Imperial by William T. Vollmann

Vollmann attempts to capture the lives of his subjects as fully as possible -- it is better by far to listen to the voices and stories of outcasts, eccentrics, poor people, and the powerless.


Publisher: Viking
Length: 1306 pages
Author: William T. Vollmann
Price: $55.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-09

Imperial is the 1,300-page culmination of ten years of labor on the part of the recklessly adventurous, absurdly prolix, and altogether singular writer William T. Vollmann. Since 1987, Vollmann has published 18 books, including several epic historical novels, a seven-volume philosophical investigation of violence, a book-length explication of the astronomer Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and numerous accounts (some fictional, some not) of his personal encounters with prostitutes.

He won the National Book Award for 2005’s Europe Central, an engrossing and ethically complex novel of World War II told primarily from the perspective of artists, musicians, and writers living under the rule of the Axis powers. And in 2008, Vollmann, then 49, published Riding Toward Everywhere, an energetic and sometimes lyrical memoir of his experiences hopping freight trains—a most atypical hobby for an award-winning literary writer to adopt in middle age, but not an especially surprising one given the great pleasure Vollmann appears to have taken in flouting convention throughout his career and his life.

Vollmann cannot, however, be dismissed as a mere provocateur. His assaults on convention are rooted in a sustained critique of the injustices and inequities inherent in conventional power relationships. In Imperial he offers an incisive, compelling, and maddeningly voluminous account of life along the border between California and Mexico over the course of the past 100 years; in the process, he exposes the manner in which greedy power-brokers, idealistic regional boosters, and self-destructive entrepreneurs have plunged a formerly rich and verdant region into ecological and economic disaster.

The heft of this brick-like tome reflects Vollmann’s commitment to engage with the full complexity of the issues in play in Imperial County throughout its history. To this end he offers multifaceted and thorough discussions of a host of subjects, including illegal immigration, agricultural economics, maquiladora manufacturing, decades-long water rights battles, and the violent, romantic narcocorrido ballads of the borderlands.

Vollmann also insists on examining the history of the region in similar detail. “Without a past,” he writes, “…the present cannot be anything other than a tumble through darkness toward darkness which neither past nor present can illuminate. Because I’d rather fall through patches of illuminated air, no documentary caption can possibly contain overmany facts to please me. Let the reader beware.” Vollmann is wise to offer this kind of warning; Imperial requires far more patience and commitment than most books, and not all readers are likely to find the effort worthwhile.

The book’s nonlinear, highly unconventional structure might also give some readers difficulty, and others are bound to be frustrated by Vollmann’s propensity to launch into lengthy tangential passages on topics such as his break-up with an old girlfriend or a debauched night at a bar in Mexicali. Then again, Vollmann is often at his best when recounting his own adventures along the borderlands.

In one supremely entertaining section early in the book, he convinces an ex-Marine to help him raft down the toxic and dangerous New River. Later on, he devotes more than a hundred engrossing pages to his exhaustive and decidedly hands-on investigation of the persistent rumors of a shadow city of underground tunnels built by Chinese laborers beneath the border town of Mexicali. Vollmann loves getting his hands dirty, and has little interest in examining his subjects from a respectful distance.

When he wants to know more about how coyotes go about their business of sneaking would-be immigrants across the border, he simply goes up and asks one—never mind the man’s threatening mien, or the fact that he’s not likely to respond favorably to the inquiries of a nosy gringo. On one level, this kind of behavior is a stunt and as such, it works wonderfully. When the middle-aged Vollmann strides insouciantly toward a menacing coyote or hangs on for dear life while riding down a poisoned river, his audacity and apparent lack of concern for his physical safety make for simultaneously suspenseful and amusing reading.

But Vollmann’s habit of putting himself in mild danger also reflects a deeper purpose. Imperial represents only the latest entry in Vollmann’s decades-long project of using his own firsthand narratives as an entry point to larger stories about the history and nature of poverty, war, violence, and power.

Those seeking an objective or authoritative discussion of the issues at hand will be disappointed; in fact, Vollmann actively distances himself from any assumption of journalistic or scholarly objectivity. He frequently stresses his own ignorance of the subjects under discussion—he doesn’t even speak Spanish, and must rely on the assistance of translators to mediate his discussions with many of his interview subjects. Although he includes statistics on everything from the number of would-be immigrants who die while attempting to cross the border each year, to a count of all the orange trees in Imperial County in 1917, Vollmann pays far more attention to sources of information that are far less objective or official.

