Mr. Vollmann’s newest book, “Imperial,” which comes out from the Viking Press on Thursday, costs $55 and is 1,300 pages long — so heavy, he observed recently, that if you dropped it, you’d break a toe. A companion volume, to be published next month by powerHouse Books, contains some 200 photographs he took while working on “Imperial,” for which he also wore a spy camera while trying to infiltrate a Mexican factory, and paddled in an inflatable raft down the New River in California, a rancid trench that is probably the most polluted stream in America. The water, he writes, tasted like the Salk polio vaccine.
He went on: “I think countries have the right to maintain their borders, but on the other hand, think of the thousands or so who have died just trying to get to the United States so they can clean toilets. It seems horrendous that they shouldn’t have a better life, especially if they’re willing to do work we aren’t.”