Of Vollmann’s Imperial

Many reviewers have kvetched a good deal about the page count and weight of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, and this is probably because they have been forced to read the book in a swift period of time. (But if a reviewer possesses such an innate incuriosity, why on earth would she take on the assignment? There are many possible answers to this, and most of them involve snobbery.) For my own part, I am now past the halfway point of Wild Bill’s journey and I don’t feel the need to finish it immediately. By way of its eclectic material, this is not a book to be wolfed down. It is best enjoyed in spurts or between other books, largely because the tone and emphasis can shift from page to page. This is not to suggest that the book is unreadable (far from it: the prose is often quite breezy, entertaining, and fascinating) or that it doesn’t possess its share of problems. (My complete thoughts on the book will be posted here once I cross the finish line.) But in light of a statement I made last year, having now sampled the goods, I believe it is probably an important book worth the price. Although I have never been cheated out of a dollar in my life.


  1. I’m a bit over halfway in — been munching on IMPERIAL for almost two weeks. I find it quicker, easier reading than I expected. Yeah, there are longeurs and repetitions that become annoying tics after awhile — such as the line above — but it’s, well, epic. I’m in the middle of a section about efforts to organize farm workers, and it’s riveting. As is much of it.

    I’m an editor. Given free rein, I’d dump some of the short chapters and tighten a few longer ones, but, my Lord, the research and the sweat that Vollmann has poured into it. I can see why he wants it all.

    If you’re interested in what America really is and how it got that way, IMPERIAL’s worth your time.

    PS: IMPERIAL functions on one level as a pendant to Vollmann’s so-far-incomplete SEVEN DREAMS sequence.

    ETC: The book, as a book, is almost too large and heavy to read. It’s hard to find a reading position that’s comfortable for long. Perhaps it should have been released in a multi-volume paperback set, like 2666.

  2. You know, a good exacto knife can trim Imperial into four easy to carry and read sections.

    I’m middle way through the second quarter.

  3. I agree to that approach Ed. It’s a study of the human condition in a contentious modern desert, or war reporting. I’m about 3/4 of the way through and still engaged. The photo book adjunct is pretty good stuff too–nice 8×10 negs.

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