The parable runs that once upon a time, the city fathers of Calexico… prohibited alcohol, and thereby brought into being Mexicali, where the very first place of business… was a plank set up under a mesquite tree where mescal and tequila were dispensed.
—William T. Vollmann, Imperial
The international border to our south has a way of encouraging derangement in the two countries it separates. The border—a sometimes fence—is two thousand miles of brush and desert, dotted by US and Mexican cities and towns that stare at each other across the line, through a glass darkly. My own border town, El Centro, California, is a place that four generations of my family, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, have called home. The town shares an arid climate, the Colorado River, an agricultural economy, and a sense of blasted isolation with its much larger Mexican neighbor, Mexicali.
Getting there is simple: Leave San Diego, head east on I-8 into the mountains. Drive ninety miles, until you’re swerving down a steep mountain grade with the desert floor below. Now you’re in Imperial County. Take twenty-five more miles of a lightless, ruler-straight road through the desert. Here is El Centro, Imperial’s county seat and largest town, where being Mayor is still a part-time job, the two state prisons are huge employers, and kids are a lot more likely to join the fight in Iraq or Afghanistan than they are to go to college. I say I’m from California, because I am, but an entire image of California is sanded down and burned off along these highways south and east. Beach-front, Hollywood, “San Francisco liberals,” and film actors with second careers in state government are replaced by a place where a few thousand people will line up before dawn to apply for a few hundred jobs at a new Food-4-Less.
Imperial County gives William T. Vollmann the title, and the subject, of his new nonfiction book, Imperial. Owing to some tendentious geographical license, Imperial spans much more than Imperial County, as Vollmann draws his history and stories from what census takers know as Riverside County, parts of Arizona, and Baja California. However you draw the map, this is a place of nested worlds: rural and urban; American and Mexican; desert and farmland. The place seems to have burned into Vollmann’s skin, haunted him with visions of American hubris, failure, and decay and Mexican suffering, pride, and powerlessness. For Vollmann, “Imperial” is something metaphysical, a state of mind, a map of heartbreak.1
Imperial makes for a vast and melancholy set of stories, as the region’s history becomes an object lesson in American dreams snuffed out by American capitalism. Capitalism’s primary form in the area is agricultural work: Imperial is a below-sea-level valley threaded by thousands of miles of canals that pull in Colorado River water and make the desert bloom with billions of dollars of cantaloupes and lettuce and alfalfa and onions. Like a lot of America’s farm country, the farms are less Mom and Pop agrarian idylls, and more vast, absentee corporations. (Vollmann points out that “by the middle of the 1990s, 60 percent of Imperial Valley enjoys the wonders of absentee ownership.”) Crops are harvested for small seasonal wages by migrants with complicated relationships to American immigration policy.
And then there is the border, the other dominant feature of the place. “Subdividing… creates mysteries and stories,” Vollmann writes, not far into Imperial. He’s right to think the border makes life murkier than it already is. Everything in a border community is subdivided, and so everything is doubled: sets of officials, town halls, days of feasting and independence, even a feeling of what constitutes proper justice or ethics or etiquette. And though life is double, nothing is ever separate. A visible national boundary, however well-policed, cannot hide that border places are tangled together as inseparably as knotted kite string.
Calexico is the last American town in Imperial County, and just across the border is Mexicali. Even the place names are mixed up, like they spilled and broke apart before they were put back together, California and Mexico, as “Calexico” and “Mexicali.”
Mexicali illustrates the tangled derangement of border life I’m speaking of, the kind of doubling that fascinates Vollmann. Mexicali to me is both a dark mirror of home and my first and most intimate picture of the strange ways of foreign lands. It has an official population nearing a million, but it rattles and teems like a city several times that size—strange, seedy, exotic, and gruesome. Mexicali is where you go if you want cheaper dental work, but it is also where you go when in need of a nice Italian restaurant with starched white tablecloths. Mexicali is where El Centro’s bad girls were rumored to dance half-naked for money, where my brother watched a horse get gored at a bullfight, where you’ll hear stories of some American’s late-model Ford truck getting impounded, on dubious charges, and the vehicle disappearing into the sticky muck of Mexican law enforcement, never to be seen again. The city is fascinating and suspect and it excites and saddens me in about equal measure. It houses some of the most destitute people I’ve laid eyes on. And it’s where I went with friends, long before I was of legal drinking age in the United States, to sit in the most improbable German bar in all the world, a place called Heidelberg, which served its own dark homebrewed beer by waitresses dressed up in frilly Bavarian costume.
