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Imperial Paperback – October 26, 2010

3.2 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, August 2009: How do you describe a 1,300-page book in 150 words? Start with adjectives (some of them opposites): vast, intrepid, passionate, and yes, sometimes dull, illuminating and infuriating, satirical and confessional, exhausting and exhaustive, dirty, fertile, and dry. William T. Vollmann, legendary for his huge, all-consuming books of fiction, history, and reporting, has spent much of the past ten years returning obsessively to one of the harshest but most contested territories in North America, the desert borderlands of southeastern California and northern Mexico he calls Imperial. Wading through water-use arcana, agri-booster archives, and centuries of colonial history; listening to lettuce farmers, motel clerks, and dance-hall hostesses; and crossing the border hundreds of times (while meeting those who cross via other means, and those who try to stop them), Vollmann has written an intensely personal fever dream of an encyclopedia that makes a strange, northern companion to last year's giant borderlands masterpiece, Roberto Bolano's 2666. --Tom Nissley

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Michael CoffeyThis is an exasperating, maddening, exhausting and inchorent book by the stunningly prolific Vollmann, who has really outdone himself. Eleven hundred pages plus endless endnotes about a single county in California is as perverse as Vollmann has dared be—which is saying a lot for a guy who has written a massive collection of tales about skinheads (Rainbow Stories), a seven-volume history of the settling of a measly continent (Seven Dreams) and another seven volumes on the history of violence (Rising Up and Rising Down). But a big book about one county? Well, it's not just any county. Imperial is the southeastern-most county in California, bordering with Mexico to the south and Arizona to the east, across the Colorado River. Is it a place deserving of this seemingly disproportionate chronicle? Today, it is a hot spot for illegal immigration, law enforcement action, drug trafficking, prostitution and sweatshop labor in maquilladoras, fetid border factories. It is a place, sure enough, where imperialism has made its mark. Over the past centuries, a lot of bad things have happened in El Centro, as the region is also called, and very little good, as Vollmann's excessive data-dump demonstrates ad nauseam. The Spanish came, murdered, plundered, left; America annexed; land grabs ensued and Colorado River water was illegally diverted westward to render a temporary agricultural paradise and make a few fortunes. As with most of his books, Vollmann has performed mind-boggling feats of research, gobbling up obscure and arcane texts about the Spanish conquests, hydrography, citrus cultivation, immigration, poverty rates, desalinization, drug use, human smuggling and exploitation of the weak by the wealthy in all its guises as it applies to this benighted, once beautiful desert region. If Vollmann has a point of view here, an axe to grind, it is that he is appalled by the power inequities and the subsequent suffering of the Mexicans, and he is moved by the latter's simple desire to have a better life. But gouts of a bleeding heart make for some viscous prose, and, as seldom happens with Vollmann, his emotions overcome his cool and his positions fray into incoherence. Vollmann's normally reliable narrative voice veers between tour guide–speak and backpacking sociologist, with the occasional lyrical paean to a lady of the night. As a result, Imperial County is a place that few will have the stomach to visit, and Imperial a book few will be willing to read. (powerHouse is publishing a book of 200 photographs Vollmann took during the course of his research: $55 [200p] ISBN 978-1-57687-489-9.) Photos, maps. (Aug.)Coffey is executive managing editor at PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 1200 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143118404
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143118404
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #851,748 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael A. Duvernois VINE VOICE on August 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
William T. Vollmann spent a decade trolling through the underside of the nation, the California-Mexico border with an obsessed eye for the grime, excess, love, blood, and sex that is his meat. Heck, that makes for much of the interest in any work of fiction or nonfiction. Here's it revealed in 1300+ pages that read as though they were pulled directly from the travel journals of a crazed obsessive. But it probably wasn't that simple. Behind the flowing stream of consciousness is an author ruthlessly and efficiently dissecting the contradictions in American-Mexican relations, in late capitalism, and in a failed environment. (The Salton Sea is California's biggest lake, but it's also a massive failure caused by too many diversions of the Colorado River. Pollution and decay flow in, but nothing flows out. So it is with Imperial County.)

