Imperial. William T. Vollmann. Viking. 1334pp, $55.00.
In the first chapter of Imperial we find William T. Vollmann on the filthy, shit- and trash-filled New River (a “reeking brown cloaca”), sweating in a 110+ degree temperature, rowed in a cheap rubber raft by a Mexican who has never been in a boat in his life. Water splashes on them and now Vollmann has a sore that won’t heal. It’s here that he begins his investigation into the “imaginary entity called Imperial”—an area encompassing Imperial County, CA, plus an equal area south of the Mexican border. It’s a wide-ranging exploration that includes illegal aliens, pollution, water quality, the infighting and bureaucracy in America over water rights and irrigation, the idea of boundaries, poverty, the systematic oppression of the poor, agriculture, the desert, the relationship between America and Mexico, farm laborers’ attempts at unionizing, and the allegedly brutal conditions in the maquiladoras, among dozens of other things.
Imperial is an enormous book, and Vollmann attempts to fit in everything he possibly can about this area with which he is seemingly obsessed, and in which he sees so many possibilities yet so much inequity: “Let’s therefore call Imperial County the center of the world, for so it is to anyone who pauses to stand within it, making it here,” he writes.1
Regarding Mexico, Vollmann admits that it is “a nation of which after all these years and pages I remain largely ignorant . . .” though this sort of defeatist admission is nothing new for Vollmann, who also writes: “If only I knew how to tell you how beautiful it is!” Such candor is part of what lets Imperial succeed as we follow Vollmann’s accounts of his adventures and watch him constantly become stymied. At one point he purchases a secret camera that fits in a button so that he can infiltrate a maquiladora and reveal the conditions inside; he’s rebuffed at every turn, and like many of the sequences in the book, he spends so much time in the pursuit of his goal that even in the end when he finally fails to achieve what he was after, the chase is exhilarating. (In this case, the chase includes watching him spend peso after peso on surveillance equipment that doesn’t work correctly, and then later sitting through an hour of footage of treetops and the sky since the tiny hidden camera doesn’t allow him to fast-forward).
It’s not as though Vollmann isn’t aware of his inadequacies. As he puts it: “In Mexico I have been lied to about subterranean Chinese tunnels; I have been very occasionally cheated and misdirected over the years; but never in Imperial have I felt so walled off by silence as I did when researching the maquiladoras.” Or: as a private investigator tells him: “Let’s face it, Bill. Investigative reporting is not really your strong suit.” But here he is, pouring thousands of dollars and years of his life into the pursuit of understanding this place where illegals try and try and try again to cross into America, where Mexicans will often proclaim that despite their poverty they are more free than Americans, where pollution is off the charts and where factory conditions are unspeakably awful. Vollmann is dedicated to Imperial because he wants to explain how, because they are divided by a line—the border—life can be so different for people who live hundreds of feet apart.
This point is driven home in one of Imperial’s most brilliant sections, where Vollmann juxtaposes of the lives of two poor Mexicans—one just over the line in the U.S., the other just over the line in Mexico. The one in Mexico is a homeless beggar and the one in the U.S. is a laborer/vegetable harvester. Jose (the beggar) points out that Lupe (the laborer) is luckier because he lives in America, but by now we know that Lupe is completely miserable, and Jose isn’t doing much better. There’s such a sadness to both their tales, their routines, their poverty, yet they both get up every day and do what they have to do to stay alive.
Imperial contains all the adventure that was missing from Riding Toward Everywhere as Vollmann enlists the help of everyone from Mormon genealogists to an army of private detectives to chemists to his hired translators and guides. This group includes Jose Lopez, whom Vollmann sends into all the Chinese restaurants in Mexicali to ask about the fabled Chinese tunnels—but Lopez is completely unsuccessful, probably due to the fact that he reeked of diarrhea, from which he’d been suffering all day. It’s rumored that the Chinese are “harboring a vampire down there” in the tunnels, and Vollmann is determined to know the truth. (His friend Lupe Vasquez’s recommendation on how to find info on the tunnels: pay a cop to “put his pistol against the head of the nearest old gook.”) Furthermore, Vollmann rides along with the border patrol, who arrest thousands of would-be illegal immigrants every night; later, in a gripping scene Vollmann recounts his own experiences being detained by immigration when crossing the border, his anger and rage at both his treatment and, especially, the treatment of his girlfriend.
