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.