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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali

Sacromonte Gypsy Cave DwellingSacromonte Gypsy Cave Dwelling (Cordoba, Spain 2008)


Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress

I had heard about the Chinese caves/tunnels of Mexicali Mexico before I read Imperial. Independently of that awareness, I maintain an active interest in cave/tunnel dwellings of any sort. I think it's the idea of "living in the earth" that attracts me. Above is a photograph of the gypsy caves of the sacromonte district just outside of Cordoba, Spain. The settlement of the caves in Spain is related to the utter collapse of society in between Roman and Muslim control and so the caves, despite their historical pedigree and attempts by the government to class the place up for educational purposes, maintain a tingly sense of nascent (or on going) collapse.

It's funny living in caves in Spain, versus tunnels on the United States/Mexican border. In the course of writing a central chapter of one of the best books written in a long while, Vollmann conclusively proves the existence of Chinese created tunnel networks underneath the streets of Mexicali. These tunnels exist in an "urban legend" state on the United States side of the border. I can attest personally to that attitude among residents of El Centro CA. This denial/ignoring of a very real, interesting phenomenon is a microcosm of Vollmann's approach in Imperial. Here, he is working with a real myth: His trips into the tunnels underlying historic China town in have all the excitement and tension of your standard Indiana Jones movie.

a view of downtown mexicalidowntown Mexicali, BC

Vollmann writes about his investigation into the tunnels, which involves at least twenty different interviews, employing chinese translators and even hiring a pair of Chinese-American women from Sacramento in an attempt to penetrate the tight-knit Mexican-Chinese community of Mexicali, Mexico. He places the community in the context of 19th and 20th century economic and labor history: The Chinese, like the Chinese in other Pacific coast communities, came to work and build towards a middle class shop-keeping existence. To this day, that population persists in Mexicali.

In the end, the mysticism and magic is stripped away, as is ignorance, and the "truth" is revealed, these tunnels were constructed to help early chinese immigrants cope with the heat by allowing for an underground "hanging out" area. With the invention of air conditioning and multiple fires, the tunnels found into disuse, and then they were ignored after.

mexicali, mexicoa view of mexicali bc

I'm reminded to my trip to Cordoba, Spain. Cordoba is the location of an amazing Muslim era fortress/castle called the Alcazar. The Alcazar was literally being ignored to death in the 18th century when American diplomat and author Washington Irving (the legend of sleepy hollow) wrote about "rediscovering" the fortress in a state of negliect. It is now the largest tourist attraction in the country of Spain.

I'm close to being 500 pages in. I feel like the Chinese Tunnels chapter alone could be a satisfactory conclusion to Imperial, but I do feel compelled to read on. I am in awe of Vollmann's technique.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress

los angeles @ nightLos Angeles @ Night 12/31/2006

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico


Does art exist without an audience to appreciate it? It does, because provided the cultural product continues to exist, an audience could exist at a later point in time. That scenario (an audience appreciating something later in time) is growing increasingly unlikely because of the absolute, verifiable proliferation of new cultural products created by advances in technology and mechanical duplication.

So- that being the case- I would argue that in this day and age, for all forms of cultural product, the audience is actually more important then the artist him/herself. You say: Without the art, the audience doesn't exist. But really, if you think about it- isn't it the opposite? Without the audience, the artist doesn't exist, and the more cultural product being produced, the more important the role of the audience.

It's always true for cultural products (up to and including "language" and "religion") that if something is not remembered by anyone, it ceases to exist.

view from the salton sea beachview from the salton sea beach

Do you know how many civilisations have been buried beneath the sands of time? Great, epic civilisations, which have vanished from memory and thereby from history. William Vollmann does. Imperial is his attempt, in book format, to post a warning on the path ahead. Imperial is, quite explicitly, an instructional device.

I think Vollmann loves Imperial in the same way I do: Because it is here that you see all of what we are.

dead fish, salton seaDead Fish @ the Salton Sea


Yesterday, I had the occasion to sit in a from for several hours and read Imperial. I made it past page 350, which seems like a very "blog" thing to say. You'll never read THAT sentence in a local daily book review. Here's something else the newspapers will never get- it's all about the photos. People love images.


brawley, california

The photograph above is from the rodeo Sophie and I went to in 2005 in Brawley, CA. Brawley is smack in the central of Imperial. Maybe it's the spiritual capital of that place. People thought we were nuts. The fact that we both were equally excited to go- that's what you call a "soul mate" as they say.



