I’ve finished Part I of Vollmann’s desert epic & stand in awe of the flexibility and courage of his imagination. The flexibility, I think, is born of desperation & obsession: Vollmann is driven to look at everything about Imperial County (and the geographically and imaginatively much larger entity he calls Imperial), especially his own motives for writing about it and the way writing about it creates an imaginary Imperial; he then worries that the imaginary Imperial cannot do justice to the actuality of the place. All great art calls itself into question, suggests the grounds for its own negation. It is this sort of desperate knowledge of both the power and inadequacy of the imagination that forces Vollmann to bring himself directly into the text in chapters he calls “subdelineations” in order to distinguish them from the more documentary delineations of the other chapters. The courage is both aesthetic & physical. Vollmann dares just about anything in pursuit of the actual, on the page & on the ground. The structure of the book, I think, will be determined — delineated — by the subdelineations, then, where Vollmann brings himself into Imperial & Imperial into himself.
Later: In his second Subdelineation, which comes near the end of Part I, Vollmann presents a long meditation on the difference between fiction and non-fiction & the ability of each to tell the truth. Non-fiction comes out ahead, but not because it is capable in any direct way of presenting the truth, or even, perhaps, a truth. In turning over these ideas, Vollmann actually writes a bit of the novel he might have written had he chosen fiction, then he writes a bit of the novel another character — an INS agent — might have written about the same incident. All this against the background of a sentimental novel from the beginning of the 20th century, set in Imperial, with a heroine named Barbara Worth. For all his hardcore reportorial mojo, Vollmann is throughly pomo.