Earlier this week, Biblioklept correspondent A King at Night suggested on this blog that William T. Vollmann, “literature’s own Batman,” may not be entirely real. While Mr. At Night’s post was perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, he did hip us to extremely cheap new copies of Vollmann’s 2009 California opus, Imperial. I bought one, of course, knowing that my chances of actually reading it in full were, uh, slim. It showed up today.
I read the first 25 pages, a little over 2% of the book (not counting Vollmann’s endnotes and bibliography). I read the book in the bathtub, drinking a beer (those of you who fear (or find repulsive the prospect of) visualizing my stubby little birthday-suited body besoaped and besudded, I suggest that that role may be played by Geena Davis, circa early nineties, although, obviously, you can pick whomever you like to imagine reading Imperial in a bathtub). I was cognizant of the fact that I was taking a bath—a luxury of sorts—while reading a book that deals in large part about who controls water. I also managed to get the book wet with both blood and water. I don’t know where the blood came from.
The first few pages thrust us right into typical Vollmann territory, with our protagonist paying a cokehead to guide him through the back alleys of Mexicali (Vollmann takes time to note the “street-whores,” of course). Alternately, Vollmann attends the nocturnal activities of the weary Border Patrol, who regularly catch and release Mexicans heading for the Northside (America).
There’s a great little moment, very early in this first chapter, when Vollmann ponders the Sisyphean task of the men who patrol the border:
. . . I almost pitied the futility of his occupation, as I suspect he did mine (the main purpose of my essays being to line birdcages), but then I fortunately persuaded myself that all vocations and callings are equally futile.
This seems like the prototypical Vollmann moment: earnestness bound in supple irony, self-deprecation glossing the intense pride in work that the contemporary world will be happy to (even sometimes boastfully) ignore.
I enjoyed the first pages of this massive book tremendously. Vollmann’s voluminous scope and strange background often eclipse his powers as a proseslinger, and Imperial, so far, is lucid, clean, sharp, and funny.
So I’ll go for it. I’ll read it. I’ll finish it before this time (id est, late Dec.) next year.