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4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  176 ratings  ·  53 reviews

From the author of "Europe Central," a journalistic tour de force along the Mexican-American border.
For generations of migrant workers, Imperial Country has held the promise of paradise and the reality of hell. It sprawls across a stirring accidental sea, across the deserts, date groves and labor camps of Southeastern California, right across the border into Mexico. In
ebook, 1344 pages
Published July 30th 2009 by Penguin Books (first published 2009)
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Imperial is… entity spreading from Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean eastward to the Colorado River where the Hoover Dam lords over arid America and extending southward down past the border wall into Southside and oblivion beyond the trickling beginnings of the fetid Rio Nuevo and pale mountains purpling in the desert dusk; it is the “center of all secrets, and therefore center of the world”; Imperial is lettucescapes and orangescapes and lemonscapes and grapefruitscapes and onionscapes and
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
What is this entity called Imperial? I don’t know. I have never visited, except for a few afternoons spent in the nearby gardens of the Stone brewery. But I have spent some time with an entity called Imperial. What is Imperial? It is immense. Let us count up its size. One thousand three hundred and six pages is she. Of that number, eleven hundred and twenty five pages constitute the main narrative portion of our book. 208 chapters, all told. You will be pleased to know that chapter 208 is entitl ...more
Firstly, I just want to point you to a much better review:

But if you still insist on reading mine, here it goes:

An epic journalistic work by Vollmann where he tries to illustrate the life of the people living close to the US/Mexico border; the developed economy and how it has been rendered, what's this people life like, the crimes, the injustices, the love stories, the legals and the illegals, the drugs, the jobs, etc... where even thousands of kids, like
He wrote an article in Harper's that made me want more. I had a long think with myself between paper and electronic. Though I prefer anything with a lot of charts and illustrations on paper, I went for the electronic edition to avoid carrying the brick. This made the swim to the other side unencumbered such that I could sprawl as freely as the book. However, had this been an older book with a certain kind of smell, a name scrawled in the front, some underlinings and marginalia, I would have carr ...more
I spent some of my childhood adjacent to Imperial county in Yuma, AZ (Vollman describes Yuma very accurately as 'sprawling mediocrity'). So, prior to reading 'Imperial', if you asked me where the most boring, ahistorical place in the US was, I'd be very tempted to say 'Imperial County', California.

This was based on my elementary and junior high school memories-- taking a bus down to Somerton for basketball league-- oblivious to the hundreds of bandanna'd and sombrero'd figures in the lettuce fie
I did a bit of checking around, and the first several professional reviews I read for "Imperial" were pretty negative--and for what I thought were pretty lame reasons. For sure William T. Vollmann's tome is fragmented and lays down a circuitous narrative from start to finish, but his meandering, idiosyncratic, almost pointless story that slowly unravels like a song about doomed love is exactly what makes "Imperial" so compelling and readable. (And I just read somewhere that the best writing shou ...more
I tried. Oh, how I tried. I grew up in the Imperial Valley. I write about the Imperial Valley. I know people interviewed in this book. I couldn't even get halfway through it.

I'll read the rest of the book after Vollmann decides to finish doing his job as a writer and rewrites and edits this unnecessarily long ramble. Just because a book is long, doesn't make it good or insightful. In fact, this was like reading a stack of notebooks that you'd find in an attic. Repetitive, unorganized, and so foc
Jim Elkins
The book is 1,306 long pages, divided into 13 Parts, with a 24-page bibliography, a 17-page chronology, a list of people Vollmann interviewed, and 112 pages of notes. It is longer than 'Infinite Jest' or 'Science and Sanity' (two books I have always associated), but shorter than 'The Anatomy of Melancholy.'

