William T. Vollmann
Powerhouse Books, 2009
Don’t believe that William T. Vollmann’s latest work, Imperial, is merely a “California” book because it explores the Imperial Valley, an amorphous rural and agricultural region southeast of L.A. Imperial is more a tale of the West, and thus is really the tail end of the dogged America that old bitch Manifest Destiny once birthed. Vollmann announces early in the book the impossibility of wholly describing his subject, since as a “continuum between Mexico and America” the Imperial Valley challenges such borders, boundaries, and delineations. As Imperial stretches now (geographically impossibly) to L.A., Orange County, San Diego, and Tijuana, so too is it only six degrees of sub-delineation away from the rest of California, and by extension, America.
Imperial/Imperial is also a vast rural Rorschach test for Vollmann’s metaphoric and descriptive powers, the romantic charge of which he has fully recovered after the surprisingly romantically-challenged Riding Toward Everywhere, where a middle-aging Vollmann “rides the rails” like the hobos of yore, despairing at the increasing limitations of freedom in the America of W. Bush. In Imperial, however, Vollmann’s uncanny melding of gritty realism and idealism is at its best. The Imperial Valley, for all its troubles, ultimately inspires Vollmann and his writing as well. Having long shown an affinity for the marginalized and society’s outcasts, Imperial itself, along with many of its residents, becomes for Vollmann as dear as the lovers and prostitutes he catalogues throughout his oeuvre.
Imperial’s main lament? Water. More precisely, the water stolen by Imperial’s bigger, bullying brothers, L.A. and San Diego, so that they can bloom from their semi-aridity, while Imperial slowly disintegrates back into the desert from which it once arose. Like in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s the little guys—Imperial’s small farmers, working classes, undocumented workers, and even Mexico’s border towns—who get the empty water shaft. Power remains in the hands of those whose pockets are so full they’ve little else to do with their idle meat-hooks but manipulate the world in which the rest of us are just trying to get by. Yet by recording the voices of those who suffer most, Vollmann shows how such power isn’t exactly unidirectional, and that there can sometimes be small compensations for those who bear the brunt of the inequities of the system.
Thus the core of Vollmann’s approach, as always, is to let his subjects, who often become friends, speak for themselves. Vollmann befriends and interviews several hopeful Mexican border crossers and field laborers, male and female, asking them what life is like under such conditions and whether they actually prefer the U.S. to Mexico. He also visits several Mexican border towns, trying to gain an understanding of how Mexicans perceive America and its ever-fortifying border. We also meet several American farmers, border patrol agents, and numerous aged, long-time solid citizens of Imperial. Once a range of voices is established, Vollmann juxtaposes one against another, peppering these with his own observations and investigations. The effect is a kind of pastiche or collage, without the attendant confusion, in which the reader encounters various textual ironies, contradictions, and questions, though remains “free” to make up her mind in terms of drawing conclusions. Add to this Vollmann’s voluminous research of historical and official documents regarding Imperial that he cuts and pastes throughout the book, and which sends the quixotic pronouncements, or outright lies, of Imperial’s early boosters hurtling through time to mingle with the complaints of the present, so that the rosy promises of yesteryear lodge like thorns in the blind-sided present.
Vollmann, fiction writer-as-journalist, doesn’t quite rake the muck like an Upton Sinclair or Frank Norris here, for he has never been one to smash supposed idols with a ready-made ideological hammer (and optional sickle). Yet, if anything, Vollmann’s failed attempts to gain official responses to his queries as to the reputed abuses of power, whether that of various government organizations or large corporations, underscores a kind of docu-journalism, in which Imperial will act as both reportage and storage of a range of stories that might otherwise have been silenced. Ultimately, it is power that is rendered impotent through its silence, while those who usually have no say claim agency with their voices.
Some of Imperial’s most wonderful moments, however, come not in the mysterious adventures Vollmann routinely embarks on—and here we find him rafting down polluted rivers, planting a hidden wire on a woman in order to investigate a few secretive maquiladoras, and playing the frustrated detective-adventurer while searching for a mythical series of “Chinese” tunnels supposedly underlying Mexicali, a border town founded by Chinese immigrants—but in his reflections on art and literature, a growing trend in his work. Chief among these are a comparison of Mark Rothko’s paintings to the desertscapes of Imperial, and a reading of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings when Vollmann visits L.A. and his toes meet the edges of the Pacific. Perhaps, though, it is the mini-essay on John Steinbeck (that respected but all too “regional” writer), whose work Vollmann claims is “un-American,” thus making Steinbeck the “most American of us all,” that proves the growing feeling that Vollmann will become more and more a writer concerned with such “American” themes.
Americaner and Americaner. This seems the best way to describe William T. Vollmann’s writing these days. For a writer who has long mixed a truly global and “local” literary vision (unlike most American writers), that refuses to remain both time-and-space bound, whether moving from the mean streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in the 1980s, to Soviet Afghanistan, to the Vikings’ or early French and English settlers’ encounters with American Indians, or to a World War II ravaged Europe, Vollmann has remained committed to a global and historical literature. Yet clearly Vollmann’s reflection on America via the subject of Imperial—itself a depository for issues of class, immigration, nationhood, history, and (American) Empire—marks a new chapter in his work, one that does so not in shoring up an isolationist America against alien meanings by building bigger walls or bigger myths, but by calling attention to what such fictions try to delineate and define. The fiction that is America, Imperial suggests, is one that might yet elude and escape such (en)closed definitions.
Ralph Clare is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.