Imperial by William Vollmann (1)

I think I need to keep a journal of my reading of this book. It is that big a world. I've reached page 108, near the end of a chapter Vollmann calls "Subdelineations: Lovescapes (2001)," the first of several chapter titles that begin with the word subdelineations that appear to be more personal in nature than the other chapters that, so far, have functioned, sometimes literally, as delineations of Imperial (the book) & of Imperial County, an arid place in California. The book is both an attempt at knowledge and even understanding of this particular place as well as an admission of the impossibility of anything like the complete knowledge of a place, which would have to be, Vollmann notes, the sum total of all the people who have looked at it or lived in it however long or briefly. This first subdelineation is about the breakup of a love affair: Vollmann tells the reader that his lover of many years has left him. "I just can't take this anymore," she says, but we never know what this consists of. The author, wisely, I think, doesn't say. Vollmann probably doesn't know either; or he both knows and doesn't know. What he does know is how it makes him feel and that is what this chapter is about. In order to understand Imperial (To italicize or not? County in California or book?), the reader must understand the author's life in the place and his life in the book. It takes courage to write this way. This particular chapter is rawly emotional, but that's only part of what I mean; it take aesthetic courage to believe so throughly in the inclusive principle of literary composition that you include what happened to you as you wrote the book. It's impossible of course because it leads to an endless recursion, which is one definition of madness. Vollmann courts madness, but is one of the lucky few who are saved by the demands and strictures of his art. I like Vollmann. I admire his impulse toward the exhaustive. Reminds me a little of Norman Mailer, but without Mailer's brittle machismo.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Imperial by William Vollmann (1)”

  1. joseph, thanks for this post esp i think for me the part about the o’hara-ist manner of including what is happening around the writer into the text.

    as for madness i so long ago have kept by me a copy i typed up of a poem published in THE LONDON MAGAZINE nov 1964 by Elisabeth Jennings titled “A Recollection”:

    “Nearly a year ago I tried to take
    My life; not pills, that only half-meant death.
    It was with gas I tried to stop my breath,
    Yet did not want to finish life but make
    Some sign that things were cracking and might break.
    But none of this was conscious. I remain
    With all that vivid memory–the smell
    Of gas, the fear, the childhood thoughts of hell.
    I grasped a rosary in my hand to gain
    Some hope in hopelessness, a talisman.

    I cannot now forget what I have tried.
    There was a time when I told everyone
    The fearful thing it seemed that I had done.
    I could not bear to live as if I lied;
    I knew that I so nearly might have died.

    Now I feel scarred forever; all confession,
    All the long words of psychotherapy
    Cannot remove responsibility.
    I know I have become a different person
    Because I gave my fears their full expression.

    Where does the moral lie and where the lack
    Of shame and guilt? Great questions fill my mind.
    I must, the nurses say, leave this behind.
    Yes, but I want the innocences back
    That came before the heartbreat, the great dark.

    Around are many lives who’ve done the same–
    Slashed at their wrists, taken an overdose,
    Yet none of this belittles my own choice
    Of momentary madness. Still the shame
    Haunts me and taunts me, scrawls across my name.

    Elizabeth Jennings

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