William T. Vollmann has been compared to Thomas Pynchon and William S. Burroughs and I think this is a fair comparison - although I feel his style lies somewhere in between the two innovative authors. “The Rainbow Stories” is a collection of 13 interconnecting stories which are based on the colors of the rainbow (“The White Knights”, “Red Hands”, “Scintillant Orange”, “Yellow Rose”, etc) and they range from ancient Babylon, to the Mogul period in India, to modern day (1980s) San Francisco. The modern day stories are told as a mixture of fiction and reportage (in the book’s introduction, the author declares himself “The Recording Angel”) as he follows a group of skinheads, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the homeless denizens of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Some of the descriptive passages in these particular stories bring to mind Burroughs, Kerouac and the other “Beat” writers from a generation earlier. It’s when he delves into the more historical fictional realm - ancient Babylon and Mogul period India - is where the Pynchonian flavor kicks in (along with footnotes, glossaries, etc).
The one connecting theme throughout all these stories is the issue of race and class, the underside of life, the side no one wants you to see or know about and Vollmann attempts to bring it right to you from the inside with his unique use of fiction, reportage and documentary techniques. This is not a quick read and some attention may be required to navigate his often dense (and sometimes digressive) prose style. This book came out in 1989 so for its time it was definitely something unique but since then you have his imitators and those he has influenced over the past twenty five years. It’s a hefty read as well, clocking in at nearly 600 pages and it takes time and effort to really get into this and enjoy it for all it has to offer. Recommended but this is one you have to prepare for. It’s is truly a work of art - sprawling, ambitious, original. If you’re looking for a quick or light read, then it would be wise to avoid.