These are thoughts about Part One, 'Introductions,' which is itself 182 pages long, and divided into 12 chapters. This Part really is a single long introduction, and it reads as a coherent, i
Jesse K
Imperial will probably be more "respected" than read. I would be a liar if I didn't admit that the irrigation and farming statistics, despite having a logical purpose in the narrative, did grow a bit boring. At the same time, the stuff about chinese tunnels, maquiladoras, drug ballads, and the new river more than made up for it. (It was also neat that the LA sections mentioned an exact block that I have lived on and the street that I currently live on.) Rising Up and Rising Down was more of a fu ...more
Joan Colby
If one best learns a language by total immersion, then one can likewise learn of place as William Vollman sets out to prove in his massive study “Imperial” which bombards the reader with every sort of datum on the California-Mexican area. Major themes include distribution of water, the transformation of small farms to vast agricultural domains, the plight of the Mexican illegal immigrant, the history of the Chinese in Mexico, accounts of early settlers, and more, much more. “Imperial” documents ...more
Jane Ciabattari
Exhaustive, exhausting, all you need to know about that place where everything North American converges. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in nonfiction (to be announced March 11)...
Gabriel Oak
If you're going to read one 1100-page work of nonfiction this year, it should be Imperial. Really, though, the breadth of the work is staggering. Vollmann sets out to capture the eclecticism of the history, landscape, and people of the US-Mexico border near Imperial County, California (east of San Diego). The book ranges from portraits of individuals, such as Lupe Vasquez, one of his Mexican informants, to extended accounts of the power-plays for water from the Colorado River. It is a compelling ...more
A non-linear history of Imperial County, California. Vollmann catches the desertness of the place, illegal aliens, narcocorridos, Chinese tunnels, the casual vice of Mexicali, maquiladoras, the creaction of the Salton Sea, and now the decline of Imperial.

Vollmann is careful, balanced and wistful. He asks, but does not answer, the question of taming the desert with irrigation water and the subsequent bloom of agriculture. Now Imperial is in slow decline because it is more profitable to sell the
Bookmarks Magazine
While some of them said it more politely than others, reviewers generally agreed that most readers will find the size of Imperial overwhelming (not to mention the $55 price tag). But none could dismiss Vollmann's work, and most praised it strongly. They admired not only Vollmann's bombastic literary and personal style but his choice of subject matter. For all his digressions, Vollmann centers his story on a region defined by humans' ongoing attempts to control water, and several reviewers were i ...more
I gave up a little over 10% of the way through the book and am still giving it three stars. I guess that says something.

Vollmann an incredible writer who can combine the personal and the journalistic (his abilities to interview coyotes and undocumented immigrants is impressive) with ease. He's figured out this is an incredible place to chronicle and (not that I know) seems to be really feeling something true about it -- he at least seems to Get it. It's a Book, with great literary ambition (see
What a strange trip; visceral, transcendent, dull, irrelevant - all of that. From some very important observations about border culture and the ghosts of boosterism in California to a bunch of ill-advised metaphors about prostitutes and a catalog of vaginal imagery. So is Imperial a good book or a bad one, I guess it depends where you dive in. One this is for sure, it is vast and in the end its strengths are at least as manifold as its weaknesses. If it could be paired down to 300 pages of strik ...more
"Imperial is about a part of Southeastern California where I have relatives who are farmers. The story of the Imperial Valley distills the seamiest sides of California history: turning the desert to farmland with corrupt water deals; environmental degradation; housing booms and housing busts; graveyards of nameless illegal immigrants pursuing busted dreams in El Norte. The story is peculiarly Californian while also capturing the flavor of every border in the world, which all share certain qualit ...more
At over 1,100 pages, Imperial is the longest book I have ever read cover to cover. However, it is also one of the most well-researched narratives I've come across. Your knowledge of California and Mexico will never be the same.
Larry Jonas
Where do I begin? This book is the work of a crazy genius. This book is a mess. It's huge, sprawling, insightful, and (in my opinion) unfocused. In short this is classic Vollman. If you really really love Vollman, I would recommend this book. For people who have never read him, it will just be too much. Fabulous source notes. The publisher did a great packaging job. It's a real acheivemment to publish over 1,000 pages of changing typefaces and illustrations throughout the body of the text. Vikin ...more
Thomas Clark
This is a 1200 page book; I've enjoyed it so far and appreciate the type of research done over the ten year span it took Vollmann to compile, format, and organize. I definitely would like to see the companion book of photographs that the author released at the same time. There's definitely some Kerouac influence in Vollmann's narrative and the book has its own quirky style: I can understand people being turned off but I wasn't. I became immersed in Imperial and found this study of the California ...more
Frederick Garber
A true picture of an area where I spent 4 years. Great writing!
Jonathan yates
I really enjoyed this book, it is a bit long, but that is almost the point, he tells the story of a place in agonizing detail, at points you feel like its not all necessary but he does an amazing job of keeping it all together and expressing his philosophy through this meditation on a subject. It's good stuff-also you do need a good sense of humor as he does tend to digress in completely oddball manners like how i got broke up with, how the hooker was last night, this time i was talking to a per ...more
I do not recommend this book for most people. It's frustratingly long and detailed to the point of being quite maddening at times. Yet some of the time I loved this book. Without the footnotes it's 1150 pages. Reduce repetition and cut out 300 pages and it'd be a lot stronger. But Vollmann has guts. He doesn't compromise. And I respect that. Took me 7 months to read, in which time I put Imperial down at times and read about 20 other books. You gotta take breaks, but it's do-able. I've never been ...more
Granted I didn't make it through this 1200-page behemoth...
I read and skimmed 300-400 pages. His research is extensive, but his rambling is awful. Where the f*ck was his editor? He totally lost me when he went on a 7-page tangent about why an ex-lover scorned him because she didn't appreciate his cunnilingus. Indeed, Vollman sucks.

