The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona is a novel at once global and intensely individual. The setting is Germany, Latvia, Afghanistan, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Cambodia, and scattered corners of the U.S. The time is near present (2010-11), past (latter 20th century), and future (2029). The characters struggle on their solitary personal planes within this compelling grand sweep. Each person is “a world that walked through the world.” The confused panic of an abandoned five-year-old is every bit as wrenching as a soldier’s stoic endurance of the siege of Khe Sanh. Scibona wields words with exacting lyricism and styles scenes with vivid skill. His descriptions keenly detail “the hidden history inside of things…the infinity of people in the unbounded past it took to make just one person…”
Since its release in March of 2019, The Volunteer has garnered praise-filled reviews that draw comparisons with the likes of DeLillo, Pynchon, and Carver in publications ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Fe New Mexican to the Kenyon Review, The Washington Post, and The Economist. National Public Radio’s Jason Sheehan calls it “a war story unlike any other war story, a story of fathers and sons, of family…and of generations of betrayal and abandonment…a remarkable book.” Writing for The New York Times, Hermione Hoby concludes, “by paying grave attention to…both the self and everything beyond it, Scibona has built a masterpiece.”
Scibona is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel, The End, was a 2008 National Book Award Finalist, also earning him a Young Lions Fiction Award and inclusion by The New Yorker on their list of “20 Under 40” fiction writers. Among other awards, Scibona has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a Whiting Award. He is currently the Sue Ann and John Weinberg Director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Dead Darlings is honored to have him spend this time talking with us.
Dead Darlings: What is the origin story of The Volunteer?
About ten years ago, in a German airport, I saw something like the events of the first three pages of the book: a boy had evidently been abandoned in the concourse, and no one could figure out what language he was speaking. His isolation at that moment was complete, both literal and seemingly metaphysical. Imagine yourself alone at that age in a place where no one understands what you’re saying, and with no prospect of escape.
I tried to help but was of no use. An airline attendant and I walked him through the concourse as far as the edge of the secure zone. Then she led him outside, and I never saw him again.
Over the years, I couldn’t shake him. How had he gotten there, and what would become of him? I needed an answer, which only imagination could provide. He was like the character in the Hawthorne story “Wakefield,” cast out of the universe. The book is my way of putting him back inside.
Did you know from the start that your novel would encompass such wide-ranging people and places, evoking Biblical vastness?
It isn’t so big. I wanted to describe a life, that’s all. The choices a person made, what happened to him, where he went, who he met there. I didn’t have any pre-existing idea of scope. The scope expanded to fit the people within it. But maybe you’re referring to a thematic element, the connections among people in spite of large distances in space and time.
We may feel a primal isolation, which the boy’s crisis at the beginning dramatizes. The book keeps coming around to a fact that refutes that isolation in a fundamental way: each one of us comes from two people, and each of them from two more. Viewed from above, the family connections among us continue without limit.
I’m drawn to the view that by virtue of consciousness, of our ability to project thought without limit beyond ourselves, a person is an expression not only of something bigger than herself but of the infinite. In this view, conscious beings are less like the individual leaves of a tree than each expressions of the whole tree. This puts the human being in a singular place in the cosmos, and I’m pretty sure I’m okay with that, despite my doubts on the gloomy days. The novel as a form implicitly assumes that human beings are uniquely important.
Hermione Hoby’s review of The Volunteer asserts that it refuses the current “trend of smallness” that “moves just beyond the self to draw highly circumscribed worlds.” How do you react to this characterization, especially when the self (and/or loss of self) in its particular sphere strikes me as one of your central themes?
Let’s say there are two senses in which we talk of a self. We speak of a person distinct from others, our separateness: “I did it all myself.” Who did it? Not others, but me. If you substitute “us” for “me” there, you don’t change much. Who did it? Not them, but us. To fixate on identity as a clan, as a member of an interest group, only leads to grander narcissism, like the narcissism of nationalism.
But we also speak of self in another way, our capacity for inwardness. “I searched within myself for an answer,” i.e., I entered a reflective space. None of us has ever gotten to any sort of bottom when looking inwardly. The inner space goes infinitely down. And being unbounded there, I think of it as mixing with the selves of everyone, like wells drawing from a common aquifer.
The self that Vollie Frade, especially, hopes to escape is the separating self.
The inward self, which is held in common not only with people like us but with everyone, allows us to be at once alone and also free of that isolated and separating self that’s always busily tending its precious hedgerows.
One of the paradoxical things about the novel as a form is that by homing in on a single person’s particular experience, her inner being, you have access to the common self she shares with everyone else in the book and everyone who reads it.
