Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Poor" showing

have let my experiences accrue again, such that i'm afraid to get back on this thing for fear of the backlog. let's just press on, without regard to completeness...

so i am nearing the end of "Poor People," a fascinating book by William T. Vollmann. this is the latest selection in Laal's and my book club, following Steele ("Toxic Bachelors," yo), Hammett ("Maltese," loved the shit out of it, esp. Spade's coarseness as a character; i lost count of the number of uses of "guttural" in that book...), Salinger ("Franny and Zooey." i'm probably the only person on earth who hadn't read this in high school or early college, but damn this was gorgeous) and Dylan's "Chronicle," about which i rattled on at some length here.

anyway, Vollmann's a pretty famous novelist (though i once tried to read "You Bright and Risen Angels," a long sci-fi-ish novel about humanoid insects, and found it incomprehensible) but he's probably best known for "Rising Up and Rising Down," a seven-volume "critique of violence" that he published recently. that was one of those projects that people loved to name-check, but few actually read (a fact acknowledged by Vollman in the preface to the one-volume abridged edition). "Poor People" is more modest, about 300 pp, though it's still taken me quite awhile.

basically the book is what it sounds like: a kind of travelogue through global poverty over the past two decades or so. Vollmann visited tons of places--including Thailand, Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia, Afghanistan, Colombia and many more--and interviewed tons of poor people about their circumstances. in many cases his interviews began with simple inquiries such as "Why are you poor?" or "Why are some people poor and some people rich?"

weird concept, right? in many cases the answers he got were as brief as his questions, i.e., the sick, homeless Thai woman who replies simply, "I think I am rich," but he amplifies on these simple responses in ways that range from the fascinating to the frustrating.

in toting this book around on the subway--with "Poor People" emblazoned across the front--i felt a weird sense of shame and ambivalence. "how presumptuous of me to be studying poverty via a tidy little volume" and similar thoughts constantly buzzed through my head. apparently they buzzed through Vollmann's head as well, given the number of times he questions his own motivations. i can't tell you how many times he ends a chapter with a self-deprecation or statement of futility along the lines of "...we left him alone beneath the bridge because he was someone we hardly knew and he had forgotten us; we were rich and he was poor...." in other words, for all the effort he expends bridging this gap, he often seems mired in the belief that it can't be bridged.

but there are many sections where Vollmann simply writes his way through this issue, such as a harrowing account of a town in Kazakhstan which is being taken over by corporations eager to exploit is massive oil resources. his interviews with the residents, who know they are being poisoned by sulfur but at the same time value the employment the oil effort has brought to their town, are stunning. let's just say Borat seems a little less funny now.

he compares what the people of that town do--essentially trade their health and well-being for a ticket out of poverty--to prostitutes in various countries (Vollmann goes out of his way not to judge them and even expresses great admiration for their ingenious methods; of one woman, he says, "I wish her many years of contented moderate prostitution") and to the Chinese people who are so eager to get to Japan that they indenture themselves to ruthless smugglers known as snakeheads.

Vollmann speaks a lot about homelessness in Sacramento, where he lives, and his descriptions of crack pipes and shopping carts will be familiar to anyone who lives in a big city. but there are also some remarkable examinations of less obvious circumstances of poverty. for example, there's a long section on the notion of "Invisibility" that deals with Afghan women under Taliban rule. he discusses how under those conditions hiding women away behind closed doors and beneath veils is seen as a gesture of respect, but what if an Afghan woman is poor? basically her "invisibility" prohibits her from addressing anyone, even if it is to beg or otherwise ask for help.

a lot of what i've taken away from the book are random images. there are actual pictures in the back (Vollmann paid many of his subjects for the privilege of interviewing and photographing them), and i doubt i'll ever forget the shot of the Cambodian beggar girl with the intensely deformed nose. nor can i get over the idea of the Japanese whorehouse with a sign that said "Subway Molesters" and which offered patrons the chance to go into a room made up to look like a subway car and grope random women.

at first, Vollmann's constant second-guessing of himself was annoying. he couldn't go a few pages without throwing in something about how he was writing while "sitting in my rich man's chair" or something. occasionally the book teeters on the edge of being some sort of massive confessional. but overall i really admire how he's captured the struggle of this project in the prose. there are long sections on his monetary contributions where he reasons out things like whether giving to a beggar is somehow more noble if that beggar performs a service for you, even a perfunctory one. he often finds himself in the incredible position of being able to change someone's life via his donations, considering how much more wealthy he is than his subjects. he's constantly wondering if any of them remembers him after he's gone.

anyway, i can understand his conflict, given the intense central irony that, as he states in his introduction, "...this essay is not written *for* poor people." in that same intro, he talks bout how this book is intended as an antidote to "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," the 1941 work by author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans that intended to document daily life among poor sharecroppers. Vollmann calls that book "an elitist expression of egalitarian longings." there are moments where Vollmann's wordy prose risks romanticizing his subjects (talking about a poor Thai girl, he writes "...the sweat on her skin was glistening like the lamplight on the Emerald Buddha, the Emerald Buddha clothed in gold.") but overall this is a remarkably clear-eyed book, mainly because it does not purport to Make a Difference or to be an act of charity in and of itself. it's merely a journal, a collection of one man's reflections, self-doubts, fears, shames, prejudices, etc., that springs out of a range of experiences that few of us will ever have.

whatever you want to say about Vollmann, there can't be too many more out there like him, namely true modern philosophers, willing to expose themselves to distinctly undesirable conditions for the sake of knowledge. he's always quoting Montaigne and reading "Poor People," it's not hard to imagine him as the modern equivalent.


for those curious about my visit to the Church of Scientology, let me just say quickly that L. Ron Hubbard is a remarkably unconvincing man. unhandsome, uncharismatic, pompous, smarmy, quick-tempered, elitist, balding etc. you'd like to think that he possessed some sort of charm in order to dupe as many as he has, but not from what i saw. what happened is that Laal, her friend Alana and i moseyed into the Church in search of some basic info and this dude led us to a screening room and showed us a filmed interview w/ L. Ron.

if i understood L. Ron correctly, the purpose of Scientology is to "help the able" with their problems. apparently anyone who is poor, uneducated, mentally ill or has any other social malady is unfit for the Church. that elitism seems weird to me given that they've resorting to proselytizing in the subway. anyway, i will leave you with some choice quotes from the SciTol literature i picked up.

--> "In Scientology there's something so powerful, it makes dynamite look like putty--it's called auditing." (neat trick.)

--> "The LRH Congress lectures contain far more than the watershed advances that built The Bridge to Total Freedom. There's also that special air of something more. It's what Scientologists speak of when trying to describe the unique feeling one gets just from listening to Ron."

--> "When LRH was asked who exactly should do the PTS/SP Course, he said, 'Every one of them. They live in the United States. They live in England. They have governments. They are on planet Earth.'"

--> (from a supposed personal testimony as to the "incredible results" of so-called Scientology Auditing) "All my disabilities regarding communication blew!" (??!?)


p.s., i have not forgotten about part II of the Walt Dickerson interview. i will try to get it up here soon!

1 comment:

Peter Breslin said...

Hey- I've been enjoying your blog a lot. Just a comment in defense of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and a disagreement with Vollman on his read. I think that's a beautiful book. Sure, Agee is conscious that he's not his subjects, but he's written something that always hit me as *honoring* them, not romanticizing. Agee's book is particularly remarkable because it was originally an assignment from Fortune magazine (who of course refused to print it). Haven't read Vollman's yet but thanks for the reminder.

eagerly awaiting Dickerson part deux.

thanks again,