Imperial

By William T. Vollmann. Viking, $55.

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York/ Aug 13–19, 2009


William T. Vollmann’s big, baggy monster of a book begins with the stories of those who share his singular obsession with Imperial County: the illegal immigrants hurdling the border fences and wading through the fetid New River to reach the poorest area in California. Vollmann seeks a metaphorical ingress into the heart of Imperial, and his sprawling study—which seeks to be an almanac, history and psychic census of the region—is a sensual chaos.

 

That Imperial deserves a substantive treatment is never in doubt. A sliver of desert land that’s been artificially irrigated into prodigious if insecure fertility, the county has a history and a future that can be read as a microcosm of any number of hot topics: immigration, ecology, homeland security, and labor and women’s rights. But Vollmann drowns his readers in detail: oral histories, local songs, newspaper headlines, street signs, medical records, snapshots and statistics on precipitation, the rising salinity of the lakes, cash harvests, crop yields. For all the data, our knowledge of Imperial never accrues. The book’s sections don’t communicate with, let alone build upon, each other; they eddy sluggishly.

Vollmann’s aim seems to be not to understand Imperial but to possess it—even as he admits to the impossibility of truly knowing “the other.” Mini history lessons trickle into obsessive (and repetitive) lists: Imperial is “palm trees, tract houses, and the full moon”; Imperial has “broad breasts and innumerable pubic mounds”; Imperial is “whatever we want it to be.” In the absence of the possibility of certainty, he circles his subject, sketching every lineament, every slant of light. The specter of Steinbeck haunts the book, but while Vollmann can competently summon sympathy for exploited migrant workers, when he buckles down to serious investigative reporting, his conclusions are limp and his aim disappointingly scattershot. Vollmann is prescient when he writes, “Upon Imperial’s blankness…it becomes all too easy to project myself, which is a way of discovering nothing.” Ultimately, it is the depth of his obsession—not its object—that truly invites awe.

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