The Unwinding

I’ve taken to writing longer reviews of books at Goodreads.  As an experiment I’ll cross-post them here.

Packer_GreatUnwindingGeorge Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is an admirable, very engaging work. It’s one of the best histories of our time.

The conceit is fascinating and compelling. Packer tells the tale of our times through a series of mini-biographies.

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Some are of representative Americans, only one from the 99%; their stories run through the entire book. One is a working-class black woman from Youngstown. Another is a serial (and failed) entrepreneur from the Carolinas. One is a reporter covering Tampa. A political operative is a major person. Other biographies run for single chapters, and cover famous people: Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Breitbart, Sam Walton (founder of Wal-mart), Robert Rubin, Jay-Z. Other one-piece bios cover people from other social strata: a Wall Street trader (the only pseudonymous character), a lower class Florida family.

One-page chapter intros reach back to Dos Passos as they assemble headlines and quotes to give a brief flash of individual years.

Why does this work?

First, because Packer is a fine biographer. He writes half in the subject’s voice, and balances triumphs with failures. Second, the multiplicity of biographies gives a nicely broad overview of a complex society. It’s great to see a black woman alongside a white man, Republicans and Democrats, Tea Party and Occupy.

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It’s great to see the South represented. Third, Packer’s sympathy is clearly with the underdogs. While he gives Peter Thiel a fair hearing, he’s not writing a hagiography. Jay-Z, Oprah get sharply criticized. The struggling characters (people!) are flawed, but more sympathetic.

The prose is intense, yet fast-moving. Some passages move towards lyricism or polemic (check the hilarious, awful comparison of shoppers with bloated chickens).

The timeline of the book starts with the unraveling of America’s manufacturing capacity, back in the 1970s, and concludes in 2012. We pass by major events (Iran-Contra, presidential elections, 9-11), but seen “from underneath”, briefly, as experienced by these individuals. One exception to this is the Occupy Wall Street movement, where Packer brings together nearly every biographee to poll their reactions. Occupy draws together these people, their frustrations, and some of their thoughts.

There is an overwhelming sense of frustration and gloom seeping out of The Unwinding. Packer explicitly says so from the introduction, and many of his people share a feeling that America is going off the rails. Their opinions are diverse, from a Tea Partier’s obsession with hated Democrats to a biofuel booster’s peak oil nightmare. Taken together, they represent a kind of kaleidescopic critique. At its most coherent Packer’s materials slam a system that became addled by money, leaving behind a (remembered) more equal past.

Packer’s strategy has two major flaws, which ultimately weaken the book’s power.
1) While I admire his desire to identify a representative set of Americans, the result is somewhat strange.

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The biographical subjects are roughly the same age, Generation X.

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As a Gen-Xers myself, I should approve of this, but it lends a narrow perspective. I would like to have followed other generations, such as Boomers (often criticized in the book, but not well represented). The lack of Hispanic characters is frustrating, since they constitute a significant demographic in nearly each region Packer examines (Florida, the Carolinas, California).

2) Lack of conclusion: the book simply stops in 2012. There is a moving, hopeful pair of chapters about Dean Price and Tammy Thomas, urban community building and biofuel development, but those are tactical moves, the latest chapter for each of the lives. There is no summation, no wrap-up. I’d like to read Packer’s sense of what he just described, and where he thinks we’re going.

Unusually for a current events book, Packer doesn’t end with a political exhortation. Republicans come off badly, but so does Obama. Jeff Connaugton’s career certainly kills any love the reader might have for Joe Biden. Occupy is too brief to be attractive, or to possess a resonant tragic power. Cyberspace lacks any salvific power. Financialization looks awful, but no meaningful reform appears. Celebrity culture appears heinous half-way through the book, then disappears.

Perhaps what’s left, or quietly suggested, is that the reader buckle down to work, innovation, and community engagement. Observations like this don’t lead to actions, by the book’s end:

Over the years, America has become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more jobs as store greeters.”

Again, I’d like to learn more of Packer’s thinking here.

That said, to finish reading a book with the desire to read more of it is not a bad place to stop.

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