Imperial by William T. Vollmann

Imperial is the 1,300-page culmination of ten years of labor on the part of the recklessly adventurous, absurdly prolix, and altogether singular writer William T. Vollmann. Since 1987, Vollmann has published 18 books, including several epic historical novels, a seven-volume philosophical investigation of violence, a book-length explication of the astronomer Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and numerous accounts (some fictional, some not) of his personal encounters with prostitutes.

He won the National Book Award for 2005’s Europe Central, an engrossing and ethically complex novel of World War II told primarily from the perspective of artists, musicians, and writers living under the rule of the Axis powers. And in 2008, Vollmann, then 49, published Riding Toward Everywhere, an energetic and sometimes lyrical memoir of his experiences hopping freight trains—a most atypical hobby for an award-winning literary writer to adopt in middle age, but not an especially surprising one given the great pleasure Vollmann appears to have taken in flouting convention throughout his career and his life.

Vollmann cannot, however, be dismissed as a mere provocateur. His assaults on convention are rooted in a sustained critique of the injustices and inequities inherent in conventional power relationships. In Imperial he offers an incisive, compelling, and maddeningly voluminous account of life along the border between California and Mexico over the course of the past 100 years; in the process, he exposes the manner in which greedy power-brokers, idealistic regional boosters, and self-destructive entrepreneurs have plunged a formerly rich and verdant region into ecological and economic disaster.

The heft of this brick-like tome reflects Vollmann’s commitment to engage with the full complexity of the issues in play in Imperial County throughout its history. To this end he offers multifaceted and thorough discussions of a host of subjects, including illegal immigration, agricultural economics, maquiladora manufacturing, decades-long water rights battles, and the violent, romantic narcocorrido ballads of the borderlands.

Vollmann also insists on examining the history of the region in similar detail. “Without a past,” he writes, “…the present cannot be anything other than a tumble through darkness toward darkness which neither past nor present can illuminate. Because I’d rather fall through patches of illuminated air, no documentary caption can possibly contain overmany facts to please me. Let the reader beware.” Vollmann is wise to offer this kind of warning; Imperial requires far more patience and commitment than most books, and not all readers are likely to find the effort worthwhile.

The book’s nonlinear, highly unconventional structure might also give some readers difficulty, and others are bound to be frustrated by Vollmann’s propensity to launch into lengthy tangential passages on topics such as his break-up with an old girlfriend or a debauched night at a bar in Mexicali. Then again, Vollmann is often at his best when recounting his own adventures along the borderlands.

In one supremely entertaining section early in the book, he convinces an ex-Marine to help him raft down the toxic and dangerous New River. Later on, he devotes more than a hundred engrossing pages to his exhaustive and decidedly hands-on investigation of the persistent rumors of a shadow city of underground tunnels built by Chinese laborers beneath the border town of Mexicali. Vollmann loves getting his hands dirty, and has little interest in examining his subjects from a respectful distance.

When he wants to know more about how coyotes go about their business of sneaking would-be immigrants across the border, he simply goes up and asks one—never mind the man’s threatening mien, or the fact that he’s not likely to respond favorably to the inquiries of a nosy gringo. On one level, this kind of behavior is a stunt and as such, it works wonderfully. When the middle-aged Vollmann strides insouciantly toward a menacing coyote or hangs on for dear life while riding down a poisoned river, his audacity and apparent lack of concern for his physical safety make for simultaneously suspenseful and amusing reading.

But Vollmann’s habit of putting himself in mild danger also reflects a deeper purpose. Imperial represents only the latest entry in Vollmann’s decades-long project of using his own firsthand narratives as an entry point to larger stories about the history and nature of poverty, war, violence, and power.

Those seeking an objective or authoritative discussion of the issues at hand will be disappointed; in fact, Vollmann actively distances himself from any assumption of journalistic or scholarly objectivity. He frequently stresses his own ignorance of the subjects under discussion—he doesn’t even speak Spanish, and must rely on the assistance of translators to mediate his discussions with many of his interview subjects. Although he includes statistics on everything from the number of would-be immigrants who die while attempting to cross the border each year, to a count of all the orange trees in Imperial County in 1917, Vollmann pays far more attention to sources of information that are far less objective or official.

