"A realm forever beyond reach": William Vollmann's <em>Expelled from Eden</em> and <em>Poor People</em>
"A realm forever beyond reach": William Vollmann's Expelled from Eden and Poor People
Jeff Bursey argues for a coherent, if unlikely, set of predecessors for William T. Vollmann: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Blaise Cendrars, and John Cowper Powys. In the process of tracing this genealogy, Bursey defends Vollmann against critics who attack his alleged objectification of his subjects - prostitutes, the poor, and victims of violence.
It’s a cliché to begin a review or essay on William Vollmann with a description of how much he has written. So let me begin with a quotation from a 1991 letter he wrote his publishers concerning other matters: “If The Ice-Shirt didn’t make you money, Fathers and Crows isn’t likely to make you money, either. Some of the Dreams set in the present may do better for you commercially. But Seven Dreams is not like a Stephen King book and will never be. I honestly believe that Fathers and Crows is my best work so far, and that it will eventually be recognized as such. In the meantime my other books, such as Rainbow Stories, are already recognized, and will only sell better as my name becomes better known” (315). These lines appear in the last paragraph of “Letter Against Cuts,” one of many heretofore unseen pieces of writing included in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader, edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004).
The National Book Award-winning Europe Central (2005) followed Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), a seven-volume, 3,300-page study of violence in McSweeney’s limited edition (Ecco published a one-volume abridged version in 2004). Both have attracted attention and many reviews; the NBA has possibly brought newly curious readers to Vollmann. There is, as well, a certain cachet for any publisher to have this award-winning (in US literary circles) writer in their stable. So it seems that Vollmann prophesized correctly. In between those two major works came this Reader, and one may legitimately wonder how it solidifies his current reputation and position, where it situates him, and whether it’s needed or premature.
McCaffery addresses that second point. “The American literary scene that Vollmann entered in the late eighties… was going through a down period. Wishing to distance itself from the first wave of postmodernist experimentalism but unsure of how to define itself once this separation was made, it seemed to be suffering the effects of an extended hangover” (xxi-xxii). With an apt disregard for nicety, Vollmann describes the lay of the land in “American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease” (1990):
In this period of our literature we are producing mainly insular works, as if all our writers were on an airplane in economy seats, beverage trays shading their laps, faces averted from one another, masturbating furiously. Consider, for instance, The New Yorker fiction of the past few years, with those eternally affluent characters suffering understated melancholies of overabundance. Here the Self is projected and replicated into a monotonous army which marches through story after story like deadly locusts. Consider, too, the structuralist smog that has hovered so long over our universities, permitting only games of stifling breathlessness. (The New Historicism promises no better.) (331)
He then gives seven points, or “rules,” which will improve the state of the art. Two are of note here: “3. We should portray important human problems,” and “7. We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves” (332, Vollmann’s italics).
In a jaunty introduction that plays off Springsteen and pop culture in amusing ways, McCaffery says that Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987) and The Rainbow Stories (1989) signaled that a new voice, full of energy and invention, had appeared in the land. Perhaps inevitably, he was declared the new Pynchon, though not at all reclusive, the only one who could write a book “like Gravity’s Rainbow, which blew you away with its vast scope and ambition, erudition, intellectual brilliance, and story-telling skills, while opening up new areas for the novel as an art form” (xxi). In the republic of US fiction, Pynchon is the Absent Prime Mover, and even literary atheists are forced to argue about his influence. A note tells readers that punk writer Kathy Acker was “a far more important figure during this period than Pynchon…” (xxxix) - though this will not satisfy those who believe that Pynchon’s works, like Joyce’s, saturate the atmosphere and cannot but be breathed in - akin to science fiction at an earlier period of Vollmann’s life. The ongoing Seven Dreams sequence owes as much to the material and impressions Vollmann has gathered in travels to far-flung places as it perhaps does to the writers who he considers “contemporary” (“I’ll assume you mean from the last two hundred years,” he replied when McCaffery asked, in 1990, which contemporary authors he “admired” ), including many who wrote multi-volume works or sequences, such as Mervyn Peake, Marcel Proust, Yukio Mishima, Sigrid Undset, André Malraux, James Blish, and Lawrence Durrell.
With 13 books out at the time the Reader was published, the third point - its need or presumption - can be answered in the affirmative. Poor People came out in 2007, and 2008 has already seen the appearance of a non-fiction work about life on trains - Riding Toward Everywhere - and may yet include a book on Noh plays, with Imperial, another non-fiction work about California, still to come. Not yet 50, Vollmann has many productive years left, which could mean that in five years it would be even more difficult to select what to put between two covers than it must have been. The editors and Vollmann haven’t jumped the gun of posterity. With Europe Central’s award status, new readers can turn to the Reader as a handy reference work for what he’s been thinking up to now. Since some of his books are hard to find, and others might seem off-putting due to the subject matter (prostitution or war), the Reader is a useful book for those who want to see what to choose next. Apart from offering novel samples, it includes segments from Rising Up and Rising Down, correspondence, and sizeable portions of the journalism that has put Vollmann in the way of bullets, landmines, drug lords and the Taliban. Those already familiar with his work will be glad to see gathered up previously published essays and articles which appeared in this and that magazine, as well as previously unpublished material. McCaffery’s introduction puts Vollmann and his writing in context, there’s an amusing chronology which ends in 2010, and informative notes at the head of each excerpt.
Any Reader, once the last page is turned, makes us reflect on two things: what lay behind the selection process; and where the author started out and where he is now. So we come to the second point: what this does for and what it says about Vollmann’s position. One could work against the editors’ arrangement to see how Vollmann has changed over the years. Certainly his obsessions and concerns have remained constant, though some receive more attention at different periods. (Calling to mind what the narrator of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things says: “Do you think for a moment that an artist selects his theme? It is all simple obsession…” ) The editors “wanted a collection that expanded the notion of what a literary reader might be… something akin to what’s involved when a curator at a big museum mounts the first major retrospective of a particularly significant new artist” (xvii-xviii). To do this, they arranged the Show according to themed section headings which are, in order, “Background and Influences”; “On Death, War, and Violence”; “On Love, Sex, Prostitutes, and Pornography”; “On Travel”; and “On Writing, Literature, and Culture.” Appendices follow. This structure means that one can follow Vollmann’s evolution of thought, and growth (which here means deepening and also growing away from). As one goes through the Reader, it becomes obvious Vollmann didn’t begin as either a transgressive writer or an experimental writer - whatever those terms actually mean; with so many of both around who are distinguished from each other, surely finer distinctions are necessary - but as an exploratory one, at times naïve (An Afghanistan Picture Show, 1992), delving into subcultures and lives that most people insulate themselves from, such as criminal gangs and prostitutes. Speaking to Madison Smartt Bell in 1994, Vollmann described how he met some young men whom he hoped would teach him about “surfing on the tops of elevator cars; instead, however, these youths held him down and pressed lighted cigarettes into his arms” (Bell, ¶5). What did he expect would happen?, one wonders. Never inclined to waste material, Vollmann used this experience to provide depth to scenes of death and self-mutilation by fire among the Iroquois in Fathers and Crows (1994).
