LOS ANGELES - William T. Vollmann has long been concerned with the fringes of society, where necessity reduces moral questions to their most elemental fiber and survival is the greatest good. He spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in San Francisco, tracing the urban demimonde in works of fiction like "The Rainbow Stories," "Whores for Gloria" and "The Royal Family." He has also reported from Afghanistan and Sarajevo, where in 1994 he was nearly killed in an attack; two of his companions died. Throughout it all, he has become known for producing densely layered narratives filled with allusions: His 2005 novel "Europe Central," which seeks to personalize the history of 20th century Russia and Germany and won a National Book Award, is more than 700 pages, with an additional 50 pages of notes.
So Vollmann's latest book, "Poor People," comes off as an effort of startling economy - "an essay," the author calls it - comprising barely 300 pages of impressions on the issue of poverty around the globe, augmented by 128 black-and-white photographs taken by the author, as if to highlight the urgency of its subjects' lives.
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It is both of a piece and utterly different from the books that precede it, reading, in many ways, less like literature than sociology, a series of observations that presumes to no conclusions other than to frame the edges of what Vollmann acknowledges is an intractable and incomprehensible world.
In an introduction to "Poor People," Vollmann admits his doubts about his ability to say anything useful about his subject. "My own interpretation of how this book's heroes and heroines see themselves is damaged by the brevity of our acquaintance," he writes, "which in most cases endured a week or less. ... How could I be fatuous enough to hope to 'make a difference'? I'm left with nothing to honorably attempt, but to show and compare to the best of my ability."
Vollmann focuses on people from many cultures, including the Russian beggars Natalia and Oksana, rivals in their degradation, and the Bangkok house cleaner Sunee, whose alcoholism helps metastasize her misery.
At the same time, he suggests, it's not enough to empathize, as Agee did; that's reductive, a way to make ourselves feel better without seeing the problem for what it is. Again and again, he touches on the question of complicity - ours, yes, but also that of his subjects, some of whom have made bad decisions, given in to vices and addictions, fallen prey to despair.