It's a big wasteland, and this is a big book that tries to look at the big issues in the wasteland. It's a product of an author who is interested in everything. It's a book I'd love to think of myself as writing, but I'd be too scared to dive so deeply. So this massive Moby Dick, an albatross about Vollmann's neck lands on our desks for us to live, vicariously, through his exploits. Yep, there are strip clubs, prostitutes, and illegal laborers, but there are also farmers, ranchers, folks striving for a better life. But the failures of Imperial (the county not the book) match and mirror the failure of America overall, and we're in the mood for some critical examinations today.

What's a book review without criticisms? Well, Vollmann is a sloppy investigator, a sloppy fact checker, and a failure as a journalist. This is a work of passion, not of careful investigation.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I understand Vollman's strategy but this book fails in this form. Some chapters are one sentence long and convey no information whatsoever. Some are many pages yet equally convey no information. Some convey a lot of information which may or may not be true. Vollman is the sloppiest researcher I have ever read. Any other author would have pared this down to a 500 page book, and it would have been great. As a Southern California resident I enjoy a lot of this book, such as the chapters about the formation of the Salton Sea, but the size and scope force one to skip a lot. People edit books for a reason.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Vollmann has been reporting on the interface of the underclass with popular American culture for over twenty years. Since collaborating with Ken Miller on a book of photographs, a number of Vollmann's documentary books, including "Rising up and Rising Down," "Poor People," and "Riding to Everywhere" have included his own photographs of persons encountered in the texts. Vollmann's latest work, "Imperial," seems to have exacted the most effort of his documentaries, being at least ten years in the making. Apparently, the number of photos he wanted to include with his work exceeded the resources of Viking Penguin. Hence this coffee-table book from powerHouse Books.

Vollmann's documentary photos are published as 8x10s in black and white, as (approximately) 11x14s in sepia, or as landscape formats of various dimensions printed across two-page spreads. Apart from seven pages at the end, there is no commentary because the Viking Penguin book of the same title has the relevant text.

Some may find this collection of (mostly) posed portraits technically limited. I would not disagree. However, within those limits something eloquent can be found in virtually every page opening. To mention a few of this collection's striking moments at random: the way the shadow falls across the face of the border patrol cop on page 7; the portrait on page 11 in which the man and his cap encapsulate the closeness and distance between haves and have-nots; the contrasting mothers on facing pages 84/85; the similarity of character and visage between the ranch owners on facing pages 154/155.

Vollmann's chief subject is the human condition, and his chief interest as a photographer is capturing what people both present and inadvertently manifest to the unhidden camera.
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Format: Hardcover
I wrote and rewrote my review of this book (in my head) endlessly as I read this book. Often that mental drafting served the purpose of venting, since after about page 300 my partner made it clear she was tired of hearing how annoying I found the book. "Stop reading it or stop telling me about how much you dislike the book." Fair enough. But I did want to finish the book, and despite my great annoyance I now want to track down a copy of his 7 volume treatise on violence.

I have for years wanted to like Vollmann's writing. But after a few pages I always give up, and am annoyed at myself (and Vollmann). Imperial is a subject that interests me, so I decided this was the book I would read all the way through. And I did, including the source section. This is the only review I've written where I could envision writing a review, in all sincerity, with a 1 or 3 or 5 star rating (though I detest the requirement of assigning a numerical "grade" to a review). So here are a few reviews for this book.

One star - why is this classified as nonfiction?
Think of a student assigned a paper called "describe the various social, economic and natural forces currently faced by Imperial County, California." My student heads to the library, wanders through the stacks and lodged between Ellis Island and the peopling of America : the official guide and California state register and year book of facts (at least in my library) is a 2.5" thick bright red book spine with one word "Imperial." My student opens the book at random to chapter 88, which reads, in its entirety:

I can't believe in people. Did you ever consider them as machines-machines that make eggs? And in material advantages they are already well supplied.
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