That the arrangements of a variety of similar pieces don’t bore one, as one sometimes feels when reading parts of either of John Barth’s Friday books (which contain much that is entertaining and enriching), is due to the variety of writing styles as well as Vollmann’s maturation in thinking. “On Travel,” to consider briefly a short section, moves from pieces on Antarctica and Africa to “The Advantages of Space (1978),” a letter written by the eighteen-year-old writer to the physicist Freeman Dyson who wanted to set up colonies in space. It contains the idea that “perhaps some of us could set up something on asteroids or comets in a couple of decades…” (243). One year later Vollmann is writing to the government of Saudi Arabia, proposing that as raw resources will become more slender on Earth, the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter could be mined. “The outlay will certainly be large, and transportation costs will also be high” (246). He offers to “mine the asteroids for you,” and ends with the touching “”Please write if you would like any elaboration” (246). From someone who didn’t have Vollmann’s subsequent career of trekking to hostile places, this would seem only ludicrous. The very immodesty of the proposal, no matter how well-mannered the prose, in no way hides the earnestness. The next piece, “Subzero Debt, 1991,” from The Rifles, shows a marked transition into a grown up and finely balanced tone. The narrator, Vollmann in third-person, is in danger of freezing to death as he battles intense cold, an inadequate sleeping blanket, and stoves that would not heat properly. “He composed his epitaph: I died for the advancement of Vapor Barrier Liners” (256). Later he realizes that “if need be he could burn down all the buildings for warmth, one at a time!” (268) That one exclamation mark catches everything - the desperate jokiness dire circumstances brings up in us, the evident satisfaction at such an idea, and the misery.
What follows that study in white and cold is “The Water of Life,” an excerpt from Imperial, where Vollmann takes a raft journey down the poisonous New River (Rio Nuevo), which flows into the Salton Sea. He wants to go down this river which, apparently, no one has explored. He meets an ex-Marine named Jose Lopez. “When I told him nobody seemed willing to take me on the New River or even to rent me a rowboat, he proposed that I go to one of those warehouse-style chain stores that now infested the United States and buy myself an inflatable dinghy. I asked whether he would keep me company, and he scarcely hesitated. - Anyway, he said, it will be something to tell our grandchildren about” (287-288). The voyage is hazardous, not least because the course of the river is unknown in some stretches. “And now another splash from Jose’s paddle flew between my lips, so that I could enter more deeply into my New River researches. (How did it taste? Well, as a child I was given to partake of the sickly-salty Salk polio vaccine - an ironic association, I suppose, for one of the thirty-odd diseases which lives in the New River is polio.)” (293-294) At journey’s end Vollmann takes a shower but his hands continue to burn. “A week later, my arms were inflamed up to the elbow and my abdomen was red and burning. Well, who knows; maybe it was sunburn” (294). In the introduction, McCaffery says “no other author has emerged with the talent and the drive and crazed sense of self-assurance that propels one on a flat-out, all-cylinders-burning, literary joy-ride…” (xx), which is what one sees very clearly in this section, and equally in others.
What Vollmann has done is to keep moving and keep stretching himself. This is clearly evident in the Reader. He starts with Afghanistan and youthful idiocy, moving from there to San Francisco’s prostitutes with his touching trust that using their drugs won’t kill him, then through the history of North America in the Seven Dreams sequence, on into Thailand, where he frees a sex slave, war zones, and finally, in this selection, the murderous machinery of Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. It’s a trip that has its stumbles, and some of the material is not as interesting as one would wish it to be. But the unexpected is around every corner. When I read Vollmann, I think of a possible spiritual god-father, Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961). That remarkable sport, not a member of any ism or clique, was born in Switzerland, and traveled the world (North and South Americas, Europe, Russia, and, self-myth has it, China). He may have written the first Modernist poem after returning to France in 1912. Cendrars joined the Foreign Legion to fight in the First World War for France, his adopted country, and lost his right arm (his writing arm). This didn’t stop him from producing poetry, novels, essays, art criticism, journalism, and memoirs, or participating in the film industry. While Vollmann regularly gets compared to David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, perhaps critics might start looking elsewhere, and Cendrars is certainly one candidate. In Riding Toward Everywhere (2008) Vollmann meets many hobos, among them Cinders, who was christened the Great Grand Duchess of the Hobos by Frog, the King of the Hobos. Here, as elsewhere, he is reminiscent of Cendrars, who in The Astonished Man (1945) wrote about the internal politics and culture of Gypsies. He had earned their trust, just as Vollmann does from the hobos, gang members and prostitutes he meets.
Many have commented on Vollmann’s attachment to prostitutes. Janet Maslin, in a review of Poor People, referred to this feature of his writings: “As his devotees have come to expect, many of these tantalizingly spare settings involve prostitutes or drugs” (¶9). You don’t need to be a columnist to figure out that most prostitutes don’t enjoy a sybaritic lifestyle, or to ask what kind of setting she expects them to be in. And what, exactly, is tantalizing about such surroundings? We’re left to puzzle that out while Maslin moves closer to the border of criticaster territory. After writing about prostitutes in three paragraphs in a review of 13 paragraphs, she can say “The trouble with Mr. Vollmann’s interest in whores…” (¶11) without self-awareness.
In “The Shame of It All” (1999) Vollmann says this about prostitutes: “I have worshiped them and drunk from their mouths; I’ve studied at their feet. Many have saved me; one or two I’ve raised up. They’ve cost me money and made me money. People might say that we’ve ‘exploited’ each other. Some have trusted me; a few have loved me - or at least said so. They’ve healed my loneliness, infected me with diseases and despair” (167). Again, from his conversation with Bell: “ ‘When I first began writing, I knew that my female characters were very, very weak and unconvincing, and I thought, what’s the best way to really improve that? The best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. The best way to do that is to pick up whores’ ” (¶21). Those who believe, like Maslin, that Vollmann never has moved on, or outward, from an unhealthy “interest in whores” would come away from the Reader, or reading his works, with a very different impression. The down-and-out who crowd Vollmann’s early work are set alongside the Taliban and other armed and dangerous men, such as George W. Bush. As the novels and journalism go on, his interests have expanded to social issues such as the history of violence, wars, and environmental concerns, present in his fiction and non-fiction. “ ‘I’m actually a competent war correspondent at this point, instead of being a war idiot like I was in Afghanistan,’” he told Bell in 1994 (¶25), and a similar progression can be seen in other areas. The Reader’s arrangement of material hides this, though, with its thematic arrangement.
