Sample Book Reviews
The Big Book
William T. Vollmann
1,344 pages; cloth, $55.00
William T. Vollmann has been labeled a postmodernist, maximalist, metafictionist, contemporary and historical novelist, pornographer, journalist, cultural/social critic, travel writer, and autobiographer (also an accomplished photographer, engraver, water colorist, printer, bookbinder, poet, and manufacturer of his own bullets for his pistol). His latest tome, Imperial, is the result of ten years of obsessive research, riding on the coattails of success after the National Book Award-winning Europe Central (2005) and the 2008 Strauss Living Award (sharing the honor with Madison Smartt Bell). In 1997, Vollmann discovered the Anza-Borrego desert in California and the neighboring county of Imperial that encompasses thousands of acres of desolate desert, the contaminated Salton Sea, a curious mixture of Mexican, Chinese, and Indian culture, as well as the volatile and controversial issues of the US/Mexican border and the “illegal migrant worker” conditions and human rights. Similar to Vollmann's career, Imperial cannot be framed into any compact genre: part journalism, part ethnography, part memoir, part cultural study, part political manifesto, part prose poem, it is a logical extension of his previous two books: Poor People (2007), where some of the migrant workers in Imperial County make an appearance, and Riding Toward Everywhere (2008), where Vollmann hops trains in, or rides on trains that pass through, Imperial County.
"Vollmann wants the reader to enter his book on any page and make it whatever the reader wishes it."
Vollmann searches for what may or may not exist during his decade-long jaunts into a region whose name (much like another county, Inland Empire, not far north of Imperial) ironically conjures up images of majestic colonialism. For migrant workers in Latin America, Imperial represents the American Dream, a path out of poverty, a promised land of blue skies and green hills; crossing over, they find a harsh land with little work, and sometimes return home or are caught by la migra and forced back to Mexico. Vollmann also searches for the Chinese tunnels under the two border towns Calexico (US side) and Mexicali. The Chinese communities on the border and the outskirts of the Salton Sea are descendants of the Chinese railroad workers of nineteenth-century expansion. No one talks about the tunnels, many treat them as urban legends, yet Vollmann uncovers evidence that the Chinese folk on the border did indeed use tunnels to smuggle in goods, drugs, people, and engage in illegal gambling (and possibly still do). Casting himself as a “private investigator,” Vollmann outfits a spy camera in the shape of a shirt button (paid for by Playboy magazine) and infiltrates a “sweat shop” to uncover the true conditions of those seeking the American Dream: Mexican women forced into backbreaking labor for little pay. Vollmann also searches for himself: inevitably, over a decade, the events in Vollmann's life, and his experiences while in Imperial, change his outlook. He finds the invisible county, state, and country lines of the region “delineations and subdelineations” in the lives of the people he meets, and his own life, so that "this book forms itself as it goes. Fields, cemeteries, newspapers and death certificates beguile and delay me; I don't care that I'll never finish anything; Imperial will scour them away with its dry winds and the brooms of its five-dollars-an-hour laborers…. Imperial is what I want it to be….. The desert is real…but there is no such place as Imperial; and I, who don't belong there, was never anything but a word-haunted ghost."
Claiming that “books are whatever we want them to be,” and that this book has multiple labels and layers, Vollmann imagines an Imperial in his mind, an ideal place, in contrast to the physical Imperial County. It is a place where Vollmann gets away from his domestic life in Sacramento, his image as a major American writer, his role as the danger-seeking journalist, a place where “I know that I'll sleep happily and well.” “Imperial is the father and son who sit high and gently swinging in one car of the otherwise unoccupied ferris wheel which reigns over a sandy night carnival,” he muses. Imperial is also a space where he finds and loses love-when “until a week ago this place had been hers and mine, our place, she said, and so it had been for years” to a painful delineation: “And so what if we had made love one more time after she'd told me that it was over? … I take back what I said at the beginning.” Imperial is no longer “theirs” but his and his alone, long after “she'd been begging me to let her go, but I'd been too blind and too selfish” wanting to share Imperial, the idea of Imperial, when in fact it is a solo state of being. It takes him a long time to free himself from the pain of this failed relationship; when he does, his view of Imperial, the book project, and Imperial the real estate, and his reasons for the research, change from idealism to fatalism: the land goes from “green, green fields, haystacks, and wide mountains” to “the poorest county in California and its water…robbed away by state threat and federal intimidation.”
Imperial does not have to be read from page one onward. Vollmann has structured the text so that each of the 208 chapters operates as a stand-alone entity, jumping back and forth through time in a stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear phenomenon. It is possible to begin the book in the middle at chapter 82, “The Long Death of Albert Henry Larson” and then jump backwards or forwards, going to Salton Sea's New River, or experiences in Mexicali brothels with the little person prostitute, Elvira. We find chapter 10 titled “Preface” where Vollmann is still thinking about writing the book, a meta-reflection on the birth of a text that is yet to exist: “All these delineations and subdelineations had persuaded me that if I were going to write Imperial, that book should probably investigate what used to be called 'the American dream,' along with some broader strips of its Mexican counterpart.” Vollmann ruminates how “this book forms itself as it goes” and is not confined to an outline or chronological layer. As with other Vollmann books, Imperial does not arrive to a completion that adheres to normative expectations of narrative; in the end, Vollmann finds “America itself, empire of ingenuity, progress, equality, enrichment and self-sufficiency and now a wavering half-symbol of imperiled decrepitude,” and the text smoothly merges into 167 pages of back matter: chronology, source notes, bibliography, and acknowledgments (reading the long list of those who aided the writer over a decade is a narrative curiosity in itself). Just as Vollmann advocates creating an Imperial that can be anything in the mind of the beholder, he wants the reader to enter this book on any page and make it whatever the reader wishes it: history, ethnography, debauchery, journalism, fiction, or love story.
A note on the physicality of Imperial, and other Vollmann books: at 1,300 plus pages, this is Vollmann's heftiest volume, albeit Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), essentially one book, is divided into seven manageable volumes. When The Royal Family (2000), at 780 pages, was published, I found I could not carry it around-comfortably anyway-nor could I lie down on a couch or in bed and attempt a blissful vetting. The book required placement on a flat surface to manage. This is also the case with Imperial; this is not an object one can take to the beach, read on the train or bus, or feasibly carry around in a purse or backpack. The softcover galleys alone weight five pounds; the hardcover weighs more. Imperial becomes a challenge to digest on the material, practical level; that is, it cannot be read at times and in places where one might read an average book. Critics have applauded and condemned the girth of Vollmann's volumes, yet have not discussed their place in the history of The Big Book. Consider the illuminated manuscripts of antiquity, placed on podiums or shelves where they remained and could only be read while standing up. The bulk, and hulk, of a book such as Imperial becomes as pertinent as the text within: the actual land of Imperial County is just as taxing to navigate and explore as the act of reading about it.
Michael Hemmingson reviewed Rising Up and Rising Down for the American Book Review. Further Vollmann scholarship includes co-editing (with Larry McCaffery) Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (2004), William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews (2009) and William T. Vollmann: An Annotated Bibliography (2010). That concludes his Vollmann studies. He is working on a biography of Raymond Carver and a novel for Scribner.