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.