I rush through the Japanese night, devouring it


I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann. I can’t fail to admire his tender heart and wide-awake conscience, and it’s hard not to appreciate his energy, his intensity, his unstoppable curiosity about the world and everything in it — women, violence, death, war zones, the night. Who else would give us a subtitle, as in his new book, that spills over and over, and begin a work of 504 pages, complete with bibliography, glossary, chronology and five appendixes, with a modest disclaimer about his “short book”? Actually, it is short when compared with his seven-volume 2003 treatise on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” and the 811-page novel, “Europe Central,” that won the National Book Award in 2005. It’s now been all of 10 months since the 1,306-page Vollmann opus “Imperial” appeared, serving up every­thing you’d thought to ask about the Mexico-California border, and much you probably hadn’t. In the age of Twitter and 24-frame-per-second attention spans, such almost demented obsessiveness is itself an exhilaration. My problem has been that paragraphs that seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure, or suit­cases into which you push every scrap you’ve ever collected, underwear and index cards spilling out the sides. These go a little oddly with a 24-page chapter (as in “Kissing the Mask”) on “What Is Grace?” Whenever I read about another of Vollmann’s earnest attempts to rescue a prostitute from the life she’s possibly chosen, I applaud his romantic hopefulness as much as I worry about his Quiet Americanism. And if any place would seem profoundly ill-suited to his hyper-wordy, over-the-top, madly indulgent approach — his love of gaucherie, uninflectedness and analytical filler — you’d think it would be the land of haiku and Noh plays. As they say around Kyoto, there’s a reason humans were given two ears and only one mouth. Reader, I was wrong — in part.

more from Pico Iyer at the NYT here.

Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone