William T. Vollmann

Boy and painted border fence, Colonia Chorizo, Mexicali, 2001; photographs by William T. Vollmann from the powerHouse edition of Imperial

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 twenty-first-century diversion of the Imperial Irrigation District’s water supply to slake the thirst of endlessly growing cities on the southern California coast). To put it far more briefly than Vollmann does, today’s Imperial Valley was first encountered by Spanish conquistadors and later by mid-nineteenth-century gold rushers as a near-impassable desert, fatal to many (though several Indian tribes called it home; Vollmann apologizes to the reader for not recounting all their histories in full). The Salton Sea, today a toxic cesspool for polluted river runoff, was then no more than a dry depression—as it may again become.

Then, around the turn of the twentieth century, gargantuan irrigation projects began to transform the region into an agricultural “paradise,” aggressively promoted as a sort of new frontier for small free-hold farmers—though in Vollmann’s view this image was always false, and many pages are consigned to the failures of small farmers who struck at the lure. What Imperial did in fact become, for much of the twentieth century, was a bastion of large-scale agribusiness, and thus a magnet for the Mexican migrant worker population (to whose movements Vollmann devotes many of his most evocative pages). Most recently Imperial County has become the poorest in California, and its future is implied by FADE, or Farm Abandonment Desertification Effect.

Imperial ‘s 208 chapters of history, social analysis, New Journalistic first-person reportage, interviews with a great many people on both sides of the national border, and select slices of autobiography are not presented in chronological order. On such a vast scale, the purpose of the arrangement Vollmann has chosen instead is difficult to comprehend, though it does permit rapid juxtapositions of past and present for thematic effect. Here is a work of epic proportions that lacks any single narrative to unify it, and a want of fully realized human characters is also felt. In his exploration of the many different places and situations reported in the book, Vollmann records hundreds of conversations with street prostitutes, bar flies, maquiladora workers, border patrol officers, ejido dwellers, Anglo farmers, and a lot of people he just happened to meet, but these are far more thinly dramatized than in his earlier work, while his own presence on the scene he describes, which he has used powerfully elsewhere, is comparatively ephemeral here.


Zigzagging among his many periods and subjects, he tries to tell us all he knows (a lot, but far from everything) about the activities of early Imperial builders and boosters like Harry Chandler and W.F. Holt, the machinations of William Mulholland in bringing water out of the desert to Los Angeles; the careers of President Cárdenas of Mexico, César Chavez, and Emiliano Zapata; ejidos and maquiladoras in Mexico; the history of the Chinese population of Mexicali; the relationship of Mexicali and its sister city, Calexico, on the American side of the border; not to mention Los Angeles, San Diego, Coachella, Wellton-Mohawk, the Inland Empire, Tijuana, Tecate, Indio, Holtville, Duroville, Salton City…and more.

That “Our ‘American dream’ is founded on the notion of the self- sufficient homestead” is one of Vollmann’s several statements of his topic. “The ‘Mexican dream’ may be a trifle different, but requires its kindred material basis.” The project of “understanding how these two hopes played out” helps explain Vollmann’s interest in Steinbeck as a model. The Grapes of Wrath, in particular, is a story of “desertification,” as the dispossession of homestead farmers by natural cataclysm in the Oklahoma dust bowl represents a catastrophic defeat for the idea of agrarian self-sufficiency. The notion that the agrarian ethos is the right and proper foundation for democracy was announced by Thomas Jefferson, embraced by a faction in the American South in the 1930s, and is still defended by Wendell Berry among others. This idea, as Vollmann reports, was converted to a slogan by Imperial boosters, and in the process drained of any real meaning. The reality that replaced it is the supersized agricultural holding, cultivated by workers from south of the border who have no claim or status on the lands where they labor.

With his interviews and reportage, Vollmann suggests that the agrarian ideal may have been better served and preserved in the Mexican ejidos than in the US. Defined in the glossary as “communal inalienable holdings,” ejidos were the “indigenous communities’ common lands” before the Spanish Conquest. In the Mexican Revolution beginning in 1911, and especially under the government of Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s, there was a “dynamic, militant” redistribution of land from the huge haciendas into ejidos. Some still exist in the Mexican sector of Vollmann’s Imperial, retaining, he says, their rather Jeffersonian qualities of “autonomy, preexisting right, inalienability.”

But like the rest of Mexican Imperial, the ejidos are now threatened by the prospect of increasing water shortages: an inevitable side effect of more efficient water use Stateside, likely to eliminate seepage of water into Mexico.

The text moves between such passages of sociohistorical analysis and more lyrical efforts to capture Imperial in its essence: “Imperial is the continuum between Mexico and America.” “Imperial is Barbara Worth.” “Imperial is the smell of a feedlot on a hot summer night.” “Imperial is water; it flows, and flows away.” “Imperial is not what I thought it was…. Imperial is whatever it is.” Sometimes Vollmann’s approach to Imperial recalls a moth beating itself to pieces against a light bulb, affecting the light bulb not one whit, as if the material itself keeps deflecting all the author’s attempts to organize and focus it. This effect may be intentional—intending to convey the weight of reality unadulterated and unadorned, while at the same time admitting the impossibility of capturing reality in any text. “My ignorance of Imperial has filled a long book,” Vollmann writes, and also, under the heading WARNING OF IMPENDING ARIDITY (on page 115 of 1,306), advises that the “statistical parables” that follow “may be too desiccated for your taste. If you skip the chapters devoted to them, you will finish the book sooner….”

Indeed. Vollmann’s large body of previous work established his ability to evoke a dark and luminous energy from the most banal subject matter, but that gift is only occasionally on display in the hundreds of pages on which this warning of aridity is posted—yes, they are desperately dry and often more than a little dull. One may suspect that the author, in creating such a vast desert in the center of his text, has committed a fallacy of imitative form.

Some readers may regret that Vollmann didn’t end up writing “the novel which I originally meant to write about Imperial,” since he has long proved himself an important and engaging innovator in fictional form and function. At the moment he is probably best known for Europe Central,* the National Book Award winner of 2005, a work remarkable for the sophistication of its construction and the epic dimensions of its subject—the titanic struggle of Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, featuring vividly fictionalized versions of leaders and cultural heroes from Hitler and Stalin to Shostakovich and the artist Käthe Kollwitz.


From the start, Vollmann has had the ambition to tell vast tales. His first book of “short” fiction, The Rainbow Stories, is a thunderous retort to the minimalism popular in the 1980s, when Raymond Carver, abetted by the editorial influence of Gordon Lish in using Hemingway’s methods for creating stories whose key elements were intentionally left unspoken, had created a vogue for terse, stripped-down, and often rather vacant narratives. Into this climate The Rainbow Stories exuberantly burst, at 560 pages, with many acrobatic authorial intrusions. One 112-page story, “The Blue Yonder,” presents a community of homeless denizens of a San Francisco park, along with “The Zombie,” a serial killer who stalks the homeless, and Vollmann himself, whose interest in these people is less sinister but no less acute. Like Imperial, most of The Rainbow Stories have a documentary quality, though unlike Imperial they are partially fictionalized, and in these stories Vollmann refined his technique of introducing himself as a character in quasi-fictional narratives.


William T. Vollmann

The border fence in Chula Vista, California, 1999

Attracted as he is to the colossal story, Vollmann (significantly influenced in his beginnings by Lautréamont’s Les Chants deMaldoror ) has been just as interested in and expert at fine writing in deliberately confined spaces. His most enormous compositions tend to be composed of mosaic tiles of text, sometimes no longer than a couple of hundred words, and written with the intensity of prose poems. From “The Blue Yonder”:

Sometimes the sky was so solid and even a blue that I wondered if the ancients had been right and it was in fact a vast dome of yonderness. One day the birds flew by more freely. There was no one on the grass. Black Fox sat under the shade tree, but there was no Mary, no bums lying out or sitting out except for one man who sat with his chin in his collar, his elbows on the back-rest, his hands in his pocket, staring straight ahead. Sometimes he scratched his hair. He had been there every day. Every day! The mind reels at it. If I had to sit in the grass all day, I would wish for The Zombie to come.

One of Vollmann’s trademarks is a metaphorical conceit that combines a certain effrontery of conception with a striking linguistic verve in carrying it out. From the afterword of the Imperial photography book:

When I was fourteen or fifteen, my heart used to ache for some girl I’d scarcely met, simply because she’d kissed me. I’d hold her tight; she’d thrust her tongue happily into my mouth, and we began deep kissing. Soon I had my hand down her pants. Then we pulled apart, and my heart began to ache. I thought that I loved her, and therefore maybe I did. Her hair sticking to her hot sweaty pink face, birds and cicadas, the shade-rows getting shadier, the mountains both two-dimensional and sharp, everything went together, and to say that I mistook lust for love is no more accurate than to say that whatever moved me I truly loved; from touching her I won ecstasy, which transformed itself into gratitude; her tenderness became mine, so what we both called love became our secret world, bordered off from every place else by fantasy as tall as some spray of dusty-white oleander flowers. A few years later, we would have forgotten each other’s name. But does that invalidate anything? Here in Imperial where the dirt’s soft and thick, I stand behind a black drip-irrigation line, all alone in the hot evening wind, my new hopes and fantasies creamy white like the Salton Sea at dusk; I’ll delineate Imperial and marry her; I’ll hide away from loneliness and change behind this fifteen-foot wall of oleanders. My passion for Imperial is neither more nor less real than what those girls and I felt for each other; and it was here, right here, that I kissed one sweetheart’s hot sweaty pink face; I remember the taste of her sweat, and her face remains as real to me as if it were gazing up at me right now from a photograph; I’ll never forget her, either; at least, that’s what I want or wanted to think, even though memory inevitably diffuses itself like these white drops slowly crawling along the underside of black irrigation cables. Now, what was her phone number?

In his short story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” collected in Girl with Curious Hair (1989), the late David Foster Wallace has a young writer enrolled in a fiction workshop (led by a caricature of John Barth) express a frustrated wish to get beyond “the lonely act of a solipsist’s self-love” (as he labels Barthian metafiction) “to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you…. The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright and smiling disguise.”
In the years that followed it was not Wallace but Vollmann who broke the mold of metafiction, escaping from the elegantly closed circles of self- reference devised by Barth, Pynchon, Donald Barthelme et al., while drawing on many of those writers’ methods for his own distinctly different purposes. Where Sixties metafiction can never stop calling attention to its own cleverness, Vollmann’s fiction, though just as self-aware and as likely to place the consciousness of the author somewhere in the foreground, is determined to spiral outward to engage the world and to convey genuine feeling.

For Imperial, Vollmann keeps letting his readers know, he has deliberately decided to abandon the methods that succeeded for him in creating literary characters from real and historical persons, not only in Europe Central but also in the series of massive novels inspired by first encounters of Europeans and Native Americans that he published between 1990 and 2001 ( The Ice Shirt, Fathers and Crows, The Rifles, Argall ). To fictionalize the hundreds of people he interviewed for the present work, or the several he employed as guides and interpreters, would be to falsify them, he argues. “I know how to invent character, upon which I suppose it would be possible to drizzle a few droplets of local fact, much as a Mexicali street vendor beset by July splashes water on his oranges and cherries. But life’s sufficiently dishonest already….”
This self-imposed restriction means that the people presented in Imperial never come forward so vividly as those in earlier works like The Rainbow Stories and Whores for Gloria.

Readers who acquire the companion volume of photographs taken by Vollmann will be compensated, for his many portraits of the people he won’t fictionalize in the text live up to his description of Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men —conveying their subjects “calmly, undeniably, heartbreakingly, inescapably.” But Vollmann does not take the Evans–James Agee collaboration as a model without deep reservations: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is an elitist expression of egalitarian longings,” he notes; to read that book “is to be slapped in the face.”
Vollmann relegates the captions for his Imperial photos to an appendix; he wants no words to accompany these images at all. With Imperial even more than with Poor People ( 2007), he would make the reality of others’ lives stand for itself, and to present “the impossibility of my gaining any dynamic understanding of these lives over time, my very lack of relevance to them….” In such a state of inevitable incomprehension, “Writing a novel about María would be like slapping her face. Someday, if I ever get out into the world and see more, suffer more, which might not be worth it, writing a novel about her might be an act of beauty and truth.”

In its oft-declared ineptness in grappling with enormous issues, Imperial resembles, more than anything else in Vollmann’s great corpus of work, An Afghanistan Picture Show, a much shorter text written as his first book but published, in 1992, as his sixth. “I was young then, and sure of what I could do,” he recalls in Imperial ; “I was writing my own story.” However, An Afghanistan Picture Show is a doubled narrative, in which an early 1990s Vollmann avatar both admires and regrets the breathtakingly hapless naiveté of the younger self who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s with a fantasy of helping the mujahideen expel the Soviet invasion.

In Vollmann’s portrayals of his writing and behaving self there is always a tension between the dense layers of worldly-wise cynicism he has acquired over time and his persistent impulse to do and be good. That impulse is a part of his nature which he always seeks to protect and preserve and which he admires when he encounters it in others—Steinbeck for example, in his social responsibility and deep regard for truth in describing the characters he wrote about, or the Flaubert who composed “A Simple Heart.” More than anything else he has published, Imperial and An Afghanistan Picture Show tend to reveal the origin of these elements in his work.