I referenced his bibliography in order to learn more about this interesting subject, but avoid this book unless you need a paperweight or something to bludgeon yoursel
Whew! Took me a couple of years to finish this one, and in the end it was worth it. It's a combination of wry statistical anaylsis of crop yields and water-usage rates; a history of Imperial County; and Vollmann's own reportage from the area, which is always the best part of any book by him (hookers, illegals, corridos, secret Chinese tunnels in Mexicali). Part history book, part travelogue. If you make it through, you will know more about California's Imperial Valley than you even thought there ...more
Reading this book was a massive undertaking. I started with a library copy, but switched to a digital edition since the book is the size of a brick. Of interest to anyone interested in the history of southern California specifically Imperial County, California water rights, soCal agribusiness, border issues, pollution, coyotes and pollos.
Epic read. My favorite parts were the investigations (Mexicali tunnels, maquiladoras, Rio Nuevo) and personal interviews. Vollmann's wit and purpose really come through in those chapters. Elsewhere, the relentless repetition of catchphrases became grating. Finally, I wished for more history in places, rather than the assumption that the reader already knew the salient facts. Why did Slab City emerge? How did the Salton Sea flourish, then fail? Good stuff here, but somewhat of a slog.
Imperial is sprawling, contradictory, and intense. Parts wildly compelling, others poorly (and idiosyncratically) edited and dull. But in the best parts -- when Vollmann's talking with people otherwise unheard, or with people who are lying and misdirecting -- it's a good read. If you can make it through the other bits (the statistics, tables, oddly-conceived historical reconstructions, tedious font choices, removal of personal boundary, rambling).
Moments of brilliance followed by long, meandering passages in which I lost interest. The book is long - so long that it took me over a year to get through this. Certain passages of this book are absolute must-reads, my favorite being the description of Vollmann hiring a river guide to paddle him through a toxic river to see how immigrant workers endanger their lives to sneak into the U.S. Vollmann is clearly a scholar/writer of great talent and insight.
Ok, admittedly, I only read 3/4, but at 1100+ pages and endless footnotes I ran out of time. What I will say, I admire WTV's refusal to edit for content. I believe his decision to keep in the staggering amount of information is noble, interesting and essential to the work as a whole. His dissection of Imperial County was engrossing and I hope to see Imperial's unforgiving landscape for myself one day.
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William T Vollman...: 2009 Imperial 32 55 May 06, 2015 07:50AM  
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William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.

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