Moby-Dick in the Desert

Illustration by Jordan Domont

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.

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.

See Also
Paul Slovak on the Paradoxical Task of Editing William T. Vollmann

By William T. Vollmann. Viking. $55.

Moby-Dick in the Desert