Readers who have never cared for Vollmann’s style won’t be converted by Imperial, but it does in fact contain some of his most wonderful writing, as well as some of his trademark similes: “I see a glaring white road through volunteer alfalfa as short as the stubble on a pubis that was shaved two weeks ago”; “You’ll be relieved to know that on the other side of the ditch, everything remains as clean as a fifteen-year-old prostitute”; “This book, like the Virgin of Guadalupe herself, is syncretic; Liliana, like Mexicali, was still more so, for she possessed the supernatural power of spewing diarrhea at the very moment of singing me a beautiful song.”
Vollmann’s writing takes on a somewhat epic quality when he recounts historical events, and in these sections his text is also permeated by sarcasm—a sarcasm that is so persistent and so dry that it almost stops seeming like sarcasm and begins to take on a very innocent, sincere quality. When Vollmann discusses Prohibition he seems to almost feel for the women who crusaded against alcohol, though we know from his body of work that there is no way he would sympathize with their opinions: “I suppose that our heroines of temperance are able to soldier on in good heart just the same, until that ghastly year 1926, when even Volstead gets quoted as saying that three point seven five percent beer is innocuous. Lift up mine eyes, O Lord! And in 1933, Prohibition is undone. Poor ladies!” Something I find so valuable in Vollman’s writing—all of his writing—something which I return to from time to time in my life, is his insistence on not judging anyone, on trying to understand everyone he comes across, no matter how arrogant, filthy, wrong, or poor, and that attitude is seen here regarding these long-dead “heroines of temperance,” as well as on every single page of Imperial. Vollmann’s sympathy is deep and sincere, even when the people are strangers who sometimes use him for money or attempt to otherwise take advantage of him. 2
In a book this long and this ambitious there are bound to be some slow spots, and Imperial has a few. Some of the agricultural material is almost unbearably dull, paragraph after bewildering paragraph of statistics and charts regarding production of seemingly every crop grown on the Mexico/California border: “Imperial County grows more than seventy-three thousand cotton acres that year [with a footnote: 'Riverside grows 20,087 acres; Los Angeles's acreage is zero']; the yield is over two and a half bales per acre. Mexican Imperial contains a disproportionate number of cornscapes, but in 2000 we find seventy-one thousand, three hundred and twenty acres of cotton in the northeast corner of the Mexicali valley alone.” Such reams of statistics are all the more jarring because, for all the deserving attention Vollmann pays to immigration, poverty, agriculture, Chinese tunnels, and obscure, long-dead figures who sometimes only appear as a first or last name in a letter, some material is given almost no attention: there’s a brief attempt, in the book’s shortest chapter (twelve pages), to discuss the Indians native to the area, and there’s just one mention of the murders of maquiladora women in Ciudad Juarez, a subject that seems almost inconceivably perfect for investigation by Vollmann.
Despite occasional lapses, there’s so much great material in the book that even a list can only mention of some of the outstanding pieces: Vollmann’s histories of Imperial in the styles of Flaubert, Steinbeck, and Hammett; his attempted biography of a pioneer named Wilber Clark; his attempts to understand both the literal and figurative boundaries of Imperial, comparing them to Rothko’s paintings; and the slow accumulation of phrases from historical documents and present-day interviews that snowball throughout the text, specific to the time period which they’re being used to describe, with the closing chapters of each section consisting of reprises of nothing but little paragraphs of these phrases, slowly adding up to a history of the Imperial Valley area while still being a commentary on contemporary life, not just in Imperial, but America and Mexico . . .
Many people think Vollmann writes or publishes too much, that he’s sloppy and doesn’t take enough time with his material, that his fascination with poverty and prostitutes and drugs is tasteless. Though I disagree with all of these claims, I’ll still, acknowledge that if the page count of Imperial doesn’t scare away many potential readers, the $55 cover price will. That would be too bad, because Imperial is a book that sustained my interest over the course of two months and that, I feel, is an intense and cohesive summation of Vollmann’s career so far. In it can be seen bits of Poor People, of Riding Toward Everywhere, even bits of the Seven Dreams series, and in a way it contains every thematic element of his prior works, which may in fact be why the “imaginary entity called Imperial” fascinated him so much in the first place. It’s a staggering work.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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