William T. Vollmann read from his newest sprawling document at the Booksmith on Haight Street a couple weeks ago. The book is called Imperial and it’s about Imperial County, the poorest county in California and home to the Salton Sea and a long stretch of border between Mexico and the United States. While I don’t want to start reviewing the book before I’ve read it, it is sure to contain in-depth explorations of many themes, including: aridity, racism, social and environmental engineering, problems of social justice and human rights, the cruel absurdity on the borders of nation-states, and the limits and contradictions of the American dream. I bought a copy, and at $55 it’s probably the most expensive (and heaviest!) book I’ve purchased for personal reading, i.e. outside a textbook. But the way I figure it, it’s still a bargain IF you actually read it. I love going to the movies, and I can go to the movies five times for the price of this book. But with Imperial’s 1,300 pages, I’ll have far more than 10 hours of enjoyment in store for me.
And yes, there is a kind of enjoyment in reading a book like this. I’ve read several of Vollmann’s books over the years, including The Royal Family, The Atlas, You Bright and Risen Angels, and The Rainbow Stories. They are each a time-consuming project to read, and are at times infuriating, but they are always uniquely rewarding. Critics often write that Vollmann’s outsize, sprawling length and florid style is in bad taste, that he could use editing. This would make life easier for critics, but I think it would go against what Vollmann is trying to do. In my view, the biggest hint is dropped in the title of one of his books: The Atlas.
Vollmann is not strictly a novelist, as his massive nonfiction books (including this one) attest. His interests go deep into human nature and his sensibility is highly visual, giving him the tendency to take expansive and detailed word-pictures whenever possible. This level of verbal description is something most writers, including myself, indulge in sparingly – I have no desire to imitate Vollmann in this, but at the same time it’s inspiring to see the completely reckless way he gives himself to the insane task of describing the world. I see him as a cartographer, a geographer, interested in mapping and cataloging as much of the globe as he can at a moment when it is changing rapidly and irrevocably. I once took a class in cultural geography, looking at people and place, migration patterns, the cultural and human impacts of macroeconomic shifts and environmental change. We spent long periods in class looking at aerial photos, then would move to a discussion of global pop music distribution. It is this cross-disciplinary spirit, one that harkens back to the scientists of a less specialized age, that Vollmann represents. And yet it is also very much a literary effort, one that seems to continue the ecstatic impulse of the Beats to cast the widest net possible and to pull everything in – to resist editing, to include the process in all its imperfections and uncertainties as part of the finished work. In another influence Vollmann draws from, the New Journalism of the 60s, he is willing to immerse himself in risky situations in order to get closer to the story he is trying to tell, in order to learn about people.
I’m more excited about Imperial, though, than I have been about reading any Vollmann book yet. The US – Mexico border is such an important question, and represents such a complicated relationship. In my own life and travels in Latin America, in conversations with migrants and with research I’ve done, I’ve attempted to better understand this relationship. At the reading, Vollmann read an excerpt from the book detailing a dangerous rafting trip down a toxic river on the border, one which migrants have used for crossings and one which many have died in. Vollmann has gone places few would go in order to write this book, that much is clear. Quantity does not equal quality, Vollmann’s critics usually say. This is very true. But in this case, quantity does certainly equal effort, and if the effort of Imperial is to help us understand the physical, cultural, moral, and maybe even spiritual implications of the US – Mexico border, it’s hard to imagine that this is effort wasted.
Note: After I read Imperial, I’ll review the book for Ashcan – so if you’re curious, check back. Though I’m making no promises, to myself or anyone, as to finishing it before the end of the year.