Vollmann cites a Stanford historian who writes, “The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world.” The border is an unequal line—a gash, really—and yet I went to school with kids who crossed back and forth every day. Many afternoons after soccer practice, one of the coaches drove from our playing field out to the border crossing, let a couple of kids off near the fence without asking questions, trusting they’d be back on Saturday for the game. We competed for state championships this way. I never gave this too much thought, but the kids I was kicking a ball around with must have understood it in a way I can’t, if only because the fence is entirely permeable for me heading south, but an immense complication, and worse, to those heading north. It’s our fence, after all. We built it high and keep building it, and it allows us the additional barrier of feeling that we do not have to give Mexico, or its problems, much thought.
American border complaints invariably run in one direction—how much of Mexico is coming here—but this ignores how much of America spills over onto the Mexican side. American-owned factories—the maquiladoras—are set up in Mexico to take advantage of lower wages and softer environmental controls. Americans roll in for strip clubs and cheap farmacia Ritalin; Americans come to drink and eat and flash money around and act stupid. (They often behave perfectly well, too, but I’m talking here of what border siblings fight about.) The calculus is roughly this: American companies set up in Mexico and pollute; Americans on the other side of la línea buy smuggled drugs and employ trafficked humans; then American officials come to righteously complain to Mexico about pollution and drug trafficking and human smuggling.
If there is a single dominant preoccupation of Vollmann’s, it probably lies in this border mess—not necessarily with immigration or drugs, but with the philosophical problem of what it means to draw a border. In his own words, he “attempts not only to delineate an arbitrary, semi-imaginary area called Imperial, but also to investigate how and why delineations are made.” That’s a tall order, and delineation might be the most-used word in the book. The way delineation neatly contains línea—la línea being the only thing I’ve heard the border called while on the other side of it—is a good starting point. An American delineation and a Spanish linea don’t sound like they refer to the same entity.
Why was this desert settled at all? What did people find promising in hundreds of miles of sand, with no natural water and brutal heat? Gold, probably—though now the Tumco Mine is a ghost town. My great-grandfather came to El Centro on the heels of the first “pioneers”—but even I would have trouble telling you what in god’s name they were pioneering. It seems a case of desire over direction, setting out for the sake of setting out. The isolated land he must have encountered makes me imagine this earlier generation of men in my family as something out of Cormac McCarthy: reticent, squint-eyed men inclined to enforce the rules as they saw them, because there was no one else in the world who could be trusted to do it for them.
What made Imperial’s settlement possible was an engineering project in the first decade of the twentieth century, a plan to cut into the Colorado River, route its water into the valley, and transform the desert into an agricultural Eden. This is the part of the valley’s history that displays both extraordinary imagination and will, and the attendant recklessness that so often besets them. The Imperial Valley pioneers vastly underrated the power of Colorado River floods. The effort to irrigate the desert turned quickly into surging water that tore the first ramshackle versions of our houses and railroad tracks to pieces, and in the process refilled the Salton Sink, a depression of salt flats in the northern part of the county. The project engineer, Charles Rockwood, is the man “who bears much of the blame for the Salton Sea accident,” Vollmann writes, before deliciously quoting Rockwood who “exculpates himself thus: We have since been accused of gross negligence and criminal carelessness in making this cut, but I doubt as to whether anyone should be accused of negligence or carelessness in failing to foresee that which had never happened before.”
Is Rockwood’s a peculiarly American way of thinking? Vollmann seems to think so, and uses Rockwood’s recklessness to point up our national character of Progress and Capital and Conquest. He refers the reader back to Emerson’s essay “The Young American”: “The bountiful continent is ours, state on state, and territory on territory, to the waves of the Pacific sea.” Vollmann dwells unsentimentally on the consequences of this idea of the bountiful continent, the evasions in this idea of “ownership” that have led to our less-than-careful handling of Western lands.
