Ivan: Hi, there. Thanks for agreeing to participate in the interview.
Appaloosa Horse: Hinimi!
Ivan: Tell me about your relationship with Vollmann. When did you meet him? What’s he like?
AH: Well, that’s an interesting story. As you know, Mr. Bill is known for the depth of his research and the extent that he’s willing to throw himself into a dangerous situation. And you also may have noticed that horses have a central role in “The Dying Grass.”
Ivan: Yes, I did notice that. And so did he spend a lot of time with horses prior to writing the book?
AH: Let me ask you a question. Have you ever seen Mr. Bill with his shoes off?
Ivan: No, why?
AH: Don’t know if I should tell you this, but Mr. Bill’s a horse. Way back when, Mr. Bill got this idea to write a multivolume treatise about humanity. Certainly aren’t any people capable of writing a GODd—-d thing that makes sense to us horses. Humans aren’t very good at connecting the dots. And so, yeah, he turned himself from a horse into a human just to get close to you people. He’s been doing it for a while now, and he’s gotten pretty good at it.
Ivan: That’s a substantial commitment to craft.
AH: You don’t know the half of it. You know how he managed to get inside the head of General Oliver Otis Howard, or “Cut Arm” as the Nez Perce called him?
Ivan: Oh my GOD. Did he have his own right arm amputated? Oh, that’s horrible. But it makes total sense. Reading the book you never lose sight of Howard’s disability, he’s always dressing the wound and gritting through the pain, praying for relief. That is… wow.
AH: What are you talking about? No, he didn’t cut his own arm off. That’s stupid. He just stopped drinking for a while. Needed to find out what it’s like to be a teetotaler like General Howard. He may have wanted to trade his right arm for a bottle of whiskey, but come on, amputation? Don’t be ridiculous.
Ivan: OK, fine. As a horse, what was your impression of the novel?
AH: Unceasing horror. A horror for horses. The U.S. Army, the soldiers of the Indian Service, they rode us into dust. For them, we were nothing more than machines. They would ride us through exhaustion and pain and hunger. If we fell behind, they would maim us. Rather than allow us to fall into the hands of the enemy, they would cut our rear tendons. Or shoot us dead. When they had more horses than riders, they would have us pull their supply wagons and artillery. If they still had too many of us, they would murder our weakest. It was survival of the strong and docile. Either serve our human masters or be put to death.
Ivan: Did the Nez Perce treat you any better?
AH: We thrived alongside of them before the arrival of the Bostons, the white men sent by the Grandfather in Washington, D.C. That was before the gold miners and the buffalo hunters and the railroad men and the supply trains and the settlers in their wagon trains. But when the People suffered, we suffered. Starvation. Riding hungry into the cold lands to the North. Sad to say, when it came down to saving their lives, the People played by the same rules as the Army— we were expendable.
Ivan: Let’s talk about the pursuers, the U.S. Army. Why do you think they treated their horses so poorly? Like machines, as you say.
AH: It’s easy to treat horses as machines when you’re accustomed to treating other humans as machines. The Confederacy using darker-skinned humans as farm machines. War employing humans as fighting machines. Dehumanization, in different forms and extents.
another nauseous breakfast gagged down in darkness, then “Boots and Saddles,” the move out, two-note walking-music, foreheads aching in the wind, boot-nails pricking half-rotten feet at a hundred ten paces per minute under the eye of our hatefully tireless general, men’s heads dangling down as if they were exhausted horses, our horses going lame, (961)
And when you dehumanize people, it’s dead simple to mechanize animals as organic transportation and freight carriers, horse-machines to be utilized or killed.
Now there’s a real fighting horse.
O, I can handle him lieutenant. See, when you’re aiming to control a vicious half-broke buckskin, and you’ve got him partway choked, you don’t let up until he does.
Well, if you can’t break him in camp to-night, shoot him.” (965)
Ivan: It does seem that mechanization was a central theme of Chapter VI: “Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic,” literally and figuratively at the center of the work.
AH: Yes! Let’s look at the epigraph to the chapter, an actual quote from General Howard that likens the ranks of a battalion to “a complete machine which could make no failure as long as it was in order.” And later, Howard quotes a saying of General Sherman: “Our Government should become a machine, self-regulating, independent of the man” (884).”
Ivan: Do you see contemporary echoes in these machine metaphors?
AH: My friend, you’re starting to think like a horse. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Ivan: From a horse’s point of view, what else struck you from the novel?
AH: Chess is stupid. Two horses supporting a 16-person army? You’d need at least 32 horses, plus pack mules. Yet these Army officers sat around all night pushing pawns, hopping knights, sliding bishops, castling. Nothing whatsoever to do with a cavalry war. If you’re going to play a wargame, invent one with logistics. The real wargame is a game of horses.
Ivan: Game of Roans.
AH: Game of Groans, more like it.
Ivan: For someone just starting out with Vollmann studies, would you consider “The Dying Grass” a good place to start?
AH: Absolutely, and I’m not just saying that because I’m the first non-human mammal to appear on the cover of one of Mr. Bill’s books. Once you get past the first fifty pages of preliminaries—the “grass-texts,” the author’s contemporary investigations of maps and faded photos, the forward prolepsis of a wagon train journey through an American West largely cleared of Native Americans—past those preliminaries, you meet your steady companions for the rest of the novel, the soldiers of the Indian Service, the personalities of the Nez Perce tribe, the muleteers, the volunteers, the victims, the fighters, the healers. Once the chase is on, it’s mostly conversations and straightforward narrative involving people who reveal themselves in greater depth as the novel progresses. It’s a long ride, but you have talkative, colorful companions. It goes fast.
Ivan: In the novel, each tab stop represents a different voice or focalization. Does this unusual formatting and indentation make the story more difficult to follow?
AH: It’s like this: Say you’re in the stable, in one of the middle stalls. The horses on your right are talking about one thing and the horses on the left are talking about another. If you’re listening quietly, you can follow both conversations. Even with your puny, misshapen ears, you’ve had that experience, right? Well, that’s how the novel works. Not a problem.
Ivan: Fantastic. That’s all the time we have for today.
AH: Thanks for having me. You can pick up The Dying Grass (Viking, 2015) at your local independent bookstore. Given the formatting and the supplementary materials, the print version is definitely the way to go.
Ivan: Good advice. Thank you for your insights.
Just published by The Seattle Review of Books: “The writer we deserve,” my reader’s guide to remixing The Dying Grass.
illustration by Tamara Schneider