Category Archives: william t. vollmann

Best Review of Imperial Yet

Imperial Valley Worker

Mark Arax is one of California’s best journalists. He’s the author of two books that in my opinion are essential to understanding present-day California–they are The King of California and West of the West, and they give everyday readers the kind of information necessary to having an informed debate about agriculture in California, which itself is so central to so many major debates going on in this country right now: immigration, sustainable/healthy food, the economy.

So, knowing this about Arax, you can imagine what I thought when I saw that Bookforum featured a review essay by him on Vollmann’s Imperial, a book that investigates so many of the things that are at the heart of Arax’s journalism.

What’s doubly nice is that though Arax doesn’t write fiction, he does understand the craft of writing very well so he’s able to critique Vollmann’s book on both factual and literary grounds. To wit:

Vollmann knows well that many of these people and topics have been amply covered in previous books and essays. It doesn’t matter—he is counting on his extraordinary voice to give us what the others did not. Sometimes he succeeds. But for whole stretches of Imperial, the reader is left with an accretion of detail that serves no larger rationale than that this was simply where Vollmann’s capacious mind wanted to go. As is the case in some of his other works, Vollmann goes to great lengths to avoid telling a story in the conventional sense, one with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Like other writers of his generation, epigones of Joyce and Pynchon, he seems to wave off structure as a contrivance—or, worse, a straitjacket that only lesser talents need. Better to use one’s own outsize gifts to meander and wildly juxtapose; to play verbal games and maybe even invent.

These tricks of his trade might be easier to indulge in a work of fiction; indeed, Vollmann notes that he’d earlier thought of framing the material in Imperial as a novel. But when the subject matter is as real and as genuinely urgent as it is here, readers should not have to strain for coherence the way Vollmann often demands they do.

On the whole, I’d say that Imperial doesn’t work for Arax, although this is the kind of meaty, thoughtful review that’s going to win a book more readers than faint praise by someone who doesn’t know how to write a review. Hat’s off to Bookforum for a great paring that produced a great review.

Your Typical Vollmann Profile

Charles McGrath, NYTimes.

Lede reveling in Vollmann's output? Check.

HOLTVILLE, Calif. — William T. Vollmann, legendarily prolific, writes in a studio that used to be a restaurant in Sacramento. The place is surrounded by a big parking lot where he encourages homeless people to camp out. Inside he runs a one-man assembly line. His bibliography so far includes nine novels, including “Europe Central,” which won the National Book Award in 2005; three collections of stories; a seven-volume, 3,000-page history of violence; a book-length essay on poverty; and a travel book about hopping freight trains, a hobby of his even though his balance is so bad that he has to use a plastic bucket as a stepstool.

Short anecdote to exemplify how nuts Vollmann is? Check.

To research “The Rifles,” a novel partly about the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic, Mr. Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole, where he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. But being eyebrowless has its advantages, he discovered more recently, while experimenting with cross-dressing to research a novel he’s now writing about the transgendered. He didn’t have to pluck his brows when getting made up.

Direct quote to exemplify how nuts Vollmann is? Check.

“Crack,” he said recently, “is a really great drug — it’s like having three cups of coffee at once.”

Discussion of the new book's extreme length, with quote from Vollmann about how editors urged him to cut back, but he wouldn't? Check.

Mr. Vollmann’s editors urged him to cut, he said, and he resisted: “We always go round and round. They want me to cut, and I argue, so they cut my royalties, and I agree never to write a long book again.” He acknowledged that the length of “Imperial” might cost him readers but said: “I don’t care. It seems like the important thing in life is pleasing ourselves. The world doesn’t owe me a living, and if the world doesn’t want to buy my books, that’s my problem.”

Further anecdotes illustrating Vollmann's intrepid nature despite perceived naivete? Check.

Mr. Vollmann is almost excessively polite, and in conversation has a salesman’s habit of using your first name in every other sentence. He seems more innocent than worldly, driven by insatiable curiosity. In Mexicali he turned an annoying and time-consuming visit to a police station, occasioned by what appeared to be a traffic-fine shakedown, into an interview with the station’s chief of information. He also charmed a blushing secretary there and learned the name of the best taco joint in town.

The part where Vollmann talks about his sister drowning? Check.

“When I was a young boy, my little sister drowned, and it was essentially my fault. I was 9, and she was 6, and I was supposed to be watching. I’ve always felt guilty. It’s like I have to have sympathy for the little girl who drowned and for the little boy who failed to save her — for all the people who have screwed up.”

Final irreverent quote from Vollmann? Check.

Mr. Vollmann stood there quietly for a while and said, “You wonder how many are never found and never brought here,” and he added, an edge creeping into his voice: “At least they won’t be stealing our tax dollars anymore. That’s very important.”

UK Review of The Kindly Ones

The Guardian provides the first UK review I've seen of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

This is a decidedly positive review, and it provides some extra-literary info that I was not aware of:

The first significant work of Jonathan Littell, Francophone son of
American spy author Robert, it was an entirely unexpected success.
Gallimard, the publisher, originally printed 5,000 copies. Within
months, Les Bienveillantes had sold 300,000 copies, had been welcomed
by critics as the most important book for 50 years and had won the
Goncourt and Femina prizes. Stupendous sums were paid for its foreign
rights and it went on to sell more than a million copies across Europe. . . .

What accounts for the attention? A 900-page work written in impeccable
French by an American, albeit one educated in France, was always going
to be talked about. But the main reason for the book's notoriety is its
subject matter. The novel tells the story of the Holocaust and Nazism
through the eyes of one of the executioners, an SS Obersturmbannfürher
on the Eastern Front who is attached to the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile
execution squads whose task it was to kill Jews, partisans and other
"undesirables" in the wake of the German advance.

The reviewer goes on to praise Littell's meticulous research (5 years) and "photo-realism" detail, making me wonder if a good reference point would be William T. Vollmann's Europe Central, a book that blends surreal elements with large stretches of very detailed descriptions of World War II battlefronts.

And Stephen Mitchelmore opines that Burke missed the point of the book, although doesn't elaborate as to how.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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