Vollmann’s writing is warm and engaged, and he often subjects his beliefs to his sense of humour. An essay on writing begins with reflections on its physical toll. “I write this by hand, with swollen and aching fingers… While there have been occasions when I could not close my hand around a water-glass or turn the pages of a book, mostly this pain is an unobtrusive companion, a chronic irrelevance when I am loving my work, a chronic warning when I am not… pain always gives the same advice, the wisdom of prudes and legislators: stay within the limits” (305). That last line is a typically smart turn of phrase and perception. He moves on to consider how the joy of writing has been transformed over the years. “I no longer feel, as I did at seventeen or twenty, that I am an ecstatic vessel bubbling over with words… I labor where before I played. In part this change is due to the pain in my hands” (306). Vollmann considers the pleasures he’s known, such as being by an ocean in Asia, or in the Arctic, which leads him to wonder if his work has lasting value compared with the examples of De Sade, “Hans and Sophie Scholl going to the scaffold for writing anti-Nazi pamphlets” (308) or Joan of Arc: “…I hope never to be tested as they were. I know that I love what I do. I hope that my life (for which I give thanks) glides on and on, and that, like a good prostitute, I can continue to convert joy into cash” (308-09).
That unexpected last line may provoke laughter, since many artists consider themselves prostitutes now and then. What was funny at the end of the essay about his hands (‘hand job’ springs to mind) here becomes ambiguous, or perhaps is how Vollmann sees the social contract between a writer and an audience. Not anything cold or sordid, but a recognition of human needs, human desires, and social commerce that happens to contains monetary value. Nothing highfalutin about it.
Generally, Readers don’t make much of an impact, unless they’re considered historically important. “It’s hard to imagine Faulkner’s ascendancy as Nobel Prize winner and ‘American Shakespeare,’” wrote James Gibbons in his Bookforum review of Expelled from Eden, “without the catalyst of Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner…,” which is “the gold standard for single-author anthologies because… [an author’s] work needs to be ‘opened up,’ to be made accessible and intelligible without diminishing the allure of its mysteries, and that is precisely what Cowley achieved in his collection.” (¶1)These are high standards, for Vollmann and his editors. Gibbons then states that of “contemporary authors, perhaps no one deserves a retrospective anthology at midcareer” (¶2) as does Vollmann. So we can see that something hangs in the balance.
This “digestible abstract” of Vollmann’s career “is a useful and often surprising” (Gibbons, ¶7) introduction which does not measure up to “unreasonable” expectations, as Gibbons acknowledges, that the Reader could do what Cowley’s did. “By amassing such a vast bibliography in less than two decades, Vollmann has probably denied himself the readership he might otherwise have enjoyed.” (¶5). We’re not in Cowley’s golden age, when the audience for literature was larger and had more time to read long works in a leisurely fashion. The point is taken, that any book, let alone a Reader, is going to face an uphill battle.
While McCaffery and Hemmingson’s “palpable enthusiasm” (Gibbons, ¶7) is appreciated, their editing principles irritate Gibbons. After criticism of the ‘slackness’ of the head notes, and that line drawings from one of the Seven Dreams novels aren’t presented along with the excerpt, Gibbons turns to the lack of Vollmann’s “source notes” (¶7) which he argues are vital to the books themselves and could have been replicated in some instances. These are cavils; by nature, an anthology must leave some things out. As to sloppiness, nowadays few publishers seem to employ proofreaders. There is definitely more substance to the charge that since the “editorial apparatus… takes up a good fifth” of the reader the editors could have limited their own words and allowed in more of Vollmann’s (¶7).
Often Vollmann’s writing and travel have been fuelled by writing assignments for magazines, yet he has a sensible and probably self-protective disdain for how his pieces are treated by editors. This is made clear in the Reader. He puts up with the cuts, and makes the case that he can restore the passages in future books “someday” (320). Not necessarily this one. Gibbons points out that the editors, presumably with Vollmann’s assent, have chosen to go with the edited versions of pieces, despite having the freedom to print the original. However, if the original of some piece was longer, then using the shorter version is justified if it allows more space for other material.
Writing on the Reader and Europe Central for the New York Review of Books, Michael Wood makes a point similar to Gibbons’: “There is a slightly awkward irony too in so much room being given to the writer’s letters to his editors protesting cuts in his Seven Dreams novels; we could have been reading some of the stuff Vollmann didn’t want to cut” (64). We return to McCaffery’s explanation of the vision behind the Reader - “We wanted a collection that expanded the notion of what a literary reader might be” (xvii) - and continue to read Wood’s review: “But then this collection, addressed to the ‘astute Vollmann reader, scholar, fan, and fanatic,’ is not meant to introduce anyone to Vollmann… Everyone reading it will already have read him. Well, nearly everyone” (64). If that’s true - impossible to verify, or dispute - then what for Wood is “awkward irony,” viewed from another angle, provides a glimpse into a different part of the mind behind the books. In “Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-hearted Un-deleter - and Potential Nobel Prize Winner” (1998), a letter to Paul Slovak of Viking, Vollmann declares: “This sounds crazed and immodest, but I actually believe I have a shot at winning the Nobel Prize or some other prestigious award someday. If Viking sticks with me that long, I think they may benefit from keeping me happy and by keeping the books intact. I am also getting more and more foreign sales these days. May the company please, please, just be patient” (321). This can be seen as self-puffery, but that doesn’t show itself in any other instance - when he’s in a war zone, as an example - where he could easily make himself out to be heroic. It comes across as earnest, the same earnestness behind those letters about mining asteroids, and might be what Wood calls “innocence” (64). The letter could also be an honest plea covering the hint of a threat. The ambitious writer (ambitious for his art) may be saying to Viking that they ought to keep him happy because, after all, he could move somewhere else. That ambition, and the earnestness, is evident in his books; so too is the awkwardness, seen in Vollmann as a creative writer, journalist, and correspondent. This vein runs through him, and showing it is, in part, what has gained him his readership and helped him make his art.
Any Reader that isn’t selective risks becoming narrow and monotonous. Yet Wood comes across as obtuse when he says the shortness of the extracts doesn’t align with “the pace and space of Vollmann’s work” (64). Surely Vollmann doesn’t always need to stretch out in the literary equivalent of a railway station. (Or an airplane’s business-class seats, to return to his metaphor from above.) He is economical and terse when he chooses to be. Wood closes his dual review by writing of Europe Central that “the great virtue of his writing is that even at its windiest it tries to think with us rather than for us” (67) an observation borne out by the reading process. One follows (sometimes with disbelief) what Vollmann is saying about pornography or his wrists, and it seems like the sentences spring up of their own accord, without much premeditation; they possess a liveliness and unexpectedness that can convince the reader she is discovering what Vollmann is discovering or feeling at almost the same time as he does.