As Vollmann moves out of his throat clearing mode, Imperial begins to move away from the border and Imperial county, and out towards Los Angeles, Riverside & San Diego. He maintains the convention of tagging each chapter with a year (or year range), making some of the chapters sound like history texts "Los Angeles: 1792-1945." Vollmann "moves the camera" from location to location and time to time with ease. After all, one thing Vollmann knows how to do in his writing is manipulate time and space over pages and pages of text.

Around page 250 I almost began to feel that Vollmann was literally building in an indictment, that Vollmann-the-narrator is showing a jury the evidence to support his proposition: That "Imperial" is all of America writ little- a microcosm. Reading yesterday, I realized that Vollmann does indeed intend to bring older civilizations to bear- he quotes from an ancient Sumerian text that analogizes a river to a "giving" woman.

I also begin to sense the swell of narrative- he continues to hint at his investigation into Chinese caves in Mexicali- a subject that I have heard discussed- though not in Mexicali. I suppose it will either be a climax, and anti-climax, or nothing at all, depending on Vollmann's artistic intent.


I identify with Vollmann's 1300+ page work. As a blogger, as a consumer, as a reader. This is what our world is like. To write long books is to say "the world is a very interesting place." To read long books says "I believe the world is an interesting place." And it is.





















Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico

building detail, downtown mexicalibuilding detail, downtown mexicali


Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea

Vollmann himself was in town last night, he appeared at Warwicks, on Girard St. in La Jolla, CA. I didn't go, even though he's my favorite author, for two reasons. One, I had already agreed to let 2/4 dum dum girls practice in my office last night. Two, I really hate author readings. Isn't the whole point of being an author NOT having to tour and do publicity? Also, a reader pointed out this KPBS interview from yesterday.

computecComputec Sign: Mexicali, Mexico

I was in El Centro yesterday, and driving back I headed out west on Adams Ave. During the drive I was thinking about what John Adams, prudish whig that he was, would think of the Imperial Valley landscape. I crossed over interstate 8 just east of where the New River intersects the freeway: there is an rv park close to the freeway, but as you precede south, there is no viewpoint for the river. No bridge over the river. For miles south of the interstate. Strange, but in line with Vollmanns observations.

location of casa tia tina in mexicalilocation of las casa tia tina circa 2007, Mexicali MX.

Closing in on the 175 page mark, Vollmann has firmly moved south of the border: after two shortish literary type chapters, one about a failed relationship of Vollmann the narrator and the other a brief metaphysical excursions, he settles in to a discussion of the Colorado River and the environmental degradation that it has suffered at the hands of the United States and our water thirsty society. He also focuses on how people kind of ignore it. That is a recurring theme. In fact, between chapters 5 and 6 Vollmann inserts a sign post which says "I'm going to use statistics in this book!" as a kind of warning to the reader.

In Chapter Seven, Vollmann explores the folk religion of Mexicans as embodied by the Maria de Guadalupe. She is a fusion deity born of the combination of Catholicism and Aztec religion. I have noticed that Vollmann employs the technique of importing academic/non-literary disciplines into what is a classic "work of literature." This ia an approach to writing literature I appreciate. Literature should reflect the world around it, and we are unquestionably a society of "technical experts" with specialties. It is not enough in this world to advocate for an ideology, statistics must be employed, no matter the non-technical nature of argument.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea

salton sea beachWelcome to Salton Sea Beach: Taken May 1st, 2007.



Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower

In 2007, I found myself in the position of having to drive to El Centro, CA after the end of Coachella Arts and Music Festival. I was excited, because I wanted to see the Salton Sea, certainly an object of fascination for me going back to 2002. My wife was also interested in seeing the Salton Sea. Here is a photograph of me at the Salton Sea Beach. It was incredible. The desolate moonscape of Salton City is just about everything you need to know about what the whole world will be like after we destroy our civilization. If you really want an illustration of that environment, go to Google Maps and type in "Salton City, CA." then zoom into a neighborhood level view and toggle between "street" view and "satellite" view. Epic fail.

