New Yorker staff writer George Packer came through Chicago on his book tour for The Unwinding (which I reviewed for The Airship). We sat down at the International House on the University of Chicago campus, where I first watched three undergraduate boys interview him for a recently launched campus political journal. They asked him a lot of questions about the world itself — politics, history — as if he were a kind of general sage, a wise senator to eager interns. The whole scene struck me as kind of sweet and appropriate, since Packer’s hours of interviews with subjects at the heart of deindustrialization in the rust belt, establishment corruption in Washington and the epicenter of the housing crisis in Tampa have made him deeply informed about a quarter-century’s political and economic history in the United States. But it also seemed strange to think of Packer as an unmediated window to that history, since the book he just wrote is such an artful figuration, a web-like narrative clotted with research, as interesting and urgent for the way it tells its story as for the story itself.
In what follows, we discuss Packer’s use of Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy as a formal template, the challenges of the panoramic, the navigation of a novelistic tone in a work of journalism and whether Jay-Z would be cool with The Unwinding.
JL: You wrote a piece a few weeks ago in The New Yorker called "Don’t Look Down" about depression-era literature, and you made this really insightful point that the way our recession has been covered, everyday victims have not been viable subjects for literary or journalistic representation.
GP: With exception.
JL: And you wrote about those exceptions — it’s kind of starting now.
GP: Yeah, I think that’s right. The initial wave of coverage was all about the people at the top — how did Jamie Dimon react to Lloyd Blankfein, and so on — and that’s interesting. I’m fascinated by those guys too. But this whole area of experience was missing, including in my own magazine.
JL: So if there’s some essential quality about the everyday victims of this depression that makes them difficult to write about now — in contrast to what happened in the Great Depression — it’s an interesting choice that, in The Unwinding, you look to a depression-era writer as a model. Dos Passos here isn’t vague inspiration; yours is a specific citation of the form of the U.S.A. trilogy — the Newsreel, the minibiographies. So why Dos Passos? Why now? Is it just a formal tool, or is there a real historical echo there?
GP: I originally went to it as a formal tool. More like as a lifeline. I didn’t know how to create a structure. There was no book that gave me a model, I didn’t have one in my head. I had a ton of material and a notion of telling this big historical story. I wanted to do it high, low, Silicon Valley, Youngstown —
JL: The word that’s being applied to this book more than anything is "ambitious."
GP: I guess it is ambitious.
JL: I think it has to do with the scope.
GP: And I think it’s good to be ambitious if it’s not grandiose. But I think what you’re getting at is: Are we repeating something from that period more broadly than just one writer looking at one book as a way to assemble his material? And maybe we are, in the sense that, in a period like this, you realize how much history matters. And how much bigger things are than the stories of individuals.
If there’s a counterpart to Dos Passos from his time, it might be Fitzgerald, who is all about the solitary questing of the individual soul. Dos Passos’ characters are sort of flat. They don’t have very rich inner lives, they are floating along on the surface of big historical events. And he saw that both as a modernist, assembling this whole new kind of narrative form, but also as a social critic who was moving further and further left throughout the '20s and who wanted to tell a big historical story. I think it’s the reason he stopped being popular, because Americans really don’t believe in history. We believe in the individual.
For me at least, we’re living in a time when you can’t ignore giant historical forces at work. They are shaping individuals, they are shaping communities, they have risen to the surface. We can see the tectonic forces. 2008 was one of those historic transformational years. You couldn’t write that story out of just a sort of a narrow, private, solitary experience, whether as a journalist or a novelist.
What I’m saying is, yes, you’re on to something, and it’s probably because when a lot of people are in trouble, you stop looking at individual failings and ambitions, and you begin to think about it as being connected to something that’s much bigger than each of them.
JL: Reading The Unwinding, I didn’t think of this book as a longue durée history. Sure, the book starts in 1978, and biographies often begin in the demographic shadows of grandparents, great-grandparents. Rather, what’s so ambitious about it is that the story of the financial crisis has been told, the story of the housing crisis has been told, Oprah’s life is not a mystery. It’s the interconnection across geographies, financial spheres, ways of life. It’s the ambition to map it all in a sense. Dos Passos is often thought of as a mapper.
GP: And I guess that's another reason I had to turn to him for some guidance, because there is no tradition of doing that. There are some individual examples, but it’s not like the short story or the social model or the family model. It’s a totally different thing. And not only are these stories known, but the themes are known. Like, yeah, inequality, how many books have been written about it? I had nothing to add to that discussion. It’s there, it keeps getting worse. It's this thing that’s just metastasizing, and we cant stop it. The same with deindustrialization — a very old story.