I find it peculiar, though, when Wood says the Reader doesn’t allow us to “get much sense of the more thoughtful writer,” preferring to “[emphasize]… Vollmann’s energy and eccentricity” (64), which matches Gibbons when he writes “…the Reader serves as surrogate autobiography, a patchwork of memoir… that shed light on his core beliefs…” (¶9). What captures readers of Vollmann’s novels and journalism may very well be his own presence (and yet he’s not quite there, since he uses substitutes), which is a thoughtful, patient person who places himself in situations “safety nazis and safety monkees” would tut-tut over (Vollmann, Bookforum interview, 52). While in the Reader we don’t get long stretches of uninterrupted chains of thought, we do get to see many different links. In his Times Literary Supplement review of the unabridged Rising Up and Rising Down, Paul Quinn made the worthwhile point that the reader is aware of “the mental and physical labour behind the work which does not destroy the mystique of the art, but draws the reader into its making with great intensity” (4). I wonder if it’s this intensity, brought about by prolonged immersion in any one of his books, which Wood and Gibbons miss most and which no Reader could satisfy.
Many reviewers (such as Gibbons) discuss at length Vollmann’s willingness to place himself in harm’s way. He wants to see what’s going on and come to his own conclusions; he does not want to be a hero, or a Hemingway. This is most apparent in the section “On Death, War, and Violence” which, among other things, shows him interviewing a member of the Japanese Yakuza (“Regrets of a Schoolteacher,” 1998) and, in “Across the Divide” (2000), back in Afghanistan. Vollmann waits to meet the Minister of the Interior, and encounters many Talibs. “When the interview was over, I gave a chocolate bar to the dirtiest, hungriest-looking one of them. He was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Oakland Raiders.’ When I told him that the Oakland Raiders were American, he was crestfallen, and the others all laughed at him” (113). Vollmann doesn’t. He works to maintain respect for those many of us would turn away from. Books in Canada reviewer Matt Sturrock, considering Poor People, where Vollmann discusses beggar women in Afghanistan, regards this attitude as a flaw. “In other places, however, the culture-specific proprieties and courtesies he has picked up through extensive travel seem to have overmastered his moral sense. Vollmann’s reluctance to condemn the Talibs for their abominable oppression of Afghanistan’s women is a failure on his part” (Sturrock, 13). In Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann said: “Do I betray and humiliate those who have trusted me, or do I soften my conclusions? My policy will always be to treat with empathy and respect anyone agreeing to be studied, interviewed, exposed. I would have been courteous to Eichmann. My obligation, however, is to the truth” (RURD abridged ed., 44). One can argue with him on this point, and it is no small matter. Yet the attempt to be empathetic, while determined to try and get to the core of matters, is particularly significant at a time when his country’s government has worked steadily to make those not pro-US - Taliban, Iraqis, North Koreans, Cubans, Old Europeans, Canadians, Mexican immigrants - one vast Other to be denigrated, feared, reviled and condemned.
In “Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing During Wartime” (2002-2003) Vollmann presents his viewpoint on the second Gulf War in moderate language:
I can only speculate on our President’s real motives in determining to remove [Saddam Hussein]. It can’t be his murderousness, because the United States, like most powerful countries, has allied itself with butchers many times before and is doing so now. The reason may be Saddam’s dangerousness to American citizens or interests, but so far our President has given us, and the rest of the world, no hard facts about that. It is as if we read a Raymond Chandler novel which simply asserted, rather than proved, that a certain person were the killer. I think we’d feel a little disappointed. I myself am not necessarily against invading Iraq, if our government can do us the courtesy of making a decent explanation. (145)
In times of upheaval, extreme positioning, and censorship (self-imposed or demanded), it takes some courage to speak like this. It may not seem as daring as venturing to the Arctic, but throughout Expelled from Eden we come to see Vollmann as fearless (or reckless) in different fashions. I’ll return to this point when considering Poor People.
The Reader ends two ways: first, and most importantly, with “Steinbeck: Most American of Us All” (from Imperial). Here we are re-introduced to sentiments voiced in “Some Thoughts on Neglected Water Taps” (29-33), a piece from 2000 about Deep Springs College (where Vollmann was a student), that contains the pregnant thought he had while there: “We ought to identify and empathize with the physical and moral order of the universe, whatever that may be, and we should help others do the same” (33), preceded by a lesson wrapped in a question: “What if I could go out and do good?” (32) This goes in a straight line to Steinbeck, who “wanted all of us to be angry and sorry about the plight of the Okies, and his own outrage is what makes The Grapes of Wrath a great book” (381). Outrage, doing good, and actions for others; these motivations are present throughout Vollmann’s work. From here it’s useful to turn once more to the rules which come at the end of the already quoted “American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease.” Rule 3, again: “We should portray important human problems” (332). Rule 1 reads, “We should never write without feeling” (332). Rule 7, repeated from above, says “We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves” (332; Vollmann’s italics). The anger Vollmann admires in Steinbeck is a positive force; it can be used for social and aesthetic good; the same is as true for Vollmann. The drowning of his sister when he was supposed be watching over her has governed many of his rescues and engagements with the world, but literature generally - here represented by Steinbeck - gave shape, and Deep Springs provided training, for the transformation of his socially inclined earnestness into deeds. “ ‘I want to take some responsibility and act as well as write, do things that’ll help people somehow, things like kidnapping the sex slave,’” Vollmann told Bell (¶24). After winning the NBA for Europe Central he said that when he understood he was “ ‘partly German’ ” he asked himself if he was guilty for what had happened in the Second World War (Wyatt, ¶5.) Rising Up and Rising Down, most notably in its Moral Calculus, is another manifestation of this desire to engage with world problems.
Expelled from Eden ends the second time with Appendix D, “CoTangent Press Book Objects,” an overview of small books done in limited editions with drawings and watercolours by Vollmann. We’ve come through his exhaustive, ambitious, intricate novels and intensely engaged journalism to wind up at images of items of beauty, handmade works he has devised, as if he’s saying: If you want proportion and delicacy, then here, I can do that. Chamber music, after his own Ring.
Perhaps the Reader ended too quietly. While it charted Vollmann’s deep involvement with counter-cultures, violence, drugs, sex and war, it did make clear that he had moved out of those circles and had turned to other interests. This may have been seen as a retreat from outrage into niceness and domesticity. Maybe he had simply grown weary or complacent. “Conservatism is our opposition… It’s evenings, when I’m somewhat played out, when I’m likely to be most conservative,” Charles Fort declared in Wild Talents (1932). “Everything that is highest and noblest in my composition is most pronounced when I’m not good for much. I may be quite savage, mornings: but, as my energy plays out, I become nobler and nobler, and lazier, and conservativer…” (Fort, 32) The energies of a young man are usually required to keep outrage fresh. Rising Up and Rising Down aside - it had been written over “twenty-three years” as of 1998 (Expelled from Eden, 325) - perhaps Vollmann had become disenchanted with the arduous life. Consider this from Poor People: “My visual memory has deteriorated since I suffered a series of minor strokes…” (263) Anything could have brought on the strokes - drug use, mines exploding, stress, diseases that weakened his constitution. But the statement is said without self-pity or regret. It just is. What people have come to expect from Vollmann - the hazardous journeys outwards and inwards, enduring hardships commensurate with travel (political and otherwise) - might not appeal any more to a man approaching his half-century and enjoying a wife and daughter, and some success. “A series of small strokes had wrecked my balance,” Vollmann writes in Riding Toward Everywhere, as he makes his slow way over a breakwater, “anxious not to crack my pelvis again” (13). In addition, “aching ears” (78) are a reminder of his ticket-free time on trains. He has slowed down, but most healthier, fitter writers don’t risk trying to board moving trains after avoiding railway security.
