I was compelled to read George Packer’s The Unwinding — something has to compel you to read 430 pages of unfashionably sincere prosopography about the erosion of America’s core institutions — by an article Packer had written in The New Yorker describing the magnetic pull that the victims of the Great Depression had on men of letters. Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, perhaps now most famously James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, illustrated by the pictorial plainspeak of Walker Evans’ photographs of Alabama tenant farmers — these writers traveled across the United States, motivated explicitly by Leftist conviction, to lend their words to the ravages of poverty.
In contrast, Packer notes, "Our own slump has produced a very different writing." The best-selling accounts of the collapse trace the falls of hedge fund managers, the missteps of regulators and politicians, the spectacular fraud of a few men like Madoff; "It’s as if no one could be induced to read a story about the crisis without a disgraced celebrity plutocrat as the protagonist."
This isn’t a scold to journalists so much as an observation about the visibility of the victims of the financial crisis. Our crisis hasn’t produced noble tenant farmers surrounded by children in rags, urban breadlines, sunken cheeks. Instead, Packer notes, "The most vivid images tend to show depopulated landscapes" — abandoned subdivisions, the hulls of gutted factories. This strange contrast in coverage possesses its own radical inequality of form: portraiture for the guys at the top and landscape for the impact wrought large-scale on American life. Portraiture for New York and Washington, landscape for Detroit and Tampa.
In The Unwinding, Packer attempts to repopulate landscapes such as Tampa (epicenter of the housing collapse) and Youngstown (eviscerated by deindustrialization) with a handful of main characters whose stories we follow for 35 years. At the same time he unscrolls a panoramic scenography that grounds and links portraits of usual-suspect celebrities like Newt Gingrich, Oprah, Robert Rubin and Colin Powell. The lives of Packer’s "main characters," like Tammy Thomas — born and raised in Youngstown, where she found employment in a GM subcontractor plant, was eventually laid off and is now a community organizer — span the book in a thick braid, drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews. Meanwhile, the celebrity bios, only a few pages each, interlarded throughout, mostly draw on already-published books and interviews.
In fact, The Unwinding does precious little scooping. We’ve become intimate with the "mortgage-backed security" by now, and "Who’s this Colin Powell guy?" is nobody’s burning question. But if isolation and inequality have been the result of The Unwinding as Packer depicts it — the erosion of structures of collective security (banking regulations, public schools, collective bargaining, the press) — then Packer tells that story with connectivity and inclusiveness. 1978 impacts 2013, the language of individualism in the mouth of a Silicon Valley billionaire reverberates in the slogans of a middle-class Tampa Tea Party activist, the awakening to politics of a black worker in Ohio resembles the disenchantment with politics of a white lobbyist in D.C. Collective structures may be eroding, but Packer sets out to show that there are ideals, themes and images that can still lace together a collective account.
Perhaps Packer’s desire to challenge a contemporary tendency to portray a fractured and polarized social reality with fractured and polarized narratives (isolated portraits of financiers, faceless explanations of the housing bubble) led him to Dos Passos. (For more on this question, read my interview with Packer.) The Unwinding is so bravely untrendy that while all of America is shimmying into its bedazzled Gatsby-for-Target, 20’s-era sweatpants, Packer turns to the decade after: the sobering, fashionless Great Depression.
He found a structural template for a story of such comprehensive scale in Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, novels published between 1930 and 1936 that were in Dos Passos’ own words, "an effort to take in as much as possible of the broad field of the lives of these times." In the trilogy, he uses formally distinct "sequences": experimental first-person narratives he called "Camera Eye," sections of collaged songs, slogans, headlines and other cultural ephemera called "Newsreel" and "portraits of a number of real people" whose "lives seem to embody so well the quality of the soil in which Americans of these generations grew." Packer adapts all three (e.g., from the "Newsreel" for 2010: "INCOME GAP WIDENS … TEA PARTY LIGHTS FUSE FOR REBELLION ON RIGHT … EXCLUSIVE DETAILS: SNOOKI DUMPED EMILIO — BELIEVES HE WAS USING HER TO GET FAMOUS").
It’s all a bit dizzying, and maybe it’s the old-fashioned sincerity, the faith in reporting and the borrowed Depression-era belief in a Big Picture that causes anecdote often to stack atop itself like brick without compounding like money. Snooki makes it in? And Glass-Steagall? And Tammy’s crackhead mother? I’m going to sit with Joe Biden on the campaign trail and overhear him call people dumb fucks, and I’m going to cross Rockingham County, North Carolina with Dean Price in 2010 collecting waste oil from restaurants, and I’m going to protect my tent at Occupy New York with loner Ray learning how terrifying collectivity can be, and then I’m going to make "Occupy" theme T-shirts for Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Wear label because he’s telling me, "This is free enterprise. This is what America is built on."
Dos Passos’ template, its cycling through different perspectives, keeps the narrative moving, but the effect of so many voices laced together takes some getting used to. When Packer is talking as Tammy, for instance, he adopts her slang and speech patterns: "The job was bad — a harness with two wires, a couple of blips and a grommet, and you assembled a bazillion of them for eight hours. Plus, the work rules — you … had to work straight eight and bring your lunch...." There’s no first-person; Packer tries to disappear behind the collaged swath of Tammy’s voiced experience.
In contrast, the short celebrity bios match their subjects’ supposed grandiosity with an epic-mythic tone so thick it almost sells its indictments as flattery. It’s Moses giving a roast, or it’s the Old Testament read out loud by David Spade. On Oprah, he begins: "She was so big that she owned the letter O. She was the richest black woman in the world — in the world — but she remained Everywoman and made that her theme song." Yet by the end, "being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (... positive thoughts lead to wealth, love and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house; they couldn’t call John Travolta their friend; … they were never all they could be.... Oprah left them with no excuse."
Oprah’s mantras mirror those of Napoleon Hill, whose Think and Grow Rich propagated the power of positive thinking, coining the phrase "If you conceive it and you believe it, you can achieve it." The unwinding itself isn’t a bogeyman, a Nothing, a dark tornado on the horizon coming to suck everything into the sky. (I hasten to add that readers seduced by the title because it smacks of Gladwellian neologism à la Tipping Point will be disappointed to find that an "unwinding" is no pseudo-scientific catchall explaining away individual error.) In fact, Packer pulled the word from Dean Price’s own utopian description of a future in which America’s reliance on cheap foreign fossil fuel would "unwind" and prompt domestic innovation in biofuels. Similarly the "unwinding" allowed PayPal founder and libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel to thrive.
The real insidious evil is the claim made by those like Thiel, who do thrive, or like Oprah, so astronomically successful that she owns a letter, that "if you are rich, it is because you deserve to be; if you are poor, it is because you deserve to be." This specious philosophical snake oil (the toxic byproduct of the processing of an American transcendental tradition going back to Emerson) lubricates social and political stasis, so that instead of turning to institutions, people in trouble fall back on themselves. Their guilt and self defeat for not thinking positively and not dreaming big enough has room to resonate with all its tragic finality in a story as big as The Unwinding.