A Short Note on William T. Vollmann


In my head I keep an ideal reading schedule, a schemata that runs to the end of the year and that, if followed exactly, will somehow allow me to cram in and finish every single book that is currently on orbit in my skull, drawing my interest and thoughts.

Books enter and fall out of these orbits all the time, so the schedule always changes; thus it doesn’t behoove me to articulate it here necessarily, but the next two months look like:

Late August-September

Read The Green Pearl and Madouc, thus completing Lyonesse.

All of October

Will be dedicated to reading Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. Normally come October I like to widely roam the horror fiction landscape, dipping behind little autumnal hillocks, letting a haunted woods or two fold itself around me, take a shaky skiff across a dark lake’s grim mirror. But Carrion Comfort has been a perennial white whale, one of those novels I’ve started before and always intended to finish, and I’ve been good, generally, about completing this invisible, longstanding obligations in recent years, so I want to try and get it done in October.

So you can see that even to get through Halloween as envisioned will require a pretty studious devotion with not a ton of wiggle room. And yet, and yet, the book that has been eating up most of my reading time lately is William T. Vollmann’s massive, idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind Imperial.

If you don’t know, Imperial is a gigantic omnivorous 1300 page document about Imperial County, California, and the part of Mexico against which it abuts, bleeds into, is bled into from; evidently the region became a locus of obsession for Vollmann and lead to the creation of this book over the course of ten years.

I’ve known about Vollmann for years, of course; we all have, and we all know the standard line: massively prolific, incredibly ambitious, rarely read. I want to emphasize briefly that last point, because event though pretty much all ‘difficult’ writers are underread, Vollmann seems in particular to suffer from a circumscribed readership.

This hastily-typed post is not meant to analyze that neglect in any particular way; merely to point out that it took me 29 years to finally get around to reading Vollmann, and it has been an electrifying experience so far (about 130 pages into Imperial). Imperial is capacious and beautifully idiosyncratic in the way that all handmade things are; it reminds me a lot of Bishop Castle, or the House on the Rock, or any other truly great roadside attraction: a creation of patience, obsession, focus, and a profound commitment, on the creator’s part, to realizing his particular – so particular – vision in every detail, even at the risk of alienating the world’s every other human heart in that realization.

That statement risks being interpreted as condescending, and I don’t mean it to be. Vollmann’s book is definitely weird, but it’s not just weird. It’s funny, informative, sometimes beautiful, never less than engrossing so far. I would quote from it but my copy is lying across the room and I don’t feel like going to get it. But you would probably like it, actually.

My enthusiasm for Imperial, both as object and as reading experience, has lead me to the cusp of a possible Extended Vollmann Vacation. I secured a copy of Fathers and Crows, which looks to be just as singular and weird and fun as Imperial. I want to start the Seven Dreams cycle, and don’t mind jumping in at volume 2, but if I can find a copy of The Ice-Shirt soon I might try and squeeze it in somewhere soon, and read Fathers and Crows around Thanksgiving.

Or, it may all come to nothing, another vaporous readerly intention dismantled by time’s incessant breeze. But I don’t think Vollmann is going anywhere now, as a presence in my head.

Image Credit: Self Portrait by William T. Vollmann

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.