Writers are not beholden to anyone to do anything when it comes to searching for inspiration. They can retire into affluent silence, take up Noh theatre (see Vollmann’s “A Branch of Flowers,” in American Book Review), write as little as possible - or they can join the “schizophrenic or alcoholic” hobos (Vollmann, Bookforum, 52) found on railroad cars. Another writer might repeat himself, but for Poor People, Vollmann gathered together notes from earlier travels and made fresh excursions to discuss the plight of the poor of the world. He didn’t have only Okies in mind.
The Solzhenitsyn Reader may seem like an inappropriate text to place alongside Vollmann’s recent works. At first glance it seems improbable that there would be any similarity between an almost 90-year-old believer in the Orthodox Church and Vollmann. Without insisting too much on the point - for there are many differences - I’d like to suggest that the earnestness, integrity, artistic intent and social activism seen in Vollmann does echo some of the moral, religious, aesthetic and political concerns found in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the Gulag, cancer, and life in the Soviet Union generally. In the Introduction to Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann writes: “They say that Soviet frontline officers in action against the Nazis thought that they had seen it all, but death in Stalin’s prison camps was entirely a different sort of death. Solzhenitsyn was for eleven years a prisoner in those camps. He suffered, bore witness, had, one would think, the necessary experience. His account of the day-to-day struggle there, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, deserves our appalled respect. Yes, he can be called an authority, an expert” (RURD, abridged ed., 34). So it will be worthwhile to keep at the front of the mind certain concerns these two writers address.
Vollmann states: “I haven’t lived in the mouth of violence; I’ve only paid a few visits.” (RURD, abridged ed., 31) In the Introduction to Poor People he is again straightforward: “I can fairly state that I have studied, witnessed and occasionally been a victim of violence. I cannot claim to have been poor. My emotion concerning this is not guilt at all, but simple gratitude” (xi). Similarly, in the closing section of the book he confesses, “I am a petty-bourgeois property owner” (263). As a counter-text, Vollmann uses James Agee and Walker Evans’ guilt-filled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which he slams as “an elitist expression of egalitarian longings…. Its Communist sympathies, expressed, I am sad to say, in the midst of the Stalinist show trials, expose its naiveté…” (xii) (One can picture Solzhenitsyn nodding in agreement.) Agee “carries his sincerity to the point of self-loathing,” while Evans “escapes into the tell-all taciturnity of photography… he need not commit himself.” “Agee does commit himself,” and it’s no surprise that commitment is what Vollmann most appreciates, even if Agee and Evans talked over the heads of their subjects to the rich who most often will not “possess the desire” (xiii) to read about such people. (“When [Poor People] is published I will give away several copies… to whomever then happens to be living in my parking lot.” ) Walter Kirn, who has some good things to say about Vollmann in the New York Times, rebuts that point: “Who but the rich can help the poor - or arrange things so they can more easily help themselves? And what does it matter if guilt moves them to do it?” (¶2) In fact, governments have a moral role to help the poor, and all sectors within their borders.
Consider Kirn’s point in the light of what Solzhenitsyn said in his 1972 Nobel Lecture: “The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all” (525). (Except for the word “salvation,” with its religious connotation, that could almost be one of Vollmann’s rules for writers.) That “all” means the rich, Kirn, you and me. If we lived in a shame culture, Poor People would change our perceptions of how we treat the indigent, the cast-offs, the shatterbrained and the preyed upon in such a way that the sentiment behind governments’ feeble efforts to end child poverty would have its backbone stiffened. We don’t live in that culture.
Those who pick up Poor People may set it down with a fuller, more compassionate heart, though that isn’t Vollmann’s aim. “This essay is not written for poor people, or for anyone in particular. All that I dare to do is to note several similarities and differences which I believe pertain to the experience of being poor” (xiv). This could be viewed as a typical liberal’s way of describing a problem without offering a solution. Over a period of years he interviewed the poor of various countries, including the US, Yemen, Mexico, Japan, Russia, Pakistan, Hungary, Afghanistan and Kenya, starting with one question, “Why are you poor?” (xiv) The answer led to further exchanges, which gave Vollmann information that he has turned into a living, breathing document - with occasional statistics (the validity of which he is suitably cautious) - which is humane and affecting. However, the very act of setting out into the world and visiting poor people where they live (not necessarily at fixed addresses), asking that simple question, hearing the replies, and trying to make sense of them has rubbed two New York Times critics the wrong way. “[Vollmann] acts as if he were the Louis Pasteur of poverty, identifying its forms for the first time through the lens of some sociological microscope” (Kirn, ¶8). Maslin believes “Mr. Vollmann” merely “assembles glimpses and anecdotes from many places and then creates simple truisms to unite them… Poor People feels like a collection of outtakes on which themes have been superimposed” (¶5).
Those are two uncharitable assessments, and to reach those opinions requires a deafness to Vollmann’s modest voice. He presents tables of income which he does not trust, he states quite clearly the “impossibility of my gaining any dynamic understanding of these lives over time” (xv; Vollmann’s italics), and states that he can only “show and compare” (xv; Vollmann’s italics). He often criticizes himself for his own failures, his privileges, and his ability to walk away from poverty. I can’t find anything that marks him as a sociologist or a Pasteur, nor do these testimonials seem like leftover pieces from earlier books. What those two readers may be missing is this: that the search for what poor people think and say about their lives has more priority for Vollmann than what he thinks, either in advance or after. There is not a single page that does not address, obliquely or directly, quietly, with outright anger, or in genuine sympathy, the predicament of the poor in such ways that readers are thrust into regarding their own actions when it comes to world poverty and neighbourhood concerns.
Many reviewers have commented on the organization behind Poor People, and it’s worth saying a few words about that. The book is broken into sections: Self-Definitions, Phenomena, Choices, Hopes, Placeholders, followed by sources, acknowledgements and roughly 100 photographs. (Maslin writes: “Mr. Vollmann took the book’s raw, abrasive photographs himself, and he is most assuredly no Walker Evans.”  Here, one can ask: Who can be Evans except Evans? This, like her entire review, is snide and wrong-footed.) Looking more closely at the contents page, one can see that some chapters focus on one place and many roam all over the world. “…[I]ts rigor comes and goes,” notes Maslin (¶7); “Structurally, the book is unevenly proportioned; chapter ten features content drawn from nine different countries over six time periods, while chapter sixteen, one of the longest, draws from just one,” complains Sturrock, who in Masonic fashion is keeping to himself how many time zones a writer can traverse (13).