So, there’s your desert reclamation: a reckless, even ridiculous, overestimation of human engineering and a criminally negligent lack of foresight. But perhaps the intentions were good. “The essence of the industrial life which springs from irrigation is its democracy,” a man named Smythe writes at the start of the twentieth century. Vollmann uses this quote with increasing levels of irony. It’s a myth of the American West he seems to wish was true and instead must puncture. With some sadness he reports that perhaps people irrigated for profit, not to live out some agrarian democracy on a hundred-sixty-acre homestead (the limit of ownership on reclaimed lands out west). To Vollmann, the men of my great-grandfather’s time didn’t have deeper democracy in their hearts, or a better sense of justice, as much as they sought land and a living. Or maybe it’s that some of them did have a vision of a better society in mind, but making a living got in the way. Vollmann suggests both.
“There is no escaping the stereotype of an ideal agrarian world,” Vollmann reports. Thomas Jefferson and reams of dreadful pastoral poetry back up his claim. To demolish that stereotype, you need only look at present-day Imperial, a land of migrant farmworkers who, according to a study Vollmann quotes, “by any reckoning… [are] the poorest, the least represented, and the most abused class of working people in the United States.”
Once again, that’s progress for you—from the promised democracy of farming and irrigation to consolidated corporate agribusiness and the tangled issue of its labor force. Progress makes fast promises and disappears. In a baroque twist that seems only imaginable to a mind like Vollmann’s, Progress becomes a literal prostitute in his book: “Progress is the delicious Mexicali whore who’s just had a happy orgasm with her hand in your hair and your head between her legs; when it’s your turn, and the condom breaks, Progress, after asking if she can be your novia, volunteers to buy another condom from the lobby man, leaps from the bed, dresses in a flash, expels a few cleansing drops of urine from her hole, promises to return in one minute or less, gravely, almost sternly wags her finger, instructing you: Confianza! Confianza! and disappears forever.” It’s hard to know what to do with this metaphor, but maybe it isn’t an entirely bad one. The nexus of associations is right (exploitation, cash for services, disappearing unaccountably), even if I can’t quite get Vollmann’s terms to add up. Is Progress, in this account, both the exploiter and the exploited?
There’s a lot of this sort of thing in Imperial: A head-spinning extended metaphor quickly left for dead, or an arresting quotation or story summoned up and never returned to. Imperial’s method is to flit, from prose-poem bursts of natural description, to fragmented excerpts of historical documents, to Vollmann’s hand-drawn maps and black-and-white photographs. “It may well be that since this southeast corner of California is so peculiar, enigmatic, sad, beautiful, and perfect as it stands, delineation of any sort should be forgone in favor of the recording of ‘pure’ perceptions.…” he writes. “Let the reader beware.” In this vein, swarms of quotations from both ephemeral and hard sources fly at us, sometimes presented as ironic asides in chaotic altered fonts, often repeated again in ending sections labeled “reprise,” word-salad summaries of what has just passed. By volume’s end, we’ve covered a great deal of Southern California history, John Steinbeck, Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” a little Aztec myth, Mark Rothko, César Chávez, William Mulholland, and the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
And you can add to all this an accompanying volume, separately published, of the photographs Vollmann took during his ten years of research in Imperial. The photographs are powerful: Many of them are so evocative of the decay they intend to capture that I had difficulty looking at them for very long. The pictures of prostitutes, gang members, field-workers, fence-jumpers, scavengers, abandoned clothing, and fish bones on the Salton Sea shoreline are arresting; perhaps they’re the displaced heart of the book. They give a solid sense of Vollmann’s angle of vision, very much in an American vein of documentary photography—a little Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, a little How the Other Half Lives. It’s an aesthetic of ruin and compassion.