I am also intrigued by the related theme of naming and its power. Nicknames, assumed names, and changed names abound in The Volunteer. And yet, you have chosen Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!” as an epigraph. Is there a paradox here?
Dickinson is articulating an ideal, the opposite of Marlon Brando’s ideal in On the Waterfront—“I could have been somebody.” Without getting into whether one of those ideals is better than the other, it’s certainly true that Vollie is invested in the work of becoming no one. He pursues this more explicitly than some of the other characters, and the way his name changes becomes a prominent story within the book. But this happens in life all the time. The person born William Blythe III is Bill Clinton to us. Betsy Herring is Elizabeth Warren. Paul was Saul. The changing of a name is the most succinct way we have of articulating a change in self. Your lover has a name for you no one knows, and her love changes you.
Vollie, like the speaker of the Dickinson poem, hopes for a state that isn’t just a new self but a departure from that separating self, in order to sink into the world around him.
Dickinson doesn’t say, “I’m Nobody; woe is me; I am alone forever.” She immediately seeks out another, also Nobody. And the next line of that poem, “Then there’s a pair of us!” is a moment of joy and relief. A communion is possible.
I was struck by the many religious undertones, be they with relation to hope, forgiveness, fate, belief and unbelief, or “loneliness as the soul’s inborn affliction.” Given our largely secular society, why this focus?
I agree that established religion exerts a different influence than it once did. But it is still a powerful force in the public life of much of the country and in the private life of more of it. In the broad sweep of cultures past and present, our more secular society is a blip on the screen.
This recent tilt toward secularism does not efface the past. The fashion that describes contemporary western life as secular ignores the reality that we live inside history, not after it. And religion is baked into that history, like it or not, as religion is baked into language—certainly into written English.
Emerson said that language was fossil poetry. To treat language as if it did not come to us bearing its history is to lose the possibility of a great depth of meaning.
To take an easy example, I have no objection to using the word “grace” to mean prettiness or charm, but it also means “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” That’s the first definition in Merriam-Webster. I am not trying to argue that religion, any religion, is true but that we speak and think within a complex tradition formed largely under its influence. Religion got into the water supply a long time ago and we drink it every day, whether or not we consider ourselves religious, which only a few of the characters in the book do.
Many of the secondary characters in The Volunteer are drawn with a precision that might belie their lesser role in the story. What is your intention in doing so?
I want to allow everyone his own reality. It’s true that sometimes the story needs to use a man as an instrument, to open the door for the woman who is the protagonist, but the writer has to balance this need of the story to use him against his own opinion that he is no mere instrument but the center of a subjective world. In certain philosophical traditions, treating a person as an instrument is the definition of immorality. Aesthetically, I think it just feels cheap.
Why pitch the reader back in time to a scene portraying the protagonist’s newly married parents so late in the book, when early on he seemed to find leaving them easy?
Oh, it was horribly difficult for him to leave them, and we see how hard it was by the persistence of his misgivings as long as he lives. It’s just that his misgivings show themselves explicitly to the reader only at pointed moments.
The character’s resistance to an intense emotion we infer she must have felt can be a magnet for the reader’s empathy. You read in hope that that emotion in the subtext will manifest itself. “Tell him you love him!” you want to shout at a character who you infer must love him. What led you to that inference? Often in a novel it’s the record the writer gives you of what the character has done, not just the direct access the writer may give you to her mind.
Anyway, about why Tilly’s parents’ wedding night shows up where it does—at the risk of overstepping the reader’s prerogatives, I’d point out the moment of Tilly and Louisa coming together, after long resistance and a hundred failures, that immediately precedes that chapter.
Did you find, in writing this second novel, that there were lessons you’d learned with The End that helped you, different as the two books are?
I think of them as different as night and day, even if I know there are certain preoccupations, specific to me, that must be in both books. One thing I may have learned is how to take advantage of some previous technical choices that really don’t have to be reinvestigated every time I sit down to write a sentence. Anyone’s first novel will bear the marks, for well or ill, of his teaching himself to use the language, growing his own style. (Philip Glass, if I remember an interview correctly, defined style as an artist’s characteristic way of solving problems.)
So even if you’re determined to write a very different book the second time around, you can nonetheless refer to some previous choices—about language, scene, dialogue. And one hopes that frees the mind to focus on other things. Less fuss; more world.
Is there a question you wish someone would ask you about The Volunteer, and how would you answer?
I hope to write novels that don’t direct the reader’s curiosity to me or my intentions. There are two authorities to which I want the reader to direct her curiosity. One is in the text, the other is in the reader’s own experience. I know nothing the reader doesn’t know.