“It’s not a systematic examination of poverty, and it’s certainly not a treatise on how to respond to poverty… Mostly it’s a pointillist description…” writes Nocholas Kristof, “…perhaps closer to travel literature than poverty literature,” which is very even-handed (NYRB, 9, 11); “Vollmann circl[es] rhythmically around the problem of global poverty…The rest of the book spirals in ever-more complex gyres, integrating and adding information and complications as it proceeds” (Munger, The Quarterly Conversation, ¶6). There is something in that which, mixed with Kristof’s remarks, comes as close as one can get to the book’s structuring. Here it may be useful to consider what Paul Quinn noted in his review of Rising Up and Rising Down: “His fiction has always aspired to the essay: it is discursive, often employing an elaborate apparatus of endnotes and cross reference, quotation and bibliography” (4). Unless one wants to fruitlessly wish a peach to be an apple, then demanding organization from a “personal approach” that “makes the book bad science” (Munger, ¶8) is bound to disappoint.
Vollmann’s writing style is full of nervy associative leaps (for all the surface calm here), and there’s no telling what will happen next. We’re meant to feel that we are in that mind, a few synapses behind, and compelled to follow. (This was noted with Expelled from Eden also.) On page 256 he’s near a New York toilet, and on the next page, for only a few words, we’re in the “filthy toilets” (257) of Nairobi. We think like this, at times, but some writers have the ability to capture the jumps our minds make more effortlessly than others. It might be a theme that lures him, or the harmonies of answers to why people are poor; a conversation in a shelter with a woman named Mary brings to mind the Irish Famine. We’re given impressions, not many hard facts, about the wandering lives of those who he sees once, maybe more, because this is all he knows about them. Vollmann doesn’t pretend it’s anything but that.
“I do not wish to experience poverty, for that would require fear and hopelessness” (xiv). In order to get us as close to such states as possible, Vollmann offers case studies. To provide a baseline, so to speak, for comparisons throughout, in the first pages he relates the tale of Sunee (Thailand), a woman employed by a cleaning company, who lives with her mother and daughter. She is usually drunk or hoping to get a drink. She may have been a prostitute. “Can you change your destiny?” he asks, and she replies, “Impossible. Always poor” (11). When he meets Wan, a beggar existing in the Central Railroad Station of Bangkok, confined to the streets and not able to live in Sunee’s splendid shack that features a blue vinyl sheet covering the floor, Vollmann asks, “In your idea, why are some people rich and some poor?” (26) This small, under-nourished, disease-spotted twenty-three-year-old replies, “I think I am rich…” (27) Being rich, like being poor, is relative. “I remember from Madagascar the gaping mouth and sad black eyes of the old beggar-lady who clutched with spiderboned hands at the skin that sagged from her bony face; she said that she could never remember filling her belly…; it would have been an insulting taunt to ask her if she were poor; her belly had answered me” (48). (John Cowper Powys met a raggedly dressed tramp on a Welsh road in 1940 and handed him his scarf. Then, “pinching this ragged coat gingerly with finger and thumb,” said “ ‘how cold, how icy, you must be!’”, to which the tramp replied “with an indifferent and detached air…’I have a very warm singlet on.’” [Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys, 345]).
For 300 pages Vollmann presents us with stories, each dovetailing into other subjects, or amplifying what we’ve read before, the lone voice of Sunee swelling into a chorus, each story deepening the meaningfulness of answers to such twinned questions as “What is poverty? Who are the rich?” (156) Wan thinks differently from Sunee, and her answers might please an economist with the World Bank. On another page we’re in Sarajevo, in 1992, “when the deep sullen thumpings and almost happy firecracker-poppings of small-arms fire had fallen away…” (156). Three people voice different opinions about the temporary, fraught silence. One is thankful, the second is immured within indifference, and the third says, about a fat man, “Anybody in Sarajevo who’s fat is an asshole” (156). For Vollmann this statement shows “class hatred at its clearest. Sarajevo’s people were now divided into the (relatively) safe and the accident-prone, the well-fed and the hunger-pained - in short, the rich and the poor” (156). Aren’t the poor automatically, in many people’s minds, less intelligent, because they evidently didn’t apply themselves, and because being poor has never been smart?
But they can be temporarily useful. “To the extent that the poor constitute a supply of something - cheap labor, easy availability for some project (war or prostitution, for instance), convenient obedience - they will be tolerated, even ‘wanted.’ To the extent that they constitute a demand for common resources, they will be unwanted” (127). That demand continues to grow, so only a hapless Pollyanna could believe the poor will ever be valued universally as human beings.
While in Hanoi, Vollmann has a friendly waitress, “smiling, lovely and young” (117), who flirts with him. “Giggling, she asked whether I would marry her. I was not much younger than I am now and certainly no handsomer, so I might as well consider the possibility that to the extent that it truly attracted her to become my wife, financial calculations operated” (117). At some point he notices Hong, a phrasebook seller positioned next to the restaurant, “and when I invited him to breakfast, I myself lost considerable matrimonial appeal in her eyes” (117). The photographs illustrate the people he has met, as well as their frail accommodations, when they have any. Similar to when he has Hong join him for a meal, Vollmann places the poor, the citizenry of the world, in front of the reader, visually and anecdotally. In my case, they accompanied me on a flight to Iqaluit in the Canadian north. What do you do with those faces, showing a bewildering and wearying array of moods - hostile, manic, imploring, numbed, cautiously hopeful, lost in pleasure over a personal pursuit? The waitress’ face “grew hideous with hatred” (118). What face do we make in response?
One response among critics is boredom (possibly fatigue) and almost a chiding of Vollmann’s pursuit. Kirn: “Vollmann’s interview subjects, it turns out, explain their suffering in the same ways that most who suffer explain their suffering, especially when they’re in the midst of it. It’s fate. It’s bad luck. It’s punishment. And so on. Could nonpoliticians and noneconomists who are absorbed in the business of survival answer any other way?” (Kirn, 9) Perhaps not. If all Vollmann did was classify the poor as interviewees and approach them with a short questionnaire, then he, and we, would never have heard about the complicated, fascinating and at times fabricated life story of Natalia (Vollmann is courteously sceptical of her accounts, and persists in the search for truth from her, and from all the people he meets), and the more plain-spoken Oksana, two beggars in Russia. Without his larger purpose - to learn - he would not have met Oksana’s daughter Nina and her family, including Nina’s husband who had been exposed to radiation at Chernobyl.
