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Imperial [Hardcover]

by William T. Vollmann
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Hardcover, July 30, 2009 --  
Paperback $25.84  
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Book Description

July 30, 2009 0670020613 978-0670020614 First Edition

An epic study of an emblematic American region by one of our most celebrated writers

It sprawls across a stinking artificial sea, across the deserts, date groves, and labor camps of southeastern California, right across the Mexican border. For generations of migrant workers, from Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to Mexican laborers today, Imperial County has held the promise of paradise-and the reality of hell. It is a land beautiful and harsh, enticing and deadly, rich in history and heartbreak. Across the border, the desert is the same but there are different secrets. In Imperial, award-winning writer William T. Vollmann takes us deep into the heart of this haunted region, and by extension into the dark soul of American imperialism.

Known for his penetrating meditations on poverty and violence, Vollmann has spent ten years doggedly investigating every facet of this bi-national locus, raiding archives, exploring polluted rivers, guarded factories, and Chinese tunnels, talking with everyone from farmers to border patrolmen in his search for the fading American dream and its Mexican equivalent. The result is a majestic book that addresses current debates on immigration, agribusiness, and corporate exploitation, issues that will define America's identity in the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews 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

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 1344 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (July 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670020613
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670020614
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 2.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #864,428 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vollmann's August 2, 2009
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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45 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Editing would have helped August 12, 2009
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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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rich collection July 27, 2009
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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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed review October 12, 2009
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: Southeastern California chronicled
It’s an effort to even pick up this weighty tome, in content and heft, which took ten years to write. Read more
Published 5 months ago by John L Murphy
2.0 out of 5 stars An almost complete waste of time.
I was assigned this book for a class and I have to say this is probably one of the worst books I have ever read. Read more
Published 14 months ago by JR
3.0 out of 5 stars Diamonds in the Rough
I'm from El Centro, the center of the wide-ranging region that Vollmann has dubbed Imperial, and I feel like he has traced the steps of my buddies and I as we've explored the place... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Jacume
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious.
This book is a massive collection of information and opinion on the Imperial valley. I picked it up off a bargain table and have just about given up after reading 300 pages. Read more
Published 17 months ago by rick from Boston
3.0 out of 5 stars Imperial
I had hoped that Imperial would provide a clearer picture of the lives of my ancestors who worked the fields of Imperial Valley from about 1910 to 1932. Read more
Published 17 months ago by arascal
2.0 out of 5 stars A Simply Awful Book
This is a simply awful book. I got about a third of the way through it and finally gave up. I moved to El Centro in 1999, around the same time that William Vollmann started coming... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Thomas A. Olafson
1.0 out of 5 stars a wasteland, both of geography and of ink
Probably the best description of Vollman's writing is "self-indulgent." For those who grew up on the spare expository style of John McFee, prepare for a frustrating abomination. Read more
Published 23 months ago by SFC
5.0 out of 5 stars Great historical reference on the imperial county
If you are a historian or a genealogist this book is cock full of very interesting information. El Centro, Sealey, holtville, Brawley,and the pan American Canal building are just a... Read more
Published on December 16, 2011 by Kip
1.0 out of 5 stars Really bad
I suspect the author thinks he is doing Fine Writing. But his story is buried under so much hyperbole and wanderings, staggering on for more than a thousand pages, that the... Read more
Published on November 17, 2011 by Dan
5.0 out of 5 stars I hope I never finish this book...
This is my first Vollman book. I am currently on pager 627. I'm not a sophisticated reader, nor a literary sycophant, nor am I a Vollman fan (yet) - which is to say I had never... Read more
Published on October 16, 2011 by Trish Davidson
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books and authors you just can't finish !
Maybe Pynchon's latest will offer relief...

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Sep 13, 2009 by Vaughan Otter |  See all 2 posts
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