The photos are particularly illustrative because a documentary writing style is probably the most consistent, and consistently effective, of Vollmann’s gambits. He produces pages upon pages in his subjects’ voices, written without quotation. Presumably these closely reproduce interviews, and they make for some of the most spare and engaging parts of the book. It’s a way of giving over the task of generalization to his subjects, freeing Vollmann from having to generalize himself. One of his confidantes, a field hand named Lupe, explains the border to him this way: “There’s more poverty in Mexicali. But on the Mexican side you have more freedom. You can do things that a poor person can’t do over here. You can buy a cheap plot of land and build your own house. You can build it starting with one little room. You don’t have inspectors coming to see your license.”
Some of the people willing to talk to him, like drunk men in the most derelict bars he can find, seem to be notorious tellers of tall tales, fabulists without formal education. Of course, the stories people tell about themselves can be revealing, even as they’re entertaining and unreliable. The cornerstone of Vollmann’s thinking is that he never presumes to understand more about people’s lives than they do themselves. He writes, for example, “I mostly reject the Marxist notion of false consciousness; I believe that a worker can think for himself, and if he doesn’t claim to be exploited, why then, he probably isn’t.”
But the longer Imperial goes on in this way, from prostitute to drunken field hand, from digression to digression, from old diary excerpt to unearthed property deed, the more people will ask: Why devote this kind of attention to an obscure, poor, California border county? Maybe to adequately describe this troubled land, where “delineation is the merest, absurdist fiction, yet delineation engenders control,” you really do need a book like Imperial: a large, sad work of earnest, idiosyncratic reportage. Maybe the “why” question is totally wrong here. The book, after all, is Vollmann’s self-described Moby-Dick. Asking why Vollmann is so interested in Imperial is like asking Ahab why he is so interested in the white whale. We shouldn’t be so surprised: It seems that every one of Vollmann’s works outstrips Ahab for obsession. (If Imperial is Moby-Dick, then what were the seven volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down—casual asides?) Poor, strange Melville isn’t a bad comparison for Vollmann, in fact. Like Vollmann’s, Melville’s books are mostly dense, often opaque, occasionally baffling. But Moby-Dick is too totemic to be helpful as a comparison. Perhaps Imperial is more Pierre; or The Ambiguities, Melville’s ruinous and gargantuan novel that lost him a publisher and had reviewers hinting he was insane. Pierre, whatever else it is, is a monument to some kind of indestructible temperament, and Vollmann certainly has that.
Because I know the place, I never doubted Imperial as a subject, but I did wonder about the related question of how and why Vollmann got so interested. I think I can venture an answer. A hundred pages in, Vollmann reveals, in intimate detail, that he fell in love with a woman while they visited Imperial together. The love didn’t last. We could read this as yet another tangent, but I doubt it is. I’ll cast my lot with Vollmann’s broken heart. Places where we fall in love get stitched into us in ways that are hard to tear out. Poring over thousands of pages of agricultural reports on historical fluctuations in lettuce acreage isn’t the strangest thing a scorned lover has ever done.
Once Vollmann was in Imperial, in love and out of it, he naturally found a great deal more that appealed to his disposition. He has been constitutionally drawn, in his writing, to territories like this the world over. Imperial furnishes him a potter’s field for the mummified remains of Mexicans who failed at their border crossing, a resonant example of the sharp extremity of the desert, the heat and poverty and forgotten-ness of the place. And in response, Vollmann has comparisons to furnish. The half-buried clothes abandoned in the desert sand remind him of what he saw in Cambodia’s killing fields. The landscape makes him think of Afghanistan. Even the unnervingly young age of Mexicali prostitutes he is offered is not enough to surprise him. So maybe Imperial’s attraction is not that it is so unique after all—rather, it’s just a one-stop shop for the varieties of human suffering we find chronicled in almost all of Vollmann’s work. The longer he stays, the more fond Vollmann becomes of the idea that “Imperial is a hot flat diorama of this world.” In ten years of research and writing, Vollmann has come to see the universe in trillions of grains of irrigated sand.
