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William T. Vollmann: The dispassionate chronicler

This time, that mix of empathy and distance, that need to look at everything with an outsider's eye, is trained on Imperial County.

November 01, 2009|David L. Ulin

SAN FRANCISCO — William T. Vollmann hardly looks like one of the most ambitious authors of his generation. Walking on Haight Street in his rumpled jeans, ball cap and black T-shirt, shoulders bowed beneath a heavy backpack, he seems an older version of the street kids who still congregate in the tawdry heart of Haight-Ashbury -- young men mostly, carrying bedrolls, panhandling for change. In a lot of ways, these are Vollmann's people: outsiders, on the fringes, whom society tends to disregard.

Outsiders have motivated his writing, from his 1987 debut novel, "You Bright and Risen Angels," which posits a war between insects and human beings, through his most recent effort, the monumental "Imperial" (Viking: 1,306 pp., $55), which tracks another kind of conflict: the battles, real and metaphorical, that define Imperial County -- battles over immigration and water, identity and the reach and limitations of political power. The book, which came out in August, is perhaps the clearest expression of Vollmann's career-long commitment to immerse himself in complexities.

To write it, he spent 10 years visiting Imperial County, interviewing hundreds of people, reading history and public records, soaking up folklore. The result is a hybrid -- curious only if you're unfamiliar with Vollmann's work -- a massive, multilayered look at the border region of southeastern California, from the Colorado River to the Coachella Valley, Mexicali to the Salton Sea. Merging journalism and narrative, sociology and myth, the book is less about Imperial County than the place Vollmann calls Imperial, which exists most firmly in his mind.

"It may be," he writes, "that since this southeast corner of California is so peculiar, enigmatic, sad, beautiful and perfect as it stands, delineation of any sort should be foregone in favor of the recording of 'pure' perceptions, for instance by means of a camera alone; or failing that, by reliance on word-pictures: a cityscape of withered palms, white tiles, glaring parking lots, and portico-shaded loungers who watch the boxcars groan by; a crop scape of a rich green basil field, whose fragrance rises up as massively resonant as an organ-chord."

At 50, Vollmann is the author of 19 books, including "Rising Up and Rising Down," a seven-volume, 3,352-page history-cum-ethical-investigation of violence, nominated for a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and "Europe Central," a historical novel about mid-20th century Europe, which won a 2005 National Book Award. In such works he walks a line between extreme engagement and extreme detachment, eschewing conventional morality to approach the world on its own terms.

Although he has lived in Sacramento for nearly 20 years, much of his early writing deals with San Francisco, especially the Tenderloin, which he explored in novels such as "The Royal Family" and "Whores for Gloria" or the story collection "The Rainbow Stories." These books take on the urban demimonde of prostitutes and crackheads with an unsettling mix of distance and empathy.

In one piece in "The Rainbow Stories," Vollmann gets close to a gang of skinheads, withholding judgment, allowing them to speak for themselves. In 2007's "Poor People," an examination of poverty, he exposes the complicity of his subjects, while insisting that we view them with compassion anyway.

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Unsentimental vision

As for how he arrived at this perspective, it started with the skinheads: "I was interviewing them," he recalls, "and one was telling me about someone he had shot. I wasn't sure whether I should believe it, and then I realized: It doesn't matter whether it was true or not because this was what he wanted to tell me. This was the self he wanted to project." That's an unsentimental vision, but if one theme runs through Vollmann's writing, it's that sentimentality is a way to avoid facing things for what they are.

This too is the aesthetic of "Imperial," in which Vollmann is less an interpreter than, to steal a phrase from William S. Burroughs, "a recording entity." (He has also published a companion volume of photographs, more than 200 portraits of the people who inhabit the border zone.) "My intention," he says, over an energy drink at a Haight Street coffee shop named the People's Cafe, "was to understand the place and bring it alive. Of course, absolute understanding is impossible, and therefore the book is a failure. That's OK."

Vollmann talks about his work with the same dispassionate air he brings to writing. He's measured, polite almost to a fault; when you ask a question, he considers it, really, before saying what he thinks.

And he does say what he thinks. At Moe's Books in Berkeley earlier this year, he told an audience that "Imperial" is "the least pleasurable of my books to read, line for line."

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