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William T. Vollmann: Poor People: Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Poor People
William T. Vollmann

Reviewed by Alexander Provan

?Why do you think you are poor?? William Vollmann has spent the better part of the last 30 years traveling from slum to war zone, and everywhere he has gone, it seems, he has asked people this question. The scope of Vollmann?s globetrotting almost matches the scale of his literary output ? his expeditions have so far birthed nine novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir and three works of non-fiction.

Vollmann?s ostensible goal in Poor People is modest: He wants merely to ?note several similarities and differences? pertaining to ?the experience of being poor.? It begins with the disclaimer that ?people can be poor in anything and everything, including meaning itself.? In other words, the work might very well fail to produce any conclusions.

As any reader of Vollmann might expect, either his stated goal is disingenuous or he cannot but help overshoot it. Countries and years march by, and before too long the reader ends up much like Vollmann the traveler, wandering through the shantytowns of Bangkok or the red-light district of Shanghai without much of an idea of what to look for. (Vollmann, at least, is armed with the aforementioned question.) After coming across Big Mountain and Little Mountain, a pair of recently homeless Japanese men living under a bridge in Kyoto, Vollmann observes that Little Mountain ?seemed to have been infected by numbness,? a characteristic he has identified as common among the poor. But he immediately revises his opinion, admitting that ?the truth is that I knew and know nothing about this man.? His ?poor people? might as well be ?poor characters.?

Once Vollmann has exhausted the ways in which to say he knows nothing and moves into more straightforward reporting, Poor People gains ground. In Tengiz, Kazakhstan, where the sixth largest oil field in the world is being developed by Chevron, Vollmann stumbles across the repressed nightmare of globalization. Though the sulfur clouds from the refinery?s fires coat the town in a gauze of poison, its inhabitants swear to Vollmann they do not know even the name of the oil company operating next door. Others are afraid to speak with him, and refuse to say what might happen if they do. Eventually, two sons of the town elder inform him that the people have been ordered to evacuate. As an afterthought, they add, ?They had a meeting. Everybody here has anemia.?

Despite it all, not a single denizen condemns the oil extraction. ?If they close the factory, many people will lose their jobs,? one woman shrugs. ?It will be hard to live.? (And if they live, and are poisoned, Vollmann cannot resist countering, how difficult will that be?) Certainly, the citizens of Tengiz are poor, and have been made miserable by the black gold beneath them. But it is not a poverty Vollmann feels compelled to quantify or qualify. The sulfur clouds do the work for him.


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