Tuesday, August 26, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Poor People": Book Review

For an author as prolific as Vollmann, this is a short book on a vast topic. Chapters heighten the focus of his travels and interviews--often as he credits to interpreters, acknowledging the difficulty of getting to the nuanced or deflected truths told to him-- as he tries, living on $100 daily while his subjects must scrabble fractions of that, to figure out why a few are rich and most of the rest remain poor. They may blame karma, tuition, the rich, Allah, or themselves. Many claim they aren't poor compared to, well, what always seem to be people still worse off.

Vollmann admits his hubris, but here unlike his previous journalism, he steers clearer of the "drug addicts, street prostitutes, and criminals" to listen to more ordinary dwellers at the bottom rungs. He realizes he makes his living off of their stories, and he can grate or pose as if naive, but how else can we listen to those invariably so distanced from us? "Steinbeck did his homework. This is why The Grapes of Wrath is not only "universal," as any vague emotional overflow can be, but accurately particular." (xiii)

By particulars, Vollmann attempts to pin down the mindset of the poor within their own habitats. "People who are poor but not in imminent danger of perishing have more of a chance of catching their breath and actually conceptualizing their poverty." (xv) Do they respond well to his presence?

Given his interest in the Marxian "cash nexus" for gunrunners, migrants, and whores, Vollmann seems well-suited for this topic. He tries to elude the trap laid by patronizing or brutal intellectuals who try to raise the consciousness of those they claim to help. He defines in a prefatory dictionary a few terms, and the problem of how the poor themselves rank themselves as "normal" rather than poor leads to his frustration with "False Consciousness: A charge leveled against the perceptions and experiences of others whenever we wish to assert that we know their good better than they do." (xxi)

Vollmann maintains his slightly ironic authorial presence while stepping back and letting the interviewees have their say. He balances his editorial comments and his leading questions with their comments, or their gestures or refusals. "This deeply religious woman had never been inside the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood, since that would have cost money. But who knew its outside better than she?" (56) From 2005 Russia, this captures his eye for phrasing, and his own perspective, deftly.

Speaking of distancing, he wisely chooses to include his photos of those he talks to (and many staying silent, from his decades at the margins of the world) at the end of the volume, allowing us to "see" the people he interviews first by his verbal descriptions, rather than jump to conclusions or let our prejudices or sympathies interfere with what he wants us to focus on as he transcribes them. 

He emphasizes the agency that any humans possess; he will not condescend or place theory upon the reality. He dismisses the UN recommendation of "more aid, better directed," as admirable but of course, with a devil lurking in the details. He prefers to listen to the poor rather than speak for them. "Because I wish to respect poor people's perceptions and experiences, I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, gilds their every choice with my benevolent approval. Once again I submit the obvious: Poor people deserve are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as do I myself." (170) 

In 2002 Nan Ning, China, this sudden city confirms his interpreter Michelle's pride, and her dismissal of the excuses she has heard on Vollmann's behalf, for her own bargained salary daily. "Everything you should do by yourself, she replied sternly. You should not complain life is unfair to you. The history is the history!" The lack of quotation marks heightens Vollmann's ability to convey this tone.

Vollmann tells of his own workspace, an abandoned restaurant in Sacramento, and how the homeless surround him, to cajole or threaten, and how he and his daughter react to their presence. Echoes of earlier books endure, and readers of The Rifles (reviewed by me 2-2014) will recall his near-fatal encounter with a soggy sleeping bag in the Arctic when he muses: "Life is like an extended camping trip. With a leaky, inferior tent one runs no more risk of rain than anyone else; but if it does rain, the person in the cheap tent chances soaking his sleeping bag, and possibly dying of hypothermia." (137)

He conflates his travels with his residence, and he settles down to write behind a steel door at his stucco inner-city bunker. About the poor, "I shut my door on them, just as when we who are in first-class train compartments pull our glass doors shut to drown out the poorer sort in the corridors, who will be standing or leaning all the way across Romania; of course I'm doing them a favor." (276)

Chapters on Kazakh energy exploitation and Japanese "snakeheads" who smuggle from China girls for the sex trade feel imported from his journalism, and they lack the power of his more eclectically arranged sections. By contrast, "The Rider" although it too remains tangential to the theme, offers a gripping and lively look at a white man in the Philippines who ferries the take from jai alai betting.

Vollmann lags as the book goes on and fails to answer the question of why the poor are always with us. The book's brevity by his standards may betray how he can't offer any nostrums on how to solve what may persist as an endemic human flaw, the impulse to hoard, to compete, to fend off others with what we gather. "What can they do?" he asks of the poor. "Hope, accept, escape." (253) The shifting focus Vollmann prefers when speculating about poverty better captures the vagueness of this subject that entangles investigators: "money just goes to where it goes," shrugs a Japanese man in Vollmann's last pages, which seems to sum up this weary subject.  Not that there's not wit and irony to leaven the sour, sullen moods: see the first of Vollmann's many diligently documented end-sources: "Thoreau was interviewed by ouijah-board." (Amazon US 3-14-14)

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