Going to the edge and telling what he sees
WILLIAM T. Vollmann has long been concerned with the fringes of society, where necessity reduces moral questions to their most elemental fiber and survival is the greatest good. He spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in San Francisco, tracing the urban demimonde in works of fiction like “The Rainbow Stories,” “Whores for Gloria” and “The Royal Family.” He has also reported from places like Afghanistan and Sarajevo, where in 1994 he was nearly killed in a attack; two of his companions died. Throughout it all, he has become known for producing densely layered narratives filled with allusions: His 2005 novel “Europe Central,” which seeks to personalize the history of 20th century Russia and Germany and won a National Book Award, is more than 700 pages, with an additional 50 pages of notes.
So Vollmann’s latest book, “Poor People,” comes off as an effort of startling economy -- “an essay,” the author calls it -- comprising barely 300 pages of impressions on the issue of poverty around the globe, augmented by 128 black-and-white photographs taken by the author, as if to highlight the urgency of its subjects’ lives. It is both of a piece and utterly different from the books that precede it, reading, in many ways, less like literature than sociology, a series of observations that presumes to no conclusions other than to frame the edges of what Vollmann acknowledges is an intractable and incomprehensible world.
Vollmann himself may be the most unassuming major writer of our era. At 47, he is tall but nondescript with his blunt cut hair and square frame glasses, his body altered by a variety of physical ailments, including a fractured pelvis and, as he wrote in January in Harper’s, a series of small strokes that has wrecked his balance. He lives in Sacramento with his wife, a physician, and their 8-year-old daughter. In conversation, he is polite, solicitous, almost as if he were embarrassed to be interviewed, as if he cannot quite understand why anyone would be interested in what he has to say.
It’s an interesting posture for an author who has, since his first novel, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” appeared in 1987, produced a body of work as diverse, ambitious and controversial as any in American letters. There was, for example, his 3,300-page study of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” published in 2004, which posits a “moral calculus” by which certain acts of force are not merely justified but ethically imperative. “Poor People” is, if equally determined, less far-ranging, not so much a comprehensive statement as an ongoing inquiry into poverty and what it means.
If “Poor People” has an antecedent, it is James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 collaboration “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which portrayed three poor families in the American South. Speaking by phone recently from his writing studio, Vollmann was explicit about the connection: “It’s always been one of my favorite books,” he said. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” he added, is “a work of immense compassion, an attempt to understand and articulate something that can’t be articulated, especially by the poor.”
Still, for all the parallels between the books -- the blending of text and photographs, the sense of writing as an act of witness -- they operate in very different ways. For Agee, the idea was to get inside his subjects, whereas Vollmann takes a more clinical approach. “I tried to see certain people repeatedly,” he said, “but the book makes no pretense to any real intimacy. Most of the people I talked to probably wouldn’t remember my name.”
In an introduction to “Poor People,” Vollmann admits his doubts about his ability to say anything useful about his subject. “My own interpretation of how this book’s heroes and heroines see themselves is damaged by the brevity of our acquaintance,” he writes, “which in most cases endured a week or less.... How could I be fatuous enough to hope to ‘make a difference’? I’m left with nothing to honorably attempt, but to show and compare to the best of my ability.”
Unlike Agee and Evans, Vollmann focuses on people from many cultures, including the Russian beggars Natalia and Oksana, rivals in their degradation, and the Bangkok house cleaner Sunee, whose alcoholism helps metastasize her misery.
At the same time, he suggests, it’s not enough to empathize, as Agee did; that’s reductive, a way to make ourselves feel better without seeing the problem for what it is. Again and again, he touches on the question of complicity -- ours, yes, but also that of his subjects, some of whom have made bad decisions, given in to vices and addictions, fallen prey to despair.
“Agee,” he said, “had so much love for his subjects that they could do no wrong. I hope I feel an equal amount of compassion for the people I write about. But I don’t want to take away people’s right to be imperfect. These people are my equals -- not in resources, but morally and emotionally -- and I’m not going to patronize them by saying they are victims of the inequity of the system, that they don’t have any agency over their lives.”