Salton SeaThe Salton Sea.

Waters of Life, if the third chapter in William T. Vollman's "Imperial." Like the other chapters, Waters of Life carries a specific year as date. In this case it's "2001." Waters of Life is an exploration by the Vollmann character of the Mexicali-to-Salton Sea New River and of the Salton Sea itself. The action in this chapter are a couple of boat rides, capped by a chemical test of the water to see how polluted it actually it is. The verdict? It's actually not that bad- it looks (and smells) worse then it is.

Salton Sea "Marina"

Vollmann expresses exhilaration at his raft ride on the New River between the Mexicali/Calecxio border to south of the Freeway 8, describing it as akin to exploring pre-Columbian America, so destitute of visitors is this river. But it's all about the stink, and the heat, and the stink. At one point Vollmann describes the smell of death on the Mexican side of the river to be "so bad as to actually smell like a strong cheese." Shudder.

One thing he doesn't do is make any references to Egypt or the Nile, or classical Greece or Roman. I don't know if Vollmann is going to save that for later or what, but it's fact that Imperial Valley was often compared to the Nile River delta in its early days, and the New River is obviously at least analogous to the Nile. It also occurs to me that based on the heat, and the stink, and the fact that you will die in the water itself, a comparison to Hades or the river Styx would be a suitable metaphor. Minor criticisms, though.

I am looking out my office window to the east, contemplating the fog that shrouds Golden Hill. The temperature in the Imperial Valley today is predicted to reach a high of 106, but we all know how hot asphalt can get. As always, my thoughts are of what would happen were my car to break down in such conditions. Fortunately the road is well traveled, so death is unlikely. As long as you don't get out and walk. That could end up being a real mistake.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Freeway" Ricky Ross Released from Federal Prison

RICKY  "FREEWAY" ROSS"Freeway" Ricky Ross: The prison years.

Freeway Ricky Ross basically invented the crack game in south-central Los Angeles. He is the likely inspiration for NWA and the direct inspiration for rappers like "Rick Ross" and "Freeway" who have literally stolen his identity. If I were those rappers, I would be careful. I mean, seriously. Watch out.

Ricky Ross bought his kilos from a a Nicaraguan cat named Danilo Blandon. Danilo Blandon happened to work with the CIA. That's how the CIA got involved in the crack game in South Central Los Angeles.

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower

desert look out towerDesert Tower in Jacumba, CA.

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Almost every reviewer of Imperial by William T. Vollmann asks the question "Who wants to read 1300 pages about Imperial County and environs?" like there is nobody out there interested in the subject. Well, I am. This book is probably the most significant book of any kind to be published about Imperial County. I know, because I have researched the issue. I personally asked Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, "Do you know of any books that focus on Imperial County? His answer, "Maybe a graduate thesis or two, that's all I know about." So.

Imperial is 20 chapters plus. The first chapter is basically an extended length Vollmann-style piece of magazine journalism about the people-who-cross-the-border or "bodies" as Vollmann calls them. Each chapter carries a date that correlates to a specific year that Vollmann was doing the field research to write Imperial. One of my earliest memories of San Diego (living here) was reading in the San Diego Reader about how Vollmann was coming down here for a book. We're talking 2001-02. The first chapter is set in "1999" and the "pre-9/11ness" of the setting is not only apparent, but commented on by Vollmann-the-author.

I write this as someone who is deeply, deeply interested in the Mexicali/Calexico border. It is, in fact, about 20% of my job to drive out to El Centro and handle Federal criminal cases out there. I would read a 500 page book by Vollmann on the subject of chapter one. I have been to some of the places he describes, and I am deeply, deeply impressed by the level of thought he has brought to bear on this subject: crossing the border. I know Vollmann's characters in this chapter, and I can personally attest to the accuracy of Vollmann's depiction.

But as for criticism, the border is too obvious a place to launch such an endeavor. I would have preferred a chapter on the natural history of the mountains that separate imperial valley from the coast. I think the mountains to the west of the Imperial valley are deeply interesting. It is only an accident of civilization that they have not been celebrated in myth & legend for thousands of years. I guess it's entirely possible that Vollmann will get to it, but I would have liked to read about it first.

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