In a seemingly casual aside, An Afghanistan Picture Show reveals a source of his relationship to human suffering: “When I was growing up, my little sister drowned because I hadn’t paid attention.” In this line may be the germ of Vollmann’s response to the pain of others and his sense that he himself can never suffer enough. What’s so briefly alluded to in the earlier book is revisited in Imperial’ s description of the recurrence of this memory:

…each year I cannot escape the grief and horror, again, again, again. The rest of the year she is dead, and on that late summer’s day (a day for swimming, hence for drowning), she dies simply deeper, at each reenactment sinking farther into the slime at the bottom of the pond where the decomposition of her memory-image leaves nothing but gruesomeness—or almost nothing; somewhere within the mucky skeleton there lives, in an inversion of quotidian anatomy, a shy, pretty six-year-old girl with brown bangs and brown eyes, who may still love me and has possibly even forgiven my part in the accident.

This passage is embedded in a cycle of pain more completely detailed in the chapter called “Lovescapes,” an exhaustive and agonizing account of Vollmann’s loss of a lover with whom he often visited Imperial. The episode covers the break-up itself in excruciatingly slow motion, then crawls through the repetitive and obsessive anguish of the lovelorn pining that follows:

…I continued to squeeze out the strength to avoid dialing her phone number for the next fifteen minutes, and then for the hour after that; so it went day by day…. I knew very well that the instant I’d see her or hear her voice, I’d be my old self, relaxed, alert, capable, considerate and even joyous, because the undelineated portion of my heart (which we might as well call love) had not died at all. It was very strong yet. She was the love of my life. So I wanted to die.

Though it may well be central to his reasons for writing it, Vollmann’s acute suffering for his lost love and his lost sister never becomes central to Imperial. Soon after the conclusion of “Lovescapes,” the WARNING OF IMPENDING ARIDITY pops up, and thereafter the reader is to be buried beneath an avalanche of the statistical and anecdotal evidence Vollmann has amassed. Though still peripherally present as a reporter in the (long!) remainder of the text, Vollmann falls away as a character engaged in the stories he’s telling, his presence as ghostly as his reflection in the sunglasses of the floor-show girl Diana (from a photo taken in 1999).

Is it ever legitimate to make art of the suffering of others? The same question arises in Europe Central, when the Soviet documentary film director Roman Karmen tells Käthe Kollwitz, “I want to devote my life to women and dead children” (such as Kollwitz’s artwork relentlessly portrayed). “But it seems wrong to use them for any purpose, even for the universal good.” Kollwitz’s reply serves as well to justify Vollmann’s artistic practice: “with me it’s very simple. The woman with the dead child is me, myself. And the child is also myself.” But in Imperial Vollmann rejects his past practice, offering no characterization (outside of the photographs, at least) so present and complete as his fictionalizing of Kollwitz.

Vollmann has a special tenderness for those of his incompletely realized characters who have joined the ill- remembered, sometimes nameless dead. However well-irrigated Imperial may be, many who cross the border in search of some sort of better life can and do die in the attempt, of heat and dehydration. Vollmann bears persistent witness to the deaths of would-be immigrants abandoned without water in the desert by the “coyotes” who promise to guide them; of Hazel Deed, a white woman who died of a ruptured appendix in 1920 at the age of fourteen; of a somewhat surprisingly well-dressed Mexican whose drowned body is fished from a canal, and who seems subliminally to remind Vollmann of his guide, interpreter, and friend José López, who one day simply disappeared.

The book is dedicated to the memory of one of the vanished unknown, Serafín Ramírez Hernández, whose hand-scrawled missing poster (reproduced here as an illustration, along with Hazel Deed’s death certificate and other such artifacts) would likely have been the only memorial he would ever have. The passages devoted to those labeled in their potter’s fields as “no olvidado” are oases of strong writing and deep feeling—most welcome in the vast and arid stretches of this book.

It can be frustrating to read a work which takes such a very long time to let us know that it cannot completely convey or define its subject—though maybe that is exactly the point. A much tidier and prettier book could have been made out of material lying around the edges of this one; if Vollmann had wanted to do that, he certainly knows how. There is much discussion of “delineation,” with respect to mapping, physical borders and barriers, and more abstract boundaries. Vollmann tends to see delineation as a form of tyranny, from the start, when the distribution of tracts to the conquistadors began to starve the Indians off their territory, to the finish, when post-agricultural Imperial may be chopped up into more suburban sprawl. Down with delineation, then!—Vollmann’s Imperial, both the text and what it tries to portray, will not admit a center or accept a clear limit, but incorrigibly bubbles over whatever lines he tries to draw around it.

This Issue

October 8, 2009