This is a classic Vollmann formulation, not so very different from his arguments on violence or the contention, expressed in “Seven Dreams,” his seven-novel “Symbolic History” of North America (the last three volumes have yet to be completed), that iron, and the weapons made from it, was the main corrupting influence in the development of the New World. It’s an uncompromising vision, but then Vollmann is, as he has always been, a literary extremist, seeing the world in starkly moral terms.
“POOR People” is thus consistent with “Seven Dreams” and “Rising Up and Rising Down” as well as two nonfiction works that Vollmann is completing: one a collection of essays about hopping freight trains, the other an inquiry into the region that extends from Palm Springs through the Mexicali Valley, to be called “Imperial.” What all these projects share is a sense of risk, of pushing the limits, of venturing into territory -- physical, intellectual, even ethical -- that most of us might rather not engage.
Late in “Poor People,” the author finds himself in Japan, trying to meet a snakehead, a Chinese gangster who traffics in illegal immigrants from the mainland. “It was one of those dangerous, reckless things that I was doing,” he writes, “knocking on the door, wondering what would happen. So many times, I’ve done this in my career, each time wondering if the door would open upon my death.”
Yet not only is this necessary for his investigation, it also allows him to inhabit, however briefly, a different realm of experience, to see things from another side. “We’re all round characters,” Vollmann said. “We’re not just flat characters. It’s easy to judge, but I can’t blame someone for wanting to go with the snakeheads. Even the snakeheads, they are an economic force that appears as a result of a vacuum.” The key, he believes, is to think in terms of patterns -- patterns of violence, of poverty, of social movement, patterns that help explain how the world works, how we got to where we are.
Of course, when Vollmann talks about patterns, he’s referring to the way poverty creates a shadow economy, forcing us to make decisions based on need. This is familiar territory, reminiscent of his early writings, and although his treatment here is far more nuanced -- “I’m older now,” he said, “and have more experience, so it would be disappointing if the books didn’t get more mature” -- he continues to make people uncomfortable about where, exactly, his own morality resides.
Partly, this has to do with the persona he’s created for himself, which, like all literary characterizations, is both accurate and fabricated at once. “When I write about myself,” he said, “I take care not to portray myself as good. In fact, I go the extra mile and assume the worst about myself. I show my limitations and bigotries, even exaggerate them a little bit. It’s not just modesty but to let people know what to be careful of when they read.”
In “Poor People,” this manifests as a kind of toughness, especially when it comes to Natalia, whose story changes every time she and Vollmann speak. “As it was,” he writes, “because I was rich and she was poor, I was, if you like, cruel; or you might simply say that whenever I put my money down [he paid to interview her and others] I am accustomed to getting my way; or perhaps you’d award me the kinder labels of thoroughness and sincerity.”
It’s a fascinating conundrum, this tension between the thoughtful, unimposing voice on the telephone and the figure at the center of the narrative: unemotional, even callous and fundamentally unaffected by the most difficult extremes.
Over the years, this has been the knock on Vollmann; he’s been accused of being a voyeur -- or worse. His writings about prostitutes and street people in particular have repelled some readers with their lack of affect, and “Poor People” can’t help but walk a similar line between provocation and reportage.
In the end, though, this seems a false dichotomy, or perhaps it’s just that Vollmann is after something else entirely, not indifference but a more unsentimental reckoning with the world. When he writes, as he does on the first page of the book, that his attitude toward having never been poor “is not guilt at all, but simple gratitude,” he is telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, no matter how it exposes our evasions and self-deceit.
This is what a writer is supposed to do, to look at circumstances unencumbered, to go to the edge and report back, to show us what we otherwise can’t see.
“All I can say,” Vollmann said, his voice quiet, softly measured, “is that I’m moved by other people’s misfortunes, and I feel obliged to record them unflinchingly. If anyone thinks I exploited these people, I hope they think about how I did it, and how they could do better by them.”
Ulin is book editor of The Times.