Imperial thus becomes a vehicle for the stories of many people whose voices we rarely hear: day laborers, small farmers, prostitutes, drug addicts, border crossers, coyotes, panhandlers, street musicians, fishermen, amiable drunks, and thugs. Similarly, when outlining a century’s worth of Imperial Valley history, he draws not only on conventional works of scholarship, but also on popular novels, decades-old advertisements and letters, and conversations with whomever he happens to meet while wandering through the streets of Calexico or along the shores of the Salton Sea.

If Imperial has an overarching theme, it is that of Vollmann’s entire oeuvre: that in order to have any hope of understanding the workings of the world, it is essential to view the compromised and compromising “official” narratives of those in power with great skepticism, and better by far to listen to the voices and stories of outcasts, eccentrics, poor people, and the powerless. The official narrative of Imperial County, California holds that its residents have succeeded in transforming a bleak and barren desert into an agricultural paradise through decades of technological ingenuity and hard work. But, as Vollmann observes when investigating the labor conditions in the maquiladoras just across the border in Mexicali, “Official channels are rarely one’s best connection to bad news, which may be a synonym for the truth.”

For Vollmann, most of the “news” about the Imperial Valley is, in fact, very bad. His Imperial is far from the wonderland of prosperous farms and wealthy freeholders that its boosters would have you believe; instead, he sees toxic rivers, desperately impoverished farm laborers, cruel border agents, and consistent pattern of land and people exploited for ephemeral personal gain by those with power.

At the same time, Vollmann does not romanticize poverty, or assume that any one of his marginal interview subjects has any special claim to knowledge or wisdom. He writes frankly of the “evil” in the gaze of a coyote (knowing that coyotes not only charge crushingly exorbitant fees for the services, but frequently rob and rape their charges before delivering them into near-slavery on the other side of the border), and also of the addiction, desperation, and routine violence that characterize the lives of many of his impoverished acquaintances.

Further, he strives to avoid condescending toward his subjects, attempting instead to capture their lives, thoughts, and stories as fully as possible. While discussing his attempts to frame the story of a cleaning woman named Maria, Vollmann uses Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as a means for exploring the limits of his ability to bring any person’s life fully onto the page. If he’d written a novel about Maria, “it would have failed,” he writes, “because respect must encompass more than the heroine’s victimhood. It needs also to embrace her various happinesses and her sillinesses about parrots.”

He distrusts literary artifice and the biases own perspective nearly as much as distrusts the self-interested narratives of the wealthy and powerful. Admirably, he also remains thoroughly conscious of the ways in which he plays the role of the privileged exploiter himself. At one point, he approaches the topic of the maquiladoras’ exploitation of workers and of the environment with grim, self-aware irony. “It really wasn’t my concern,” he writes, “because I lie over here on Northside, where inexpensive Mexican-assembled products arrive by magic.”

All the same, Vollmann does not condemn the practices of the maquiladoras outright—a fact which seems baffling at first, given his constant vigilance against abuses of power, but which in fact reveals another significant aspect of his perspective. Although he doesn’t sugarcoat the dismal environmental and working conditions in many maquiladoras, he is all the same willing to grant the possibility that for many of their workers, the other alternatives—such as laboring in the sun for pennies on American farms, or starving as landless peasants in the Mexican desert—would in fact be considerably worse.

Vollmann’s point is not that maquiladora workers ought to be happy with their lot (though he is not convinced that they necessarily aren’t happy), or that those who exploit them are in the right to do so, or that people in positions of privilege should not take action to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. Instead, his perspective is pragmatic, and informed both by his deep readings in history and his many years of experience talking to impoverished and exploited people who live in war zones and slums. For Vollmann, an end to the exploitation of maquiladora workers might well represent a small victory, but it would not change what he sees as the unavoidably exploitative nature of power itself.

Despite this anti-utopian strain of pessimism in his thought, Vollmann is far from a cynic, and Imperial is at its most powerful when he indulges his hopeful belief in the power of art. After recounting a horror story of murder on the border, Vollmann wonders, “How could it be right to make art out of this?” But, looking to the example of Steinbeck’s great social novels of the Depression, he concludes, “And yet of course it would be right to make a poem or a song, a painting or a novel about it, if doing so would help anyone to feel.”

Even if he lacks the power to improve the lives of the marginal and impoverished people whose stories are at the heart of Imperial, Vollmann has at the very least engaged in the important and meaningful act of speaking up in opposition to the corrupted discourses of the powerful.

RATING 8 / 10