But. In the case of William Vollmann, it’s oddly high praise. Which is to say: I’ve been reading The Dying Grass, and while I generally do enjoy the challenge of a Vollmann book, I’ll be one of the first to admit that there’s often long passages where I just kind of shrug and plow through and wait to pick up the thread again, but, with this book, that isn’t happening all that often. There’s still a good deal of go-with-the-flow here but I find the flow itself to be pretty much front and center and refreshingly followable, without ever feeling either like he’s dumbing the work down or the story down; he’s still stubbornly himself at every turn, but the version of his writing he’s putting forward here is the kind that makes it a lot easier to want to suggest that maybe people who wouldn’t typically read Vollmann might want to give this one a shot. Don’t let the indentation cause concern; for me it feels almost like a poetic or dramatic device rather than one with any real strict literal meaning to it, one that often enough simply blends into the flow of the book but every now and then gives rise to a really startlingly crisp moment of insight and affect. I don’t know that I would literally call this book poetry but I would say that it puts me in mind of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, except you know even for not being poetry Vollmann’s book offers far superior poetry on just about every single page.
For the last two weeks, over lunch, I’ve been reading Imperial by William Vollmann. I’d actually started reading the book earlier this year, getting about 50 pages into it as part of a plan to read about 50 pages per week until I was done, before I promptly forgot the book existed after I had to move it off the coffee table and onto a high shelf, the quality of the hard cover being of a sort that my cat, it would seem, liked, at least enough to gnaw on, quite randomly, this being the sort of behavior that could not surprise me but which still took me off guard; he’d never eaten any of my other books. From time to time in the months that followed I’d notice the book, up there, near the ceiling, as I ran from one other priority to some other other priority, never thinking to actually take it back down during the slow moments to make good on the promises I’d made to myself when I’d first bought it, which is to say, to actually read enough of it before the paperback came out to warrant spending the cost of the hardcover (purchased either on sale or with a coupon or something I’m certain but still a fair dollar or two more than I’d be likely pay for a used video game, which, naturally, would provide far more immediate, gratuitous per-dollar-per-hour enjoyment than reading a chaotically long essay about immigration and irrigation in southern California) (and if there is a paperback version to come, which one would like to assume there will be, it has not shown up yet, at least, not according to my cursory glance at product listings on the Web). It was only a couple weeks ago that I finally took it back down and loaded it into my bag and took it with me to the day job, where it’s been sitting on my desk since, like some comforting dog, ready to attract the notice of neighbors, only to nip at their fingers when they go in for a pet behind the ears. Except, this book does not, in fact, despite its bulldog size, bite: it is, so far, I am willing to say, after 140 pages of semi-attentive, semi-distracted, sandwich-sauce-on-my-fingers, e-mail-buzzing-behind-my-head reading, about as compulsively readable a work by Vollmann I’ve yet to pick up and give an even semi-serious attempt at wading through—this is a book with so much love to give, can it help it if it puts its paws up on your shoulders, leans in deep, and slobbers all over your face? The sentences—that lovely fundamental unit of writing which, from book to book, paragraph to paragraph, Vollmann has (kindly) juggled with and (less-kindly) struggled with—are crisp, and have things to say, things to tell you, and never for a second lose sight of that fact; even if he goes long, even if he goes florid, it’s with intent to tell you something, to communicate facts and emotions to you, the reader, crushed under their weight of fur and bones. Yes, emotion: this may be a history, this may be a study, but it is an altogether, so far, a story, a human one, in which humans are creatures who do things that mean things to them—be it crossing a border, be it protecting a border, be it farming a land, be it sailing a river of shit, be it being in love, be it being out of love, be it writing a book. This is a book that for that reason is enjoyable to read, engaging, compelling; lunch time reading can be a trick, with everything waiting at the other end of the half-hour one might allot oneself if one is willing to feel like a bit of a slacker, and a book that does not compel can be an easy book to shove back in the bag in favor of answering a query or doing something else of value to somebody else. But Imperial, ah, Imperial—I want to remain in your embrace. Through the fatigue, despite the distraction, I will remain past the day’s goal of ten for an eleventh page. Or twelfth. Or another.