May 27, 2013
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Of all the compliments I’m inclined to pay to George Packer’s new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” the one worth paying first is that it’s a pleasure to read, though not in the way I anticipated.
Packer is intelligent, explicitly analytical and happy to give himself plenty of word count to interrogate his subject from every angle. It’s a style he brings to his reporting in the New Yorker and to books like “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq.”
“The Unwinding” is complex and intelligent, but these qualities are coalescent rather than explicit. And the narrative space of the book is highly pressurized. The chapters are short. The sentences shoot forward. The descriptors come quick and sharp and loaded for bear. The perspective jumps from one protagonist to the next rapidly, with nothing connecting the many characters — knowns like Newt Gingrich, unknowns like struggling biofuels entrepreneur Dean Price — except for Packer’s masterful location of them within the larger drama of the “unwinding.”
“If you were born around 1960 or afterwards, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding,” writes Packer in his prologue. “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.”
I spoke to Packer by phone for about an hour, primarily about two things. One was the challenge of finding a way to tell this huge story in a way that felt intimate and narratively compelling. The other was about what I sensed was a fierce moral indignation at the core of the book. Packer wasn’t just acting the reporter, telling all these stories about how America had changed. He was saying that something has gone very wrong in this country. People are suffering. And there are people to blame.
Describe the genesis of the book for me.
It began from the events of the financial crisis and the recession. I had the sense that America was going through a wrenching transformation and then the transformation didn’t really happen. A lot of the same problems persisted after 2008, and a lot of the same ways of thinking about the problems. So I began to think that we were in a longer period of decline. Not necessarily permanent decline, but decline over a longer period than we normally think.
Many books have been written about this, and many of them are good books. I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the policy debates about problems like inequality, polarization, the hollowing out of the middle class, institutional decay. Instead what I wanted to do was describe what it’s been like to live in America over the past generation, from the late 1970s to the present, which has basically been the period of my adult life. And how to do that? I wanted to do it in a way that was both panoramic and intimate. It would look at many different parts of the country, many different sectors of society, at people who had made it, people who had not made it, people who were struggling, celebrities, obscure people. I wanted to do it with a bias toward the human voice and the human face rather than the big historical trends and events.