Philadelphia Inquirer // Imperial by William T. Vollmann

My review is in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.


By William T. Vollmann

Viking. 1,366 pp. $55

Imperial: Photographs
By William T. Vollmann

powerHouse. 200 pp. $55

William T. Vollmann is without question the most ambitious, indulgent American writer of his generation or, very likely, any other. Fortunately for him, he has all the talent, singularity of voice, and, clearly, dedication required to live up to that ambition. He has written 12 books of fiction, including the National Book Award-winning Europe Central, and, now, seven of nonfiction. One of those seven was Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume, 3,299-page treatise on the history of violence.

The thing is, despite the prodigious output, he hasn’t written a bad book. In fact, they’re all remarkable.

Vollmann’s latest book, Imperial, along with its beautiful companion volume, Imperial: Photographs, of Vollmann’s own photos of the region, is an exhaustively researched macrohistory of California’s Imperial Valley, in the far southeast of the state, a desert region that became an agricultural powerhouse after canals brought irrigation water in 1901. It’s now a major source of fruits, vegetables, cotton, grain, and – because it abuts Mexico – immigration tensions.

But Vollmann doesn’t limit his survey to that physical location. “Imperial County’s attributes overwash its borders on every side,” he writes, “as if they were squint-wrinkles extending like sun-rays from its inhabitants’ eyes.” His subjects are the borders – physical, psychic, economic, even sexual – that separate the United States from Mexico, and Imperial provides an amazing and unparalleled contribution to our understanding of who and what we are as a nation.

The Imperial Valley serves as a kind of microcosm for all of North America: “When I began to study the history of the period, my mind remained unbiased by knowledge. All I knew was that somehow Imperial County had altered from being one of the richest bits of farmland in the United States to the poorest county in California, and I couldn’t fathom how.”

What we learn is not always pretty. That’s a large part of what makes Imperial so impressive. It’s an astounding book that raises the level of the rhetorical tools available to historians – and, therefore, our expectations of them.

Vollmann is no armchair reporter content to smoke his pipe (or even a crack pipe, as he is rumored to have done in reporting past projects) among leather-bound books in a study smelling of rich mahogany. No, he’s a throwback adventurer/author willing to put his own neck in jeopardy to get at vital truths of our society. The sections of Imperial that are lived rather than reported are particularly profound.

Among the most interesting concerns Vollmann’s fascination with a series of tunnels rumored to have been built in the Mexican town of Mexicali by Chinese immigrants to the valley. The tunnels, originally for hiding, came to include bars, eateries and brothels, almost an underground town. The tensions between the Mexican population and the remaining Chinese make his efforts to see a tunnel for himself all the more challenging. It’s difficult to determine, at first, if they even really exist. And if they do, there’s no telling what sort of illegal activities might be happening in them. It’s all very exciting.

The biggest payoff, however, comes near the end, in a chapter titled “The Maquiladoras.” Here, Vollmann narrates his clandestine efforts to film working conditions inside factories known for their appalling mistreatment of employees. It turns out that many of the workers – people who don’t have many options – are grateful for the jobs those factories provide. Here, Vollmann is at his best: He’s willing to lay aside values and prejudices out of respect for other points of view. He comes to appreciate that there’s no consensus among the workers about their own conditions.

That approach characterizes Vollmann’s balanced research, and the organization of all this material into a cohesive, compelling narrative is a marvel in itself. Imperial closes with 179 pages of appendixes with titles like “Concerning the Maps” and “Sources” and “Persons Interviewed,” all intended to gain the trust of readers.

That said, the obsessive detail of Imperial will test the patience of even Vollmann’s most ardent admirers. You can trust me on that because I’m one of them. Sticker shock alone – $55 is a lot to spend on a book – might scare off some potential readers, even if the hand-cramping girth doesn’t.

There’s a ton to admire about this book (and maybe a ton for some readers to skim past), and it’s required reading for anyone interested in notions of identity played out every day on the U.S.-Mexican border. But I couldn’t help wondering who the intended audience might be for Imperial. It clearly isn’t the maquiladora workers he describes, nor the coyotes or narco-capitalists or prostitutes.

It’s entirely possible that Vollmann’s ideal audience hasn’t been born yet. In the many, many hours it took me to read and review it, I came to believe that this book is ultimately a meticulously constructed time capsule. When future generations look back at our era to figure out what went wrong, Imperial will be waiting. Historians will one day look at Vollmann the way we look at Tacitus – as one of the greatest chroniclers of his fledgling nation-state. He has written Imperial to last, perhaps even to outlive the empire it so brilliantly chronicles.

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Update 8/9/09: The Pittsburgh PostGazette has reprinted this review. I just sent the editor there, Bob Hoover, an email to thank him. He runs a great section. Then I looked more closely at the review. Apparently, someone at the Post-Gazette decided to change a few things. In my original review, above, I wrote:

“The thing is, despite the prodigious output, he hasn’t written a bad book. In fact, they’re all remarkable.”

The Post-Gazette changed that to:

The thing is, despite the prodigious output, Vollman has written few bad books.”

That’s a big difference, and despite the fact that my name is on this article I don’t agree with this assertion one bit. Vollmann has not written any bad books. None. I’ve read them all. And his name has two n’s: Vollmann.

While I remain grateful to see this review in another excellent newspaper, I can’t help but feel like Imperial and I are both being slightly misrepresented. Not a huge deal, mind you, but still.