William T. Vollmann is one of the most ambitious U.S novelists and essayists of the past twenty-five years. At his most admirable, Vollmann is a writer who crosses boundaries of nation, class, culture, and doctrine to understand and represent those on the other side, while acknowledging how those same boundaries protect his own privileges. Yet Vollmann's work is often troubling. Both his investment in the exotic and his tendency to generalize contradict his desire to empathetically represent “others,” and they are linked to another troubling aspect of Vollmann's work, which is the focus of this essay: how the way he represents himself—his border-crossing, empathetic narrative persona—is invested in the symbol and myth of American character, and especially the American character abroad. I argue that Vollmann both critiques and reinvents this archetypal character in a book based on a trip he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan when he was twenty-two years old: An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World. I suggest that Vollmann's narrative persona, which he develops in Picture Show, is a reflexive representation of the American abroad as a well-intentioned failure, a character that resonates with the contemporary imagination of U.S. foreign relations.

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