I started to sense that Vollmann believed there was a mystical promise buried out here in the soil, that he might stare into the scene long enough and the mysteries of human desire, the making of civilizations, would be revealed to him. He begins to couch his aphorisms in the local inhospitability. “Life,” he writes, “and especially Imperial life, is a narrow, precarious thoroughfare in the midst of arid death, like the dark double tier of the old plank road, winding across the sand dunes.” The story he wants to tell is of a place not naturally accommodated to humans, where lines were literally drawn in the sand, where some few have prospered and many more have not: “Imperial is sun and dirt, with accidental concretions of people and wilderness in between.” It’s the geography that eternally returns in Vollmann’s account. We thought the desert was blank and we built it up only to have the desert persist.
Vollmann’s Imperial doesn’t always describe a place I recognize, but some of this must be due to my own limitations as much as his. I may have lived much of my life within shouting distance of the people he interviews, but this hardly erases the class and comfort that separates us. I could compile a long list of what Vollmann saw in Imperial that I never have: the Thirteen Negro, a south-of-the-border bar-cum-dance-club-cum-brothel. The long-rumored but unmapped tunnels built by Mexicali’s Chinese population for opium smoking or gambling or smuggling. He takes a cheap boat and rows down the New River, a shit-filled waterway of Mexicali sewage that runs up through Imperial and empties into the Salton Sea, sometimes called the most polluted body of water in the United States. I’ve been close enough to smell that water, but couldn’t dream of it splashing up into my mouth: Vollmann gets a taste of it. He has a knife held to his throat by an angry drunk while leaving a Mexicali bar. He pays prostitutes to talk to him and to sleep with him. He tries infiltrating a maquiladora in Tijuana with expensive hidden video equipment taped near his testicles. He spends hours trying to divine the secrets of the narcocorrido, the ballads to drug traffickers often banned from the Mexican radio.
If this sounds entirely negative, as though there are no nice homes, no well-adjusted lives, no happy people in the whole of Imperial County, then think of it this way: what would the place where you live sound like if you asked only the day laborers, cleaning ladies, gardeners, prostitutes, homeless, drunks, convicts, and everyone else living, just barely, hand-to-mouth, many of whom had to be paid to talk to you? These are the people most likely to have their accounts overlooked by local governments, successful businesspeople, tourism bureaus. “Official channels are rarely one’s best connections to bad news,” Vollmann writes, “which may sometimes be a synonym for truth.” Fair enough. There’s no danger of the official channels not having their say. What Vollmann collects amounts to the underside of that view. I think of Walter Benjamin describing the historical materialist who “regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”
The Imperial Valley Press claimed not to be able to locate a single resident who had actually read Vollmann’s book. (I live in New York City now, so I suppose I don’t count.) A few people he interviewed claimed not to be able to remember speaking to him at all. Others recalled a man who seemed eternally curious, who wanted to know everything about their lives in this place where all the cars are dusty and transients are sunburned deep enough to look permanent.
“It comes naturally to me to preach graveside elegies,” Vollmann writes in a line that seems straight out of Moby-Dick. This has to be why one attitude around El Centro was to see Vollmann’s book as something like an unwanted revival meeting by an itinerant troublemaker just passing through. One friend of my parents likes to call this fly-by doomsaying the “shit-hole effect.” It’s more of an infection than an effect, really, and outside reporters are particularly susceptible to it. They read the miserable statistics—on poverty, asthma, unemployment, pollution, illiteracy, illegal immigration—and they come to the Imperial Valley to preach over its corpse with a wild look in their eyes. Vollmann gets hit hard by the shit-hole effect—but to my mind he’s omnivorous enough, dogged enough, and humble enough not to be ruined by it. He earned my sympathy with his own sympathy.
What haunted me most about Imperial was the wreckage of a different work in the one that exists. There’s an unwritten—or half-written—novel in all this material, a novel to which Vollmann often alludes: “In the perfect treatise I once meant to write, a book entitled Imperial, I was going to go at least as deeply into the story of each [Indian] tribe as I went into the Chinese tunnels. Perhaps I might have even made friends with someone on a reservation or two. Now my money is gone. I have spent more than fifty thousand dollars of my own and other people’s cash on Imperial. This section will not and cannot do justice to its subjects. I am sorry.” This “perfect treatise” is also called the “novel-in-progress,” or the “novel which I originally meant to write.” Looked at this way, Imperial is a backroom workshop—not Ulysses, but the detritus behind it, the advertising circulars and death certificates and street addresses and enigmatic food wrappers and yellowing newspapers that were spun into fiction.
