A great review of what sounds like a solid book from an author looking for a solution to the problems that confront us, but in the postnormal we don’t have problems, but dilemmas, and dilemmas don’t have solutions:
George Packer’s brutal and riveting new book, The Unwinding, was supposed to have a happier ending. Passionately and meticulously reported during the Great Recession and the rise of Barack Obama, Packer’s work awaited a “Rooseveltian moment,” one of those “big bangs” of history when an epochal economic crisis meets a leader and a movement that have emerged to solve it. For all the positive accomplishments of the Obama presidency, that moment never arrived—or at least hasn’t yet. And so Packer and his subjects and his readers are stranded in history, trying to make sense of the unraveling of the American economy, maybe the whole damn American experiment.
I’ve struggled with how to describe a book that I think people should read in terms that don’t make it sound like a grim slog. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner (who loved it) compared it to “a three-day flu.” I’d say the flu lasts longer than that. It’s like reliving the last 30 years of political history but really paying attention this time, and knowing how the story ends for most of us, at least for now: badly.
In a book that stubbornly resists prescription, and maybe even argument, this widely quoted passage from the prologue has to suffice:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Packer keeps himself out of The Unwinding, but he was born in 1960 himself, and graduated from high school in 1978, which is where he places the beginning of “the unwinding,” and where he starts the book. (This is roughly my own timeline, which is why the book was sometimes painful to read.) It opens with what becomes a recurring device throughout the book: a pastiche of headlines and pop culture detritus from that year, from the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” to a sentence from a Jimmy Carter speech about inflation to an ad for Vantage cigarettes to a headline about Jonestown. You know from the beginning you’re going to wander through some depressing precincts.
If you require such wandering to lead you from despair to hope and a renewed sense of political direction, this is not the book for you. The Unwinding has its heroes, but their heroism lies in perseverance, not achievement. A committed liberal optimist (like myself) may come away from it with his or her optimism unwound. But spending time facing how feebly we’ve met the challenges of the last 30 years and how much harder life is for so many people despite our political exertions can be restorative, too. Sometimes it’s bracing to admit: Yes, things are as bad as they seem. Sometimes we have to hit bottom. We can only hope that what The Unwinding depicts is the country’s bottom.
I hate to say a writer has tried to do too much when most of us fail by attempting too little. But in his effort to encompass the entirety of our experience, Packer lets his ambition get the best of him. His inclusion of famous people—not in the narrative, but interspersed throughout in short, discrete chapters—was ultimately distracting. The device appears to be Packer’s attempt to spotlight people who have a genius for the self-propulsion and self-promotion that, for good or ill, is over-rewarded these days. It’s notable that he seems to feel a little more disappointment, even disdain, toward successful characters on the liberal side, like Alice Waters, Oprah, and Jay-Z, than for, say, Newt Gingrich, who comes off slightly more sympathetically.
One of those liberals hovers on the book’s margins: Barack Obama, who seems to disappoint Packer so much that he doesn’t even merit his own chapter. Obama wanders through The Unwinding like a ghost or a rumor or maybe Zelig: Here he is meeting Dean Price as he announces stimulus spending on renewable energy in Virginia. Price later told Packer that “it was the softest of any man he’d ever shaken hands with,” and “it told him that Obama had never done a lick of physical work in his life.” The 2012 election barely registers in the book, because it clearly strikes Packer as missing the point: No one in that campaign talked about the extent of the country’s unraveling or sorrow.
And yet I felt my own sense of regret, if not quite resentment, that Packer refused to make a more coherent argument with this book. What’s going on here, George? What are we supposed to do now? You’re the guy who carried boxes of outdated DSA position papers up and down stairs in Boston. Surely you can carry the torch for the social justice movement a little longer?
But he can’t force what he doesn’t feel, and he’s a reporter, not a fabulist. If Packer doesn’t know what the future will be like, he does a haunting, maybe unrivaled job telling us about the grim present, and it will stay with you. In the end, his resignation about the future is almost as disturbing as the present he’s so chillingly chronicled.
This review is tagged ‘declinism’ which is indicative but not really defining. But go read it.