In downtown Los Angeles, early sunlight often warms the west side of the tall white canyon called Flower Street. Beneath a lush awning of tree-leaves against the scaffolded coast of the University Club, a bus blinks its red lights. The shadow of one skyscraper upon another seems as ancient as any survivor of geologic or even celestial time. But bit by bit, the shadow shrinks and thins; the yellow-tan glow takes over, brightening all the while; and Flower Street becomes busy with people and cars.
… And she spun me along Mulholland Drive, winding down across Stone Canyon and around the moist green hills with the San Fernando Valley below; white houses, the more expensive the more precious, then came dark trees and more white building-squares and mountains until the San Fernando Valley opened up, with the long straight ribbon called Sepulveda shooting through the white-and-grey-green grid toward the mountains.
In San Diego it is a cool summer day in December, palm trees whipping in the sea breeze, crisp shadows, blue sky. An American flag flies from atop an old hotel. Banana leaves wave above parking lots of littering cars. I see a billboard for Mel Gibson’s new movie “Apocalypto,” and an advertising blimp hovers over so many cars that the farthest ones are washed out by distance. The skyscrapers of San Diego’s core huddle compactly amidst the sprawl. The freeways are lush with ivy, ice plants and palm trees. This lively coast remains verdant between and among the concretions of humanity. But just outside the city we find this verdancy to be actually a human artifact; for the hills, though bushy, are semi-arid, the dirt tan or even white, showing through between grass-clumps like bald patches in a worn carpet.
- William T. Vollmann, Imperial
In truth, Los Angeles and San Diego appear to be the antagonists of this book at times but these are just a few great illustrative passages that struck me. Imperial is the first of Vollmann’s books that I’ve read; at 1,132 pages that are alternately fascinating and dry it took a while. Imperial is an odd book that rambles and seems to reveal about as much about the author as it does the portion of California and Mexico Vollmann tries to study. I loved how richly descriptive his writing can be if you don’t mind wandering off on a tangent or two hundred with him. Everything about this book is stream of consciousness and it seems as if the author is constantly trying to understand what he is experiencing as the book goes on. The book jumps around chronicling the history of the region focusing on farming, land use, water, immigration, and industrialization all with meticulous if scattered detail. At times I had to struggle through this book or do some B-school style skimming but overall, it was an intriguing portrait of a region of my state that I know little about.