Nicholas Kristof’s review discusses the repetitive answers voiced by the poor: “The problem is that the answers aren’t very interesting, persuasive, or authoritative. It’s useful to ask poor people about poverty, but after wading through three hundred pages of their equally impoverished answers, unleavened by some larger context or theme, I think Vollmann would have been better off spending some of his time asking such questions of a panel of Ivy League professors” (¶10). In Bookforum Vollmann addressed this: “When you talk to poor people, you often meet people whose minds and spirits have been starved like their bodies, and so they’re not capable of eloquence” (52). There is agreement that there is a “problem with the answers,” but from divergent perspectives, as Vollmann is not out to find the solutions Kristof would like to see.
When Kristof tries to discern Vollmann’s motives his writing becomes ambiguous. “So we now have a wealth of interest in poverty. A fruit of that, or perhaps a beneficiary of it, is William Vollmann’s new work…” (¶9) It’s not too far from Maslin’s tone, revealed in her use of words and phrases such as “interestingly manipulative” (¶8), “ostensible” (¶11), “purports” (¶12), and “coyness” (¶13). Whatever is going on in Maslin, or Kristof, remains mysterious. On the contrary side, Sturrock honestly admits to a line drawn within his own soul: “[Vollmann] is unflappable and kind - traits exemplified in the chapter where he meets a Thai girl with a ghastly facial disfigurement. Of her, he says simply: ‘And yet her smile was formed, her gaze distinctly her own. Were she my lover, I could very easily find her beautiful.’ His generosity in that instance shamed this reader” (13).
As my airplane burned fuel over parts of Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut, I read “Crime Without Criminals,” a chapter that focuses on Kazakhstan in 2000. In this new country, several oil companies were “gainfully employed in exploiting what the consortium’s press releases labeled the world’s deepest supergiant oil field” (174; Vollmann’s italics). The consortium is called Tengizchevroil (TCO for short). It’s worth quoting all of the opening paragraph: “I’m going to tell you an ugly little story now, a story which sickens and shames me in my heart; but fortunately it takes place in a country most of us have never heard of, and, moreover, the saddest parts are all secondhand, without ‘hard evidence,’ so we might as well pretend that they’re untrue” (173). Not for the first time, Vollmann goes where even his drivers and interpreters refuse to go unless prodded. He heads to Sarykamys. On “TCO’s highway” (183) at night he sees this:
Well, even though it was already dark I now began to make out a sunset ahead… But ahead was to the south, not the west. And this sunset, orange and purple, was more like a bruise in the darkness than that customary celestial luminosity which tinges the sky all around itself; if anything, the darkness seemed heavier and puffier around this purple glow which now began to resolve itself into multiple fires… Plumes of smoke, plumes of fire! It was spectacular. But that smoke, how it crept and crawled and wriggled across the entire sky! TCO was doing its mite for global warming. That smoke would give the next generation another reason to curse us - two reasons, actually, for not only did it pollute the air and ground, it also burned off much of the fuel that was ostensibly being refined. Of course, a few members of the present generation would get rich. (183)
Upon arriving in Sarykamys Vollmann tries to find out about environmental pollution and sickness - the sulfur fumes, and other chemicals contained in oil burn-off, may have affected people’s health. Nurses refuse to answer his questions (“When they understood that I was a journalist, their despondent apathy gave way to fear.” ), so he visits the house of the doctor-in-chief. “She said that she had a temperature. She too was trembling now, just as both nurses had trembled, which is why I feel bad about telling you the name of the village, which really is Sarykamys, but even if that doctor and those nurses lose their jobs as a result of this story (which I sincerely hope that they won’t), I must believe that what’s most important is to tell the truth, for the sake of the four or five thousand inhabitants of Sarykamys whose health that doctor and those nurses ought to be protecting” (186). What is everyone afraid of? A venerable newspaperman later explains to Vollmann, “in small towns the old atmosphere of repression might well remain” (188; Vollmann’s italics).
In closing his Nobel lecture, Solzhenitsyn repeated a Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” (526) When it comes to truth, we can recall Vollmann’s declaration in Rising Up and Rising Down, quoted above - “My obligation, however, is to the truth” - as well as rule 6 from “American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease”: “We should believe truth exists” (Expelled from Eden, 332). Getting to the truth among the poor (or any stratification of society), or about anything, is a constant aim in Vollmann’s writings. Often in Poor People - as specified right off with the Income Table (xvii-xx) - it is practically impossible to determine, but that makes reaching for it an even more crucial ethical and moral imperative. It can’t be called a defeat if there’s never been an attempt. The suspicion with which post-modernist writers view what is said operates strongly in Vollmann. In “Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing During Wartime” he gives three pieces of advice to writers, of which the third is of note here: “In these times, any one of you who feels inclined to risk a little and learn a lot should travel to an Islamic country to make friends and to learn, not to teach…You should get to know them well enough to understand why what they believe is plausible to them, and you should explain their views to other Americans as sympathetically and as accurately as you can” (Expelled from Eden, 153). What is plausible, not what is true, is sometimes the most we can know (though being satisfied with that isn’t enough). Interrogation of circumstances and people is demanded.
Maslin calls the trip to Sarykamys “the book’s boldest journey…” She continues: “But we have been hearing a lot about Kazakhstan” (¶11). Perhaps for that reason she doesn’t mention anything about what Vollmann has presented. “Of course, you and I are more guilty than [the people of Kazakhstan]. We create the demand for TCO’s product, we pollute the atmosphere with it, and about Sarykamys we don’t give a rat’s ass. And if you disagree with me about your own responsibility, read this story to the end and then decide whether you would be willing to forgo your petroleum addiction for a single day” (191). Maslins the world over have had a bellyful of this kind of chatter.
While reading about Sarykamys, I thought of any city or community where industry trumps basic health requirements and environmental controls. At 30,000 feet thanks to precious fossil fuel being burned, with flags being staked to the Arctic Ocean’s seabed, and the continued possibility of Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge being opened to oil, did I feel complicit? Yes. Was that Vollmann’s purpose? As he says, we all have “some degree of moral freedom” (191). Of course, his travel implicates him as well. He points fingers when he feels that’s justified, but he never hectors. “This book is not ‘practical.’ It cannot tell anyone what to do, much less how to do it. For all I know, the normality of our epoch may render resource-sharing substantially impossible. But what is greater or braver than to beat down misfortune, or at least to try?” (247; Vollmann’s italics.) We are left to our own ethical devices, just as Vollmann was left to his. We are asked to puzzle out for ourselves the questions he has posed. The norm in this case is that we rely on oil; and so does Vollmann to get where he’s going. We must view the way things are from a variety of perspectives, and, by so doing, upend our habits of thought and behaviour.
