Happy Birthday William T. Vollmann


Today is the birthday of William T. Vollmann, one of the primal demiurges of contemporary American literature.

I haven’t read much at all of Vollmann’s work. Not more than few pages. For a long time he occupied the margins of my awareness, a name that always came up alongside others that I was reading: Pynchon, Gaddis, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot more directly about Vollmann this year. I admire him, or at least I admire my conjured perception of him; admire the things that everybody admires about him; I’d like to hang out with him sometime and talk about The Tale of Genji. I’ve semi-committed myself to reading Imperial this year and if I hadn’t been unsuspectingly pulled into reading the entire Lyonesse trilogy I would be starting it today, as originally planned.

Here are a few selections from the very beginning of Imperial that I liked. I’d bet it’s a more relevant book than ever, in these hellacious times.


Now we arrived at a little shrine to the Virgin and a cross. Someone had died, perhaps a solo [defined by WTV as “A person who attempts to cross the border illegally and alone”]. Juan read the inscription. Yes, he said, the man had drowned trying to cross into America, where everything was wider, cleaner, safer, more expensive, more controlled and more homogeneous. And by this shrine we parked the car and ascended the levee of crumbling mud-dust to gaze at the United States, where of the three of us only I could legally go. It was hot and thorny and dry on the Mexican side with all those American fields appearing so cruelly green like Paradise, because the water belongs to America, as Juan put it. Beside us, a skinny horse browsed in garbage.

Alpha and Beta

In the clipped lingo of the Border Patrol, American sentinels were called Alpha, while their Mexican counterparts were Beta. Accurate as they undoubtedly were in their depiction of the power relation between the two nations, those designations scarcely overwhelmed with their tact. Alpha pursued Beta’s nationals whenever, like Carlos, they tried to breach Northside [the United States]; Alpha’s nationals swaggered around Southside [Mexico] like lords.

The Fence

Yes, they slithered up and down the fence with ominous grace, like the floor-show girl in her summer dress who flew around the catpole at the Miau-Miau Club on the Mexican side, spreading her legs to show each sector of her audience in turn that she wore no underwear; she did pull-ups, flashing her bottom in the red rotisserie-light that turned her into meat; then she somersaulted naked up the pole and descended it upside down, her hands outstretched, gripping it between her thighs solely, until her long hair was sweeping the floor and the men shrieked in triumphant admiration. And the aspirants flowed paley up and down that metal fence in strange and elegant ways which should have elicited equal applause; but they were men who mopped their forehead with bandannas and who stank of swaet which is our humanity; maybe they’d earn a hundred dollars somewhere before Border Patrol caught them. They became bodies.

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