February 05, 2010

by William T. Vollmann | Viking Press

Review by Tim Jacobs

(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 14, Number 3)

Few writers can compose sentences like these with a literary straight face:

I saw this gaze once in a Russian paramilitary policeman during the Yugoslav civil war; he soon held a bayonet to my throat to “test” me. I saw it in some teenagers in Harlem who seared my arm with a cigarette butt.


The alfalfa fields, fresh-shorn like a tropical girl’s cunt-stubble, were golden green and dense . . .


I could pick up the telephone and dial her number . . . or I could pick up my gun. Pistol or receiver, in either case right at the ear!


I felt disliked and suspected by her. I sometimes have the same feeling when I interview a rape victim.


I . . . saw a great fish split open like a sack; beneath the strips of its putrescent flesh, vermin were nuzzling like babies.


Hard and paranoid, he threatened me, and tried to rob me; in the end I had to punch him.

Welcome to the subterranean atmosphere of William T. Vollmann, prolific novelist and intrepid explorer of the global netherworld. One gets the feel after reading Vollmann in various genres — fiction, travel writing, journalism, manifesto, and more — that there is rarely a dull moment in his life, even if there are extremely arid portions in his massive, meandering new book, Imperial. Originally intended to be a novel, the book instead became a non-fiction encomium to a California desert county — mostly out of respect to its countless real subjects (“I would never consider changing a word of their stories”; “how could it be right to make art out of this?”) many of whom are poor and down-and-out and whom Vollmann frequently befriends and assists with cash, meals or work.

“What then is Imperial?” The reader troubles over this belyingly simple question for many dense pages, hoping along with the author “to push closer to Imperial herself, the ‘real’ Imperial . . . Imperial as I define her.” Yet Vollmann never really defines his unwieldy subject: “Imperial is America,” he robustly states, but then falters again with that overlarge formulation: “America is — what?”

For me, Imperial the book is a literary documentary of Vollmann’s “imaginary entity called Imperial,” an entity that approximates California’s Imperial County but that also includes a sizeable dip into Mexico (known throughout as “Southside”). This kind of narrative belongs to the literary genre known as “the anatomy,” and recalls, for its eccentricity, copious breadth and encyclopaedic reach, Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, among other prodigious literary works.

Throughout Imperial, Vollmann follows his intellectual curiosity wherever it leads — and it leads far, even within the artificial boundary that Imperial imposes. The book contains multitudinous disquisitions on the infinite, California agriculture, and water — water pollution, water transfers (from rural counties to urban centers), water shortages, even making water (“excuse me, but you’re not against pissing, are you?” asks the playful Vollmann in “An Essay on Urine”).

But more: there are sections on mythical Chinese tunnels in Mexico, Californian violence (“in 1853 somebody died by violence pretty much every day in Los Angeles”), illegal border crossings and the lucrative system of getting pollos (would-be illegal aliens) across the border by their coyotes (guides/smugglers) for $1,200 a head, foreign-owned Mexican factories (Maquiladoras), as well as an assessment of human/worker rights (in both countries), political segues on human freedom in the U.S. since 9/11, considerations of various migrant workers, musings on the broad differences in the quality of life between Northside and Southside, and long digressions on Rothko’s paintings, John Steinbeck, not to mention — and he really shouldn’t have — the author’s love life: a scene involving a break up in the desert is particularly jejune. Nevertheless, Imperial is utterly bewildering and beguiling in ways that none of Vollmann’s previous books can match — eccentric as they also are at times.

Ultimately, the book is more revealing about Vollmann himself as he enters his fifties than it is about a Californian/Mexican county. Perhaps Vollmann wasn’t even conscious of what seeps into Imperial about himself. Innocent, even sincere, statements like, “I am actually not an entirely bad fellow,” “I want you to admire me,” “like many other insane people I long to be considered ‘balanced,’” and “Am I a calculating, cold-hearted materialist?” make his writerly persona endearing.

Much of Imperial is tangentially about the situating of the mythical “William T. Vollmann” within the context of a region, a state and, ultimately, a country that he loves — no matter how human activity in each of these levels of North America infuriates him. Vollmann has put himself into his narratives before; in fact, the author’s Seven Dreams series of novels revisioning the origins of North America has as an author-character one William the Blind, a fictional stand-in for Vollmann himself. Through this self-deprecating implied author, Vollmann displays a childlike curiosity at all the many wondrous things in our civilizations past and present, as well as a likeable fallibility that is always predicated on decency and respect toward all human beings, even those who have persecuted him — as when he notes “the humiliations of the tampon parade remind me of the anal search to which functionaries of my government once treated me, simply because I was hitchhiking.”

It is with such a disposition that Vollmann, hearing that the New River which passes from the U.S. into Mexico has been “called the most polluted waterway in North America,” decides to raft down this feculent river in a rubber dinghy (and, later, a boat with paid guides) — and even collects samples and has them sent to a lab to be tested for heavy metals, surfactants, diesel, herbicides and pesticides, cholorinateds, and “TPH”—(“that’s total petroleum hydrocarbons to you, bud”). Later, upon hearing that women who take work in the maquiladoras are forced to “present bloody tampons for three consecutive months” to their managers to prove they aren’t pregnant (because the factories don’t want to pay for maternity leaves), Vollmann is so incensed at this degradation that he engages in corporate espionage to verify it — paying, among other things and people, $1,600 for a shirt-button video camera and attendant battery pack that he discretely places in his pants, scorching his penis in the process.

Vollmann’s adventures lead to a pretty impressive stimulus package of sorts for the people he encounters. Throughout, Vollmann is easy with his money, giving it away to various street people, prostitutes, factory workers, migrant workers, you name it. He pays well for his information and his informants’ time, frequently topping them up with gratuities. Beyond this first level of economic beneficence, Vollmann hires all kinds of experts: guides, private eyes, genealogists, lab analysts, interviewees, research assistants, and so on. Much of the book, written over ten years or so, is the result of commissions for big-budget magazines like Playboy, Harper’s, and Outside. Of the $16,000 that Playboy paid Vollmann for his bizarre espionage of maquiladoras, he eventually only pocketed about three grand after taking care of his “staff” and shelling out for exotic equipment (the button video camera, among other gadgets).

Ultimately, his adventures prove nothing about the New River’s pollution or worker’s rights, and he is forced to conclude nothing. But this nothing is no mere nothing. As the author aptly puts it: “Let me seek something grander than myself, something that I have not known; because what I do know is nothing, which is to say myself.”