What I thought I could contribute was to see it all as a big story. And to see Oprah’s self-invention and then her gospel of self help in the context of [repeatedly defeated and finally bankrupt entrepreneur-farmer] Dean Price finding [1930s self-help guru] Napoleon Hill and thinking, "This is the answer for me: to have the faith in my own mind." That's a recurring theme. So is going back to the land. In Youngstown now, all these vacant lots are turning into community gardens. In Tampa, my foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Weidner is growing carrots in his condo and is thinking, actually, maybe he’ll just go back as a survivalist to the hills of Eastern Hillsborough County and get away from the coming social chaos.
There’s a vaguely apocalyptic feel to it.
JL: Yeah, I got that.
GP: Which throws people back on these old [answers], whether it’s survivalism or it’s the land or it’s self-help or it's looking for some guru shortcuts —
JL: Instead of looking at history.
GP: Yeah, and instead of looking at institutions as ways to channel your aspirations. Instead you think, Jay-Z did it by saying, "Fuck you, I’m not waiting in line. I’m going to get it myself."
JL: The speciousness of that celebrity can-do, individualist message, the way that message came in for some criticism got my blood pumping because there’s so much defeat in this book, and it’s counterbalanced by these moments of some viciousness. People like Rubin and Oprah get taken to task, and that happens very rarely in a way that isn’t just easy cynicism or flak.
GP: I think it’s because they have high responsibilities. All that power and wealth comes with responsibilities. I don’t want to isolate Rubin because I actually think rather highly of him. Like Colin Powell, both of them, they’re Institution Man 1 and Institution Man 2. They’re both wonderful products of the public schools — the military in one case, Wall Street in the other — people who had truly high ideals for their institutions and didn’t see that their institutions were collapsing around them. In Powell’s case, he didn’t see that the military intelligence and the White House were going to destroy what he believed in when he signed on to Iraq because they were infested with ideologues who didn’t have his vision of national service. Rubin didn’t see that by signing on with Sandy Weill at Citigroup, he was going to be in for a very ugly ride to a lot of money, but along the way, they were going to take down the financial system because that’s what Wall Street had become. They didn’t understand that they had kind of been carried along and done well —
JL: They don’t see the unwinding as it’s happening.
GP: They don’t. They think it’s still the old school where good people do good things. And when it happened, I think Rubin more than Powell just couldn’t face it and that’s what I hold him responsible for — for not seeing what responsibility comes with his prerogatives and successes. They’re great examples because they’re not bad people; they’re actually good people who in another era would have done very good things.
JL: I think, as a reader of this book, you have to adapt over the first few chapters to these fluctuations in tone. You wear your characters like a cloak, very thickly sometimes, and sometimes that cloak feels thin and I wonder to whom the ideas or sometimes the vitriol belong.
Here’s an example:
Usha’s son and the rest of her family sustained her in her fight [against foreclosure] — because unlike Mike Ross, Sylvia Landis and Jack Hamersma, Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.
Sometimes you talk as Usha — we hear the voice of this really tough woman who refuses to give up her hotel, who looks down on people who don’t work hard — but in that example, I feel her wearing thin and the tone is caught between paraphrase of someone else and your own commentary on ideas you’ve traced throughout.
GP: And in that case, it’s more the latter. I suddenly realized, my God, all these other Tampa souls are on their own and either barely making it or not making it. And Usha — this is something actually that her lawyers pointed out to me — she had this network of family that was helping her with the money and the legal case and just with morale boosting, and it just seemed like that’s gone in those other cases. There isn’t that infrastructure. The Harzell family, they have each other but they’re all sinking together.
JL: They’re isolated — another big theme for you.
GP: And they are homeless right now, they’re in very bad shape. But they have nobody. Nobody. That isolation seemed like a very terrible state.
You really saw what I had to do, and you’re right about the fluctuations because yeah, it was both: At times it was just bury myself in Dean or Tammy’s language.
JL: Down to their very idioms and rhythms.
GP: Yeah, they’re all there. But with the celebrity biographies, there’s an element of satire but there’s also an element of, I’m taking you seriously at your word. You’re saying selling crack and selling CDs is the same thing — "different venue, same game," that’s one of Jay-Z’s recurring motifs — I’ll take that seriously, and I’ll see it as you being honest about how the spirit of capitalism in our time is actually pretty close to a model for you.
JL: Jay-Z’s rap lyrics actually describe "the Unwinding" — the winner-take-all system — but it’s a celebration.
GP: It is, and I thought, if Jay-Z ever reads this, he’s really going to hate me, and then someone said to me, No, he’ll actually think it’s pretty cool.
JL: Yeah ‘cause you’re killing it.
GP: And because he owns this. Maybe now he’s gotten so big he has to keep some distance on the harsher truths, but he used to tell them pretty bluntly.