In the twenty-two years since the appearance of his first novel, William T. Vollmann has published such an intimidating quantity of excellent work that it has become challenging for any single mind to get a complete grasp of the whole of it. His latest book, Imperial—about the region that includes not only Imperial County in southern California but the Mexican side of the border as well— replicates this problem in miniature. Absurd as it may seem to refer to a text of 1,125 pages (1,306 pages including bibliography, notes on maps and sources, etc.) as “miniature,” Imperial is by comparison to Vollmann’s study of violence, Rising Up, Rising Down (3,352 pages distributed over seven volumes), rather small, yet long enough to permit the reader to have forgotten much of the beginning before reaching the outer edges of the middle. It is the sort of document to which a concordance would have been a useful adjunct.
Imperial is partly built of material gathered for a novel Vollmann long planned to write about “the entity I call Imperial.” Twenty post-introductory pages are devoted to the decision not to use the fictional form; this section includes a handful of parodic false starts to the novel that might have been (in the styles of Steinbeck, Flaubert, Vollmann himself, an INS officer who once detained him at the border, and so on). As a sort of antithesis to his intention, he also takes up a treacly best-seller set in the region, The Winning of Barbara Worth, published by Harold Bell Wright early in the twentieth century. The Grapes of Wrath and “A Simple Heart” are contrasted to the clichés of Harold Bell Wright, but finally all these models are abandoned. “Imperial is (have you ever heard this before?) a blank page. What shall we inscribe on it?”
Difficult even for its author to define, Imperial might best be described as a documentary of life on the border, and in fact Vollmann approaches his raw material in two ways, since Imperial, the behemoth text, appears in the same season as Imperial, a book of Vollmann’s photographs of the region and its people. Ten years in the making, the Imperial text piles up thousands on thousands of words without ever achieving a completely coherent form. Though many of its parts are masterfully rendered, Vollmann never brings the whole work fully into focus and perhaps in the end does not even intend to.
Imperial addresses a number of monumental subjects, from the relationship of the United States to Mexico (and by extension of the First World to the Third) to the unintended consequences of the transformation of nature by human intervention (culminating, in this case, not only with the usual pollution of the air and water but also with the likelihood of a worldwide water shortage exemplified by the …