A short introduction serves as an apology for the “string-ball of idle thoughts” that is William T. Vollmann’s newest, Kissing the Mask, a book which perhaps warrants an apology. Vollmann acknowledges his literary excesses—his aversion to brevity for one—and the fact that he is far from an expert in his ostensible subject of Noh theater. Moreover, Vollmann seems to admit, jocularly, that this book is an excuse for excess: “I’m a glutton, a plump middle-aged man now beginning to understand the old lechers who clutch at beauty, not that I’ll do that; I’m proud, so I’ll watch grace in theaters, bars, teahouses; I’ll invent a book about representations of feminine beauty and write off every geisha dance on my taxes.” Nonetheless, Vollmann attempts to embed an exploration of female beauty and the meanings of womanhood within a frequently exhausting examination of the Japanese art of Noh.
Vollmann derives much of his knowledge of Noh from interviews with the art’s current practitioners, especially celebrated actor Umewaka Rokuro, reputed to be the 56th generation in a family tradition of Noh actors which dates back roughly a thousand years. When asked what is the most important element of the theater—“the singing, the dancing, the words?”—Mr. Umewaka tells Vollmann that foremost is the “expression of the mask.” The finely-carved and intricately-detailed masks, some hundreds of years old, offer a variety of expressions which the Noh actor literally fleshes out. In contrast to kabuki, the movement of Noh actors is meditatively slow and their musical accompaniment is a sparse soundtrack of flute and hourglass drums. Noh’s male exclusivity necessitates that female characters are performed by men, and Mr. Umewaka's effectiveness in this causes Vollmann to question the meaning of a “woman.”
This refrain of “what is a woman?” provides the thematic adhesive between the chapters on Noh and the first section’s perhaps livelier digressions on geishas, porn models, and transvestitism. The interviews with the maikos and geikos of geishadom are particularly notable and offer a glimpse into a traditional subculture that hints at a history of exploitation that amazingly still persists in modern Japan. Showing a dedication to his subject, Vollmann at one point sees himself transformed by a professional makeup artist who specializes in turning middle-aged men into women, and provides photographic evidence. The book’s three other sections are made up of much shorter impressionistic essays on subjects such as the Norse conceptions of womanhood, Andrew Wyeth’s Helga paintings, and the Noh plays of Yukio Mishima.
Noh theater, Vollmann observes, is heavily codified and difficult to approach without an extensive knowledge of its history and symbology. The gestures of the Noh actor and his masks are imbued with subtle meaning. “And this subtlety, like all great art, creates its own world which, like the world of nature, we need to survey from one fixed perspective but can walk around in, discovering ever finer details, as if we were to admire the beauty of a fern fist by approaching and touching it, then by viewing it through a hand lens, and finally by using a microscope to observe its cellular organization,” Vollman writes. Kissing the Mask exemplifies this close study; Vollmann’s dissection of his subjects is punctilious, while his prose is often impenetrably obscure.
The book’s failures lie partly in its obfuscating style. The fourth section, comprised of what are intended to be descriptions of individual Noh plays, is painfully overwritten and packed with confusing allusive departures. Vollmann’s descriptive skill is impressive and at moments enchanting when reined in and set on a point. When Vollmann is engaged with a subject his prose is deceptively economical, as densely packed with ideas as with literary technique. However, much of Kissing the Mask is aimless meandering. The effect is like Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, in which momentary fragments of beauty poke out of an indulgent and tedious mess.
Noh theater, with its deceleration of movement and fastidiousness over detail, mirrors Vollmann’s approach to his subject. His meticulous examination of Noh sparks an obsessive interest in feminine beauty, this nebulous concept which can somehow be deciphered if ruminated on deeply enough. Unfortunately, Vollmann’s observation that a “real” woman is a performance as much as a Noh actor in a maiden’s mask is not new territory. His approach, which parses out the elements of feminine beauty on the level of the sign, puts him beyond the camp of the lechers to that of the fetishists. Though that might ultimately be Vollmann’s meaning, that the attempt to answer “what is a woman?” is the desire to kiss the mask.