In the second-last chapter of Poor People, titled “I Know I Am Rich,” Vollmann describes a property he owns which has a parking lot that is home to the homeless. If “Crime Without Criminals” is the angriest chapter, this is the saddest. (One might be able to make the argument that these two chapters are pivots around which the rest of the material whirls.) It begins, Bob Slocum-style, with “I am sometimes afraid of poor people” (263), and it describes how Vollmann allows the homeless to sleep on his property, but never lets them in the building. “Once in a great while there were thugs in my parking lot at night, men who were demanding, menacing and, from my petty-bourgeois perspective, insolent. I made a point of declining whatever they asked of me, but I spoke more politely to them than I wished, because I was afraid. Were they poor? They must have been poor in something, to entertain themselves in my parking lot…” (265-66). He introduces his daughter to them “because I do not wish her to grow up disdainful of poor people or needlessly afraid of them” (263). This introduction does not mean he is incautious. The blinds over the windows are “always drawn” (264) and tinfoil has been taped over the insides.
The building has a steel door, likened to a door in Hanoi “which only kings could enter” (267). Behind this, Vollmann hopes he is safe. “Might not the continued existence of my domain behind that steel door have been a perpetual offense and harm to Carty [one of the homeless]? It is true that his poverty eternally threatened my richness. But I defeated him again and again; every day I shut him out into the rain” (269). The steel door is a necessity, and also a powerful metaphor. Perhaps Vollmann didn’t intend to summon up Max Weber’s iron cage (or steel shell) from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but in a work devoted to the poor and the rich, it would not be out of place thematically.
However, the steel door’s protection is not complete - “Sometimes I worry that they will come through the roof” (267) - and it calls to mind those nervously cocooned inside gated communities. Vollmann treats the homeless on his parking lot with politeness and gifts: “…I will give them small things such as a bottle to get drunk or a little money” (263). But then he looks at this giving of alms as potentially a service that reflects well on us. “Must charity satisfy me? It was not charity to give to the legless Serb; that was like giving to myself, moving money from one pocket to another” (271). Also: “Again, must charity please me? Is it incumbent on me to feel a specific way, or do I so demand a certain standard from others? If it feels like charity, have I failed?” (271)
Poor People is not a product of the UN, a think-tank or institute, but the result of one man’s explorations of the responses to the question, “Why are you poor?” The outward reach of this book is undeniable, in my opinion, and not something each of his books succeeds in doing. (I find many parts of, as an example, The Rainbow Stories tiresome and uninteresting.) Others disagree, or ignore certain aspects of it, dwelling on faults in its organization or its limits (Vollmann’s self-limitations, one could also say). Critical writing, or academic writing, works to explain how Poor People (and Expelled from Eden) doesn’t work, or does work, or how Vollmann tries and succeeds at getting this or that right, falls down here and there, and so forth. These purposes have value at all times, but they are not the only values. Critical writing will rarely get anyone excited about a work, or be taken up by it, except, possibly, philosophically or as a text to be treated with theories. The excitement will be intellectual, but won’t commit someone’s blood and soul to the works, which Vollmann, with Steinbeck in mind, has written from the fibre of his being, as used to be said before the author supposedly disappeared.
So without that equal passion - or more accurately, any fervor save the excitement caused by intellectual analysis - how can anyone enter deeply where Vollmann has been to understand the tales he has dragged back for us to peruse in our living rooms and studies? How do we commit? It’s not a condemnation to read him as writers, academics, or critics. But when he writes of prostitutes “in debt to the Yakuza” (214), how can we keep in balance the aim of most explication - to stay detached - and an awareness of the miserable life led by “sad-eyed Czech and Russian girls”? (213) We do, though, and while we do, we remove ourselves from the furnace of injustice. If we aren’t in some way with Vollmann on that level, then we’re regarding José González (147) or a tuna fisherman in Yemen (29) as text only. But they’re not. Vollmann delves into their lives, for shorter or longer periods, but far more than we do. Quinn’s words on Rising Up and Rising Down apply here: “… it is the maverick status of Vollmann that makes this work possible (few tenured academics would attempt it)” (4).
We need to ask if regular critical analysis works in all cases, or if our norms need to be upended. Aren’t we likely to come close to what Vollmann says most will do when it comes to Kazakhstan - not pretend what he says is untrue, but treat what is presented as a tale - if we don’t get angry or bothered? We are being asked to dig into our belief system and admit, as he does, that with our present attitudes we can do nothing to help Iraq’s children (173), the citizens of Ciudad Bolívar (159), Elena of Russia (240), if we write about text. He is committed to doing something - his entire output shows the maturation of this desire to be of service - and in Poor People shows us that, while he has no answers, he’s at least looking at the plight of people around the world, engaged with their plight, and asking if we will do the same.
“But everything that is far away and does not threaten, today, to surge up to our doorsill, we accept - with all its groans, stifled shouts, destroyed lives, and even its millions of victims - as being on the whole quite bearable and of tolerable dimensions” (Solzhenitsyn, 518). Will I go out and donate time or money to a soup kitchen? Will I change my habit and talk with the woman downtown who, to support herself at least partly, knits covered hangers, despite my previous irritation at her for trying to sell me those God-awful things? I don’t know, yet, and the absence of an answer dismays me. Thanks to Poor People I am forced to ask these and other painful questions.
In Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann put forward the Moral Calculus, a culmination of his examination of violence and its properties, and the right to defend oneself or another, which he states has its faults (RURD, 445). This work may very well be viewed as a provisional answer to a litany of questions posed by Solzhenitsyn:
But who will reconcile these scales of values and how? Who is going to give mankind a single system of evaluation for evil deeds and for good ones, for unbearable things and for tolerable ones - as we differentiate them today? Who will elucidate for mankind what really is burdensome and unbearable and what merely chafes the skin due to its proximity? Who will direct man’s anger toward that which is more fearsome rather than toward that which is closer at hand? Who could convey this understanding across the barriers of his own human experience? Who could impress upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature. (519)
The Moral Calculus is a brave attempt, through literature, at distilling nothing less than world history into categories of “principles of conduct” (445). With Poor People, Vollmann challenges readers to become involved with the world he describes (or, more accurately, come up with their own that’s also broad and deep, and which plumbs social conditions), as well as the book itself. This makes Poor People, like Rising Up and Rising Down, qualitatively different from what has come before. Let me return to a quotation at the top of this article: “I honestly believe that Fathers and Crows is my best work so far, and that it will eventually be recognized as such.” That is one prophecy that can’t come true now, or at least must be qualified to exclude Vollmann’s non-fiction.
The title of this paper contains part of a quotation from Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture. Here is a fuller excerpt: “[Art] is like that small mirror of legend: you look into it but instead of yourself you glimpse for a moment the Inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach. And your soul begins to ache….” (514). We can look at Expelled from Eden as an expression of Vollmann’s outsider status - expelled from childhood (Eden) by the death of his sister - and Poor People as an expression of interested understanding of and sympathy about the poor, who never knew and will not ever reach Eden, that mythical realm of prosperity, safety, and ease. It’s inaccessible to everyone, even the rich.
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