James Murphy's Reviews > The Rifles

The Rifles by William T. Vollmann
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Apr 04, 2010

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This is the Sixth Dream in Vollmann's ongoing series called Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes in which he recounts the history of European contact with aboriginal Americans. The Rifles concerns contact with the Inuit, both by the doomed Franklin expedition of the 1840s and by a modern day reincarnation of Franklin called Captain Subzero who visits a settlement on Baffin Island, in the Arctic. I'd read Wanting by Richard Flanagan several months ago. It included John Franklin as a character. Because that novel sparked my interest I'd particularly looked forward to The Rifles, so my lukewarm appreciation of it is a little disappointing. Taken separately, the Franklin story of icebound ships and starvation and the Subzero story of falling in love with an Inuit woman named Reepah are engaging. The novel's confusing, however, because the characters of the Victorian Franklin and the modern Subzero impinge upon one another. The characters blur together at times during the novel. Because the shifting between the characters is often even within the same paragraph, it's difficult to keep sorted out. And to my mind doesn't strengthen the novel. The effect does reinforce the idea of dreaming, a major theme of Vollmann's series. Dreaming is also a frame of mind for men under stress in the harsh conditions of a landscape made up of frozen seas, wind and rocky, barren shores. However, I thought the novel worked best when the atmosphere was less the thin ice of dreams and more the solid crags of the islands dotting that landscape. For that reason I liked it less overall than the other completed novels in the series.
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