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Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A-ImperialWilliam T. Vollmann is the prolific author of, among other books, the National Book Award–winning Europe Central ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005), Rising Up and Rising Down ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004), Poor People ( 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2007), and Riding Toward Everywhere ( 2.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008).

The Topic: The Imperial Valley spans many identities—from natural (the United States and Mexico) to geographic (it was a desert, then an agricultural haven; now it’s a desert again). It is also a place filled with suffering and danger, and the combination of these qualities may be what drew Vollmann to spend 10 years assembling this massive tome. Covering not just Imperial County but an entire Mexican-Californian milieu, Vollman embraces topics as varied as water management, agricultural boosterism, illegal immigration, narcocorridos (Mexican folk songs about the drug trade), and prostitution. Neither a history nor a work of history—Vollmann admits he is no crack investigator—Imperial is instead both a corpulent pastiche and the record of an inimitable observer.
Viking. 1,306 pages. $55. ISBN: 9780670020614

Philadelphia Inquirer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Historians will one day look at Vollmann the way we look at Tacitus—as one of the greatest chroniclers of his fledgling nation-state. He has written Imperial to last, perhaps even to outlive the empire it so brilliantly chronicles." Andrew Ervin

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"He does produce the kind of brutal facts about American imperialism that a Marxist-Leninist would provide, though he shrinks from drawing explicit moral and political conclusions. … [W]hat is unique and fascinating about Imperial is seeing how a gifted writer like Vollmann paints his own impressionist picture of this vast landscape." James Green

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Because Vollmann is so cerebral and such a polymath, none of his books is ever about just one topic or one place. … Completing the book is akin to obtaining a Ph.D. in sociology, and well worth the tuition." Steve Weinberg

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann has written a kind of American non-fiction Moby Dick, with himself as Ahab, not so much documenting as doggedly pursuing a quarry that only he perceives." Donna Bowman

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"‘Imperial does not need me to be itself,’ Vollmann insists, but no one who reads this singular, significant book—half Michael Harrington’s The Other America, half James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—will contemplate NAFTA, illegal immigration or a trip to a ‘Southside’ brothel without thinking of him." Justin Moyer

New York Magazine 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I found myself wishing that [Vollmann] would redirect some of the massive energy he puts into legwork and note-taking and poetic haunting to the less obviously heroic, more social challenges of writing: synthesizing, pruning, polishing. But that’d be like asking Keats not to get so carried away with the music of vowels, or Dickens to stop writing about orphans. Excess, for Vollmann, is exactly the point." Sam Anderson

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[Imperial] is a staggering achievement, and I’m sure many readers will admire Vollmann’s desert monument without daring to enter it. … [H]e tosses
everything he finds into his great desert Dumpster, for chapter upon chapter, resisting explanation, graspable conclusions and comprehensible analysis. No stray fact is deemed unimportant, no metaphor unexhausted."
Lawrence Downes

Critical Summary

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 impressed by the way this theme filtered into the economic, cultural, and personal stories Vollmann tells. But they also agreed that the real theme of the book is Vollmann himself, a writer whose endless interests and ideas are enough to sustain even the most desolate landscape.