissing the Mask is a triumph.