‘The world of desperate men and women willing to risk their lives among the coyotes and raging rivers for a taste of America’ – Imperial by William T Vollman

William T. Vollmann is a brave writer; courageous with subject matter, defiant with editors, fearless in the face of danger, intrepid in his travels, resolute in testing the patience of his readers. Imperial – his eighteenth book if one does not count the art books and readers – is a sprawling non-fiction work of over 1300 pages (the notes alone are longer than his novel Whores for Gloria) concerning an area straddling the Mexico-California border known as Imperial County.

It is a Steinbeck-like contemplation of American cultural rapacity, the heavily polluted land and water working as metaphors for American greed and hypocrisy. The American half of Imperial County standing for the USA’s 20th century economic miracle while the Mexican side represents the poverty, brutality, and low mortality rate of the third world. This is border country, the world of desperate men and women willing to risk their lives among the coyotes and raging rivers for a taste of America, an America Vollmann shows that is now as dark and depressing as the country from which they want to escape. A poisonous river – the New River – links the two, spewing filth, sewage, and toxic substances along its length. The irrigation that once fed the fields of fruit and vegetables, which attracted workers, which attracted investment, built towns and railways, failed in the 1920s and the region reverted to a barren wasteland, one of its main attractions being the Salton Sea, a salt lake created by accident and turned into a tourist resort.

Vollmann introduces us to people who live in Imperial, tells us about its history, its presence in literature, its relationship with Los Angeles and Mexico, its topography, myth, economy; he provides maps, copies of old advertisements, photos, graphs, lists, fancy fonts; and we’re given a chronology, sources, a list of people interviewed, a bibliography, citations, credits, and acknowledgments. In a culture that’s attention span condenses down to 140 words, Vollmann deserves applause for his research and dedication but I have to ask – why bother? The writing is sometimes beautiful but it is also repetitive, not rhythmically repetitive but a rehashing of facts and observations. The inclusion of himself in the narrative is very new journalism and Imperial has a similar bulk – intellectually as well as in the heft of the book itself – as Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (although Mailer’s weighs in at a slender 1072 pages).

Vollmann’s work divides roughly into two parts – the fiction and the non. His fiction includes works of genius such as You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), Whores for Gloria (1991) Europe Central (2005) but also donkeys like An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992).  His Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a symbolic history of America comprising, Volume One: The Ice-Shirt (1990), Volume Two: Fathers and Crows (1992), Volume Six: The Rifles (1994) and Volume Three: Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (2001), his masterpiece, but still awaits the volumes The Poison-Shirt, The Dying Grass, and The Cloud-Shirt for completion.

The subject matter of his non-fiction is wide, ranging from The Atlas (a brilliant collection of travel literature from around the world – including a truly horrific account of mosquitoes in Alaska) to Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (2006) Poor People (2007), Riding Toward Everywhere (2008) and Imperial (2009). The centrepiece of his non-fiction, the seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (2004), which Vollmann calls his life’s work, is a must read for anyone interested in the history and future of humanity, a one-volume abridged edition is also available. Published later this year is Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf).

Whispers in literary circles about a Nobel prize for Vollmann are welcome – it would be wonderful to see Vollmann’s books in major bookstores, to see people reading them on trains, planes, and beaches. With the coming of the iPad, his readers will no longer have to pump major iron before investing in a volume. 

Any Cop?: William T. Vollmann is a brave and honest writer, one much needed in this age of celebrity novels and fatuous memoirs, but Imperial, despite its worthiness, candour, and occasional poetry, could have benefited from a few edits; trimmed down it might have swung the Swedish Academy Vollmann’s way this year.

Steve Finbow

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