Michael J. BaxterNovember 17, 2008 - 3:14pm0 comments
William T. Vollmann
Harper Perennial, $16.95, 464 pp.
The prolific novelist, journalist, and essayist William Vollmann possesses a readership divided between passionate followers who laud his every book, and critics who consider his work garrulous and unwieldy. Flipping through Poor People, I found myself siding at first with the critics. The book—Vollmann calls it an essay—is indeed unwieldy, its 294 pages followed by 20 pages of notes and 128 more of photographs. But by the time I finished, I had repented and changed my mind.
Poor People is an eccentric travelogue in which Vollmann sets out across several continents to report on what the poor say about their lives. “Do you consider yourself poor?” “Why do you think some people are poor and others are rich?” “What about the Communist idea that people are poor because the rich take everything from them?” Vollmann puts such questions to people like Sunee in Thailand, a woman wracked by alcoholism and laboring in a cleaning company for a boss who overworks her and pays her a pittance. Sunee professes belief in “the Buddhist way,” insisting that “some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life.” Vollmann rejects the Marxist notion that such ideas reflect a “false consciousness,” numbing the poor to the misery of their own plight and impeding a revolutionary process that might ameliorate their situation. He is skeptical of such theorizing and prefers to linger over more...