Topography of a Desert Empire

"Imperial" by William Vollman (Viking Press)

“Imperial is infinite,” writes William Vollmann. And because saying it once could not possibly capture what he could mean, what he profoundly, obsessively believes, Vollmann writes it again and again—sometimes in those exact words, sometimes in others—over the 1,344-page opus that is his latest book. Imperial, the book’s titular county, is at the very southern tip of California—though its presence is so immeasurable that Vollmann spends several sections trying to define what his Imperial actually encompasses. Vollmann produces a work similar in many ways to his subject: vast, intimidating, confusing to navigate, at times dry as its deserts, but at others lush as its valleys.

Even the length of the book affirms Vollmann’s devotion to his topic. In 2000, his second year researching for “Imperial,” he was already determined “to return year after year, deepening friendships, exploring sandscapes and ruthlessly studying people’s lives until Imperial became as shockingly bright in my mind as the bands of sunny grass between the aisles of a palm-orchard.” For the next eight years, Vollmann completed “Imperial” doing precisely that. His interests are equally topological and sociological: returns to Imperial not just to research the exact condition of the New River, but to talk to the sad-looking prostitutes one is bound to find along the border as well.

Thus, “Imperial” is a work of journalism, but only in the same way that Imperial is simply a county in California. Vollmann provides graphs and charts and diagrams and maps alongside an exhaustively-researched history. The citation section of “Imperial” spans 200 pages alone. The book is also filled with painstaking interviews with residents, officers, illegal aliens, strippers, “cayotes” (men hired to smuggle immigrants into the country illegally)—in short, everyone who is willing for $10 or less.

Despite the initial semblance of journalistic reportage, the investigation that gives “Imperial” its structure is far from objective. Vollmann indicates he had first visited Imperial with a lover. “Until a week ago this place had been hers and mine, our place,” he writes, “in those days Imperial was as beautiful as a double rainbow over the desert, rain falling and evaporating as it fell when we came down Highway 78 into Ocotillo.” He characterizes his quest as one to understand Imperial as a place divorced from his own personal memories. Somehow this absurd explanation for the origins of “Imperial” seems absolutely credible coming from Vollmann, whose previous works reveal, if nothing else, a man easily obsessed. A sentimentality colors the prose of Vollmann’s work at large in a way that would make calling “Imperial” purely non-fiction reductive. Even his decision to leave out quotations in favor of fluid movement from description to speech gives it the affect of raw consciousness, as if heard in a dream. “Crossing the river into California, giving down on the reservation’s wide green and yellow bottomlands, I received this greeting: WELCOME TO PARADISE CASINO. I don’t know if you’ll find anybody who wants to talk, said the girl at the convenience store. How about you? Nope.”

Vollmann also fully indulges an impulse to make himself the frame for his book. Just as much as “Imperial is America,” as he writes, “Imperial” is William Vollmann. He devotes large parts of the book to his favorite prostitutes and strippers, and one particularly memorable but puzzling chapter to the break up with his girlfriend. Other chapters are written from the perspective of a Mexican farmer, and others still are collections of quotes from previous pages.

Not that his focus could ever be questioned. Vollmann toils under the hot Imperial sun and sails through polluted and abandoned rivers, risking dehydration and disease. “I was worried about two possibilities,” he writes. “The first and more likely but less immediately detrimental one was that we might get poisoned by the New River... The second peril, which seriously concerned me, was dehydration.” In spite of such ubiquitous danger, Vollmann’s devotion is unflagging; “Imperial” is a work that leaves little to the imagination, and Vollmann literally leaves no stone unturned. His obsession both drives the book and sidetracks it. One chapter includes listings from the county directory of names and their corresponding occupations. In another, he describes a lingerie store and muses on its possible place in a speculative Guide Book to Imperial. His historical account of Imperial is equally thorough; “What were the Chinese up to in Mexicali? I promise that it will take me less than a hundred pages to tell you.” Then he proceeds to devote a ninety-page tangent to precisely that tidbit of history.

There is something strangely poetic about “Imperial.” The passion with which Vollmann overflows for his subject infects the (patient) reader. The seventh reiteration of some Imperial resident’s saying “I can’t help believing in people” is infinitely more touching than the sixth. “The Desert Disappears. Water is Here”—which originally appeared in a headline of a newspaper from which Vollmann quotes—is more heartbreakingly ironic and more beautiful for its rhythmic prose each time it is repeated.

It seems the best way to approach “Imperial” is precisely the way Vollmann approached Imperial. Its disjointed structure is a service to the sheer volume of time it takes to finish the book. After a decade of research, in a 1,300-page book, Vollmann is still doubtful that he has really covered the entirety of Imperial. He often defends himself by claiming that Imperial is ultimately “unknowable.” And “Imperial,” too, teems with such limitless detail that no reader could possibly absorb it all.

But Imperial is also “whatever you want it to be.” Vollmann goes further: “books are whatever we want them to be.” It seems to be an open invitation to take what you will and leave the rest for another time. It is this freedom that renders “Imperial” at once a deeply personal and deeply resonant labor. “I am where I want to be, in Paradise. Let me now commence the history of Paradise.”

—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at yedenkim@fas.harvard.edu.