What exactly kept Vollmann from writing this novel is also mysterious. He hints that he started many times only to quit out of humility, a feeling that he doesn’t understand his subject well enough. What he says of a cleaning woman he talks to in Sacramento seems true of his visits to Imperial: “The best compliment I can pay Maria is that I cannot imagine her life, especially the drudgery of it but also its various helplessnesses, humiliations, and apprehensions.”
And that’s the most peculiar part of it, that the 1,300 pages Vollmann produced are a testament to his own feeling of inadequacy. He still doesn’t believe he understands the place he calls Imperial and the people who live and have lived in it. Literary critics have suggested that there’s such a thing as the “encyclopedic novel,” a hodgepodge of a genre you could take to include books to which I’ve already alluded—Moby-Dick would be a founding document, and the work of James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace would follow idiosyncratically in the line. If anything but length holds these books together, it’s an attitude towards the novel as a form that can chew up verifiable fact, saturate its readers with documentary detail. It’s probably not accidental, either, that all these books are driven by varieties of obsessiveness—Ahab and his whale; Tyrone Slothrop’s all-consuming paranoia in Gravity’s Rainbow; the addiction narrative in Infinite Jest. Joyce boasted that Dublin, if destroyed, could be recreated from his book—as though his novel was not just an encyclopedia, but a blueprint. Vollmann is obsessed to the last bit of his patience and money with what the facts of his self-defined Imperial can yield up in the way of wisdom and secrets. But his resistance to writing a novel suggests an impasse: The encyclopedic novel might, like the encyclopedia itself, have to yield itself up to an even more chaotic form, of restive voices and multiple informants, lacking even the authority of the single author who makes those voices formally cohere. This would be less encyclopedia than Wikipedia—which might explain why Vollmann is so resistant to claiming an authoritative position, why he is so eager to reproduce the exact words of the people who spoke to him.
The vast book often becomes a kind of desperate object—every next page needs to keep talking because nothing has been said quite right. Borges writes in the foreword to his Ficciones: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.” The Borges solution is to pretend the vast book already exists. The conceit of the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is that the narrator has stumbled upon the encyclopedia of Tlön and will now describe it to us. Borges’s one-page story “On Exactitude in Science” is more radical still: It’s about “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire.” This “perfect” map coincides point for point with the places for which it is intended to act as guide—and thereby it becomes useless. To read a book like Vollmann’s is to suspect that this is where the author is headed, into a map as big as its territory, and to fear it even as you follow.
It’s fair to say that Imperial is a self-diagnosed defeat, a not-quite-definable object that’s a testament to Vollmann’s immersive interest in a strange place. I was mesmerized by its insistence and by its hunger. It will never find as many readers as it should. I should support ambitiously failed projects, I suppose, because my town seems to be one. It occurred to me, several hundred pages in, that I was perhaps the only person on earth Vollmann could not bore with Imperial detail—that I might be his ideal reader—even more, that I was quite possibly the only audience for this, a feeling that was truly bizarre. I read it because I’ve left, because I can’t see how I would ever find my way back. I began to feel the same responsibility and protectiveness, eventually, about the book as I do about the place.
Vollmann’s book came home with me on a trip this summer. By my last night in El Centro, I had finished Imperial, not with a bang but a whimper. I took the car out very late that night, and drove one of the straight streets out of town where the stoplights end quickly, where during the day you can see to the curve of the horizon in almost any direction. Cupped into total darkness, I was hit with what I still recognized as the smell of a field of sweet onions. The tallest objects were bales of hay packed two stories high, and off the country highways I watched for the access roads through farmers’ fields, ones that run alongside canals, up to groves of trees where teenagers can show up to drink beer, or have sex, with no one around to see. It occurred to me then that the entire point of this place, as even the first people must have felt when they moved to Imperial, is the ability to take even the most unpromising road as far as it will go—even to where it disappears entirely.