Wastelands, of course, are where Vollmann prefers to spend most of his time, and he haunted this one for ten years. The book is full of adventures and revelations. He rides an inflatable raft down the foul-smelling New River, allegedly the most polluted waterway in North America; he investigates the myth of a secret network of Chinese tunnels under the streets of Mexicali; he documents the inside of a maquiladora with a digital video receiver hidden in his underwear. He bribes cops, hires racist homeless translators, gets scammed and lied to, writes a mini-treatise defending John Steinbeck, earnestly espouses socialism, enlists Mormon genealogists to help him track the lives of long-dead pioneers, and eventually runs out of money.
Imperial inevitably raises the big question surrounding much of Vollmann’s work: Is it too long? It probably is. About halfway through, I felt my patience begin to flag. I’d been carrying the book around for a couple of weeks, wrestling it onto trains and out of bed, and my wrist and lower back had mysteriously started burning. I grew suddenly hostile toward WTV’s formerly lovable quirks: the clumsy sentences, the digressive digressions, the gratuitously creepy metaphors (“the alfalfa fields, fresh-shorn like a tropical girl’s cunt-stubble”), the never-ending sarcastic exclamation marks. I found myself wishing that he would redirect some of the massive energy he puts into legwork and note-taking and poetic haunting to the less obviously heroic, more social challenges of writing: synthesizing, pruning, polishing. But that’d be like asking Keats not to get so carried away with the music of vowels, or Dickens to stop writing about orphans. Excess, for Vollmann, is exactly the point. I can’t help but read Imperial’s epigraph, from the 1909 yearbook of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a sly little meta-statement, a confession and a boast: “As long as a farmer has an abundance of water, he almost invariably yields to the temptation to use it freely, even though he gets no increased returns as a result.” That’s the problem of Imperial, and the problem of Imperial: to get arid land to bear fruit, you’re going to have to waste some water. “I write my heart out on everything I do,” Vollmann has written. It’s a very rare quality, and it should be subsidized, whatever waste might come along with it.