William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series traces the history of the colonization of North America, beginning in the ninth century and stretching into the twentieth, focusing on the bloody conflicts between the continent’s native inhabitants and its settlers. The fifth volume, The Dying Grass (Viking, 1,356 pages), chronicles the Nez Perce War of 1877, a series of skirmishes that took place over the course of several months, and more than 1,000 miles, between the eponymous Native American tribe and the United States military, and which resulted, predictably, in harsh sanctions and the relegation of the Nez Perces to a reservation.
Most of the novels in the series have employed a variety of perspectives and attention-grabbing authorial intrusions; The Dying Grass is no different. Vollman’s proxy in the series, William the Blind, figures as both scene-setter, excitable reader, and actual narrative character, particularly in the novel’s beginning, as he describes in bewildering detail his efforts to recover writings by and daguerreotypes of the novel’s fictionalized historical figures. Vollmann clearly delights in stylistic flourishes and satirical affectations, apparent from the novel’s first page, which includes the sort of unwieldy subheading found in tedious 18th century virtue novels. Vollmann clearly pays attention to literary and historical tradition, and his dry sense of humor breathes life into the more academic sections of the novel, turn out to be its most successful.