William T. Vollmann

One of the Yahoo reading groups has been reading William T. Vollmann this past quarter and I decided to read either Imperial (1300 pages) or Royal Family (800 pages):  I finally selected the short novel and keep it in my bedroom where I can read it in the morning sun sitting in my power-recliner (also known as the Heitzer) or sitting up in bed with the dogs sleeping around me (I commonly have to reread the parts where I couldn’t hardly keep my eyes open). As you might imagine, the reading is slow and my arms are getting tired holding up this tome in bed at night.

The Royal Family is part of Vollmann’s writings on prostitution and the seamier side of our society. But it’s also a detective story. Here is the blurb from the back cover of my copy:

Henry Tyler is a failing private detective in San Francisco. When the woman he loves, a Korean-American named Irene—who happens to be married to his brother John—commits suicide. Henry clings despairingly to her ghost. Struggling to turn grief and guilt into something precious, he employs his professional skills to track down the “Queen of the Prostitutes” and her royal court of street-walkers and addicts, who accept him readily into their fold. While henry follows a new path to nightmare beauty and degradation, John defends himself against Irene’s memory with stoic blindness. Driven by his obsessive ambition as a contract lawyer, John focuses on one very lucrative project—drawing up the paperwork for a mysterious establishment in Las Vegas, call Feminine Circus, whose proprietor just happens to be hunting for the Queen.

If you haven’t read William Vollmann just let me say that there is a lot of fiction and non-fiction and semi-fiction you are missing. One of Vollmann’s works is so long that it isn’t even in print any more and only the one-percent can afford it from the secondary market. But for us mortals, Vollmann has reduced the seven volumes of the original down to just one volume that is still an impressive chunk of writing. Unfortunately you won’t get a good idea of how prolific Vollmann is if you stop in to the local Barnes and Noble:  I suppose the bookstore had to purge their shelves of authors such as Vollmann to make room for Twilight and it’s ilk.

I referred to some of Vollmann’s works as semi-fiction:  But some people still confuse non-fiction with fiction and in Vollmann’s case, there’s even a classification of non-fiction which reads like fiction (or is it fiction that reads like non-fiction?). Actually, … It’s All Fiction!

Look into this impressive list of books (from Wikipeda):

Novels & Collections

  • You Bright and Risen Angels (1987)
  • The Rainbow Stories (1989) (collection)
  • 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs (1991) (collection)
  • The Atlas (1996) (collection)
  • Europe Central (2005)
  • Last Stories (2013) (collection)

Seven Dreams series (Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes)

  • The Ice-Shirt (1990) (Volume One)
  • Fathers and Crows (1992) (Volume Two)
  • Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (2001) (Volume Three)
  • The Rifles (1994) (Volume Six)
  • The Dying Grass (2013) (Volume Five)

The “Prostitution Trilogy”

  • Whores for Gloria (1991)
  • Butterfly Stories: A Novel (1993)
  • The Royal Family (2000)


  • An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World (1992)
  • Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (2003)
  • Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (2006) (Part of the “Great Discoveries” series)
  • Poor People (2007)
  • Riding Toward Everywhere (2008)
  • Imperial (2009)
  • Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater (2010)
  • Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan (2011) (eBook)

A good introduction to this author is Expelled From Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader which collects representative text from the novels, the ancillary writing, and even some of the as-yet unpublished writing (at that time). There is a good introduction to Vollmann at the New York Times.

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