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 places like Afghanistan and Sarajevo, where in 1994 he was nearly killed in a 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. 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.
Vollmann himself may be the most unassuming major writer of our era. At 47, he is tall but nondescript with his blunt cut hair and square frame glasses, his body altered by a variety of physical ailments, including a fractured pelvis and, as he wrote in January in Harper's, a series of small strokes that has wrecked his balance. He lives in Sacramento with his wife, a physician, and their 8-year-old daughter. In conversation, he is polite, solicitous, almost as if he were embarrassed to be interviewed, as if he cannot quite understand why anyone would be interested in what he has to say.
It's an interesting posture for an author who has, since his first novel, "You Bright and Risen Angels," appeared in 1987, produced a body of work as diverse, ambitious and controversial as any in American letters. There was, for example, his 3,300-page study of violence, "Rising Up and Rising Down," published in 2004, which posits a "moral calculus" by which certain acts of force are not merely justified but ethically imperative. "Poor People" is, if equally determined, less far-ranging, not so much a comprehensive statement as an ongoing inquiry into poverty and what it means.
If "Poor People" has an antecedent, it is James Agee and Walker Evans' 1941 collaboration "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which portrayed three poor families in the American South. Speaking by phone recently from his writing studio, Vollmann was explicit about the connection: "It's always been one of my favorite books," he said. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," he added, is "a work of immense compassion, an attempt to understand and articulate something that can't be articulated, especially by the poor."
Still, for all the parallels between the books -- the blending of text and photographs, the sense of writing as an act of witness -- they operate in very different ways. For Agee, the idea was to get inside his subjects, whereas Vollmann takes a more clinical approach. "I tried to see certain people repeatedly," he said, "but the book makes no pretense to any real intimacy. Most of the people I talked to probably wouldn't remember my name."
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."
Unlike Agee and Evans, 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.