poverty as a series of perceptual categories

Voll190

How does traveling the world asking poor people why they think they’re poor differ from traveling the world asking people in pain why they’re in pain or thirsty people why they thirst? Is this a serious, legitimate inquiry, or does it betray a certain faux-autism that might be better suited to performance art? These are two of my questions for William T. Vollmann, the prolific, award-winning novelist and journalist whose new book, “Poor People,” centers on just such a Pyrrhic, postmodern project: asking the unfathomable of the unfortunate and using their numbed, predictable responses as proof of their plight’s intractable mystery.

Vollmann opens his study of poverty by describing all the things he won’t do and setting forth his reasons for not doing them. For starters, because he considers himself “rich” and doesn’t wish to playact or condescend, he informs us he won’t follow the example of George Orwell in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and try to walk a mile in poor folks’ shoes. Nor will he emulate James Agee’s text in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (a book he regards as an “elitist expression of egalitarian longings”) and tug at the heartstrings of the privileged while elevating the poor to sainthood.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

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