Imperial thus becomes a vehicle for the stories of many people whose voices we rarely hear: day laborers, small farmers, prostitutes, drug addicts, border crossers, coyotes, panhandlers, street musicians, fishermen, amiable drunks, and thugs. Similarly, when outlining a century’s worth of Imperial Valley history, he draws not only on conventional works of scholarship, but also on popular novels, decades-old advertisements and letters, and conversations with whomever he happens to meet while wandering through the streets of Calexico or along the shores of the Salton Sea.

If Imperial has an overarching theme, it is that of Vollmann’s entire oeuvre: that in order to have any hope of understanding the workings of the world, it is essential to view the compromised and compromising “official” narratives of those in power with great skepticism, and better by far to listen to the voices and stories of outcasts, eccentrics, poor people, and the powerless. The official narrative of Imperial County, California holds that its residents have succeeded in transforming a bleak and barren desert into an agricultural paradise through decades of technological ingenuity and hard work. But, as Vollmann observes when investigating the labor conditions in the maquiladoras just across the border in Mexicali, “Official channels are rarely one’s best connection to bad news, which may be a synonym for the truth.”

For Vollmann, most of the “news” about the Imperial Valley is, in fact, very bad. His Imperial is far from the wonderland of prosperous farms and wealthy freeholders that its boosters would have you believe; instead, he sees toxic rivers, desperately impoverished farm laborers, cruel border agents, and consistent pattern of land and people exploited for ephemeral personal gain by those with power.

At the same time, Vollmann does not romanticize poverty, or assume that any one of his marginal interview subjects has any special claim to knowledge or wisdom. He writes frankly of the “evil” in the gaze of a coyote (knowing that coyotes not only charge crushingly exorbitant fees for the services, but frequently rob and rape their charges before delivering them into near-slavery on the other side of the border), and also of the addiction, desperation, and routine violence that characterize the lives of many of his impoverished acquaintances.

Further, he strives to avoid condescending toward his subjects, attempting instead to capture their lives, thoughts, and stories as fully as possible. While discussing his attempts to frame the story of a cleaning woman named Maria, Vollmann uses Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as a means for exploring the limits of his ability to bring any person’s life fully onto the page. If he’d written a novel about Maria, “it would have failed,” he writes, “because respect must encompass more than the heroine’s victimhood. It needs also to embrace her various happinesses and her sillinesses about parrots.”

He distrusts literary artifice and the biases own perspective nearly as much as distrusts the self-interested narratives of the wealthy and powerful. Admirably, he also remains thoroughly conscious of the ways in which he plays the role of the privileged exploiter himself. At one point, he approaches the topic of the maquiladoras’ exploitation of workers and of the environment with grim, self-aware irony. “It really wasn’t my concern,” he writes, “because I lie over here on Northside, where inexpensive Mexican-assembled products arrive by magic.”

All the same, Vollmann does not condemn the practices of the maquiladoras outright—a fact which seems baffling at first, given his constant vigilance against abuses of power, but which in fact reveals another significant aspect of his perspective. Although he doesn't sugarcoat the dismal environmental and working conditions in many maquiladoras, he is all the same willing to grant the possibility that for many of their workers, the other alternatives—such as laboring in the sun for pennies on American farms, or starving as landless peasants in the Mexican desert—would in fact be considerably worse.

Vollmann’s point is not that maquiladora workers ought to be happy with their lot (though he is not convinced that they necessarily aren’t happy), or that those who exploit them are in the right to do so, or that people in positions of privilege should not take action to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. Instead, his perspective is pragmatic, and informed both by his deep readings in history and his many years of experience talking to impoverished and exploited people who live in war zones and slums. For Vollmann, an end to the exploitation of maquiladora workers might well represent a small victory, but it would not change what he sees as the unavoidably exploitative nature of power itself.

Despite this anti-utopian strain of pessimism in his thought, Vollmann is far from a cynic, and Imperial is at its most powerful when he indulges his hopeful belief in the power of art. After recounting a horror story of murder on the border, Vollmann wonders, “How could it be right to make art out of this?” But, looking to the example of Steinbeck’s great social novels of the Depression, he concludes, “And yet of course it would be right to make a poem or a song, a painting or a novel about it, if doing so would help anyone to feel.”

Even if he lacks the power to improve the lives of the marginal and impoverished people whose stories are at the heart of Imperial, Vollmann has at the very least engaged in the important and meaningful act of speaking up in opposition to the corrupted discourses of the powerful.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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