I was sitting on the train one day chipping away at William T. Vollmann’s latest slab of obsessional nonfiction when my friend Tsia, who incidentally is not an underage Thai street whore, offered to save me time with a blurby one-sentence review based entirely on the book’s cover and my synopsis of its first 50 pages. “Just write that it’s like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker,” she said, “but with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.” This struck me as good advice, and I was all set to take it, but as I worked my way through the book’s final 1,250 pages, I found I had to modify it, slightly, to read as follows: Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)
After twenty years, 12,000 pages, a National Book Award, and some low-level Nobel Prize chatter, the legend of William T. Vollmann has been pretty well established. He is the maximalist’s maximalist, a PEZ dispenser of career-capping megavolumes. His books are less straight novels or stories or histories than genre-obliterating monuments to his obsessions: sex, love, violence, justice, gonzo travel, and (most notoriously) prostitution. (“We’re a culture of prostitutes,” he once told an interviewer.) He is both outlandishly bookish and hellaciously worldly: a haunter of archives but also a one-man literary Peace Corps. He once spent two weeks living alone at the North Magnetic Pole to get inside the head of a character. He has smoked crack a hundred or so times to earn the trust of prostitutes. He once kidnapped a 12-year-old Thai prostitute to save her from a life of abuse. He self-published ten copies of a children’s poem bound in steel (it weighed twenty pounds) with a sewn-in bookmark made of barbed wire and prostitute hair. He maintains his epochal logorrhea in spite of excruciating carpal tunnel syndrome, and he resists (politely, firmly, repeatedly) his publishers’ frequent offers to edit him. “Writers who require editors to make their books ‘good,’ ” he has written, “should be depublished.”
The newest entry in his legend is Imperial, a 1,300-page meditation named after a deeply unglamorous patch of Mexico-California borderland. Vollmann has reportedly called the book his Moby-Dick—and, like the white whale to Ahab, the region practically throbs with monomaniacal meaning. It’s an object lesson in American greed, a parable of the arbitrariness of borders, a contact zone between radically different cultures, and a symbol of just about everything. “Imperial is America,” Vollmann writes. “Imperial is x. Imperial is y.” Imperial is the “center of all secrets and therefore center of the world.” “Leave an opened newspaper outside for a month and step on it; the way it crumbles, that’s Imperial.”
On the most basic level, though, Imperial is just a piece of land: a strip of desert whose landmarks include a toxic sea, a poisonous river, and roughly 80 miles of patchily enforced international border. The territory was mostly empty until, around the turn of the twentieth century, the American side suddenly bloomed (thanks to the miracle of massive irrigation projects) into a wonderland of lettuce, asparagus, cantaloupes, and cotton. The Mexican side, predictably, remained a desert wasteland, watered only by the salty dregs of America’s canals—which, just as predictably, prompted Mexican citizens to start crossing the border to do brutal farmwork up north. The result was a big, fascinating mess of hypocrisy: The border patrol cracked down even as our corporate farms came to depend on cheap illegal labor. When the region’s economic promise finally petered out after a few decades (a casualty of the unsustainable nature of large-scale irrigation), the area reverted to wasteland: a flashpoint of racism and violence and boredom and despair.