Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Packer: The Unwinding

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George Packer has written a very odd book. I *think* I get what he's getting at, but I'm not sure, and I'm not sure why he picked this way of going about it. On the other hand, The Unwinding is a very readable book, and not bad for what turns out to have a giant caveat at the end: "Though this work is a work of nonfiction throughout, it owes a literary debt to the noels of John Dos Passos's great U.S.A. trilogy, published in the 1930s and overdue for a revival." This, not surprisingly, left a slightly odd taste in my mouth after thinking I was reading a book of nonfiction. (See: fact finding.) So, if one were to read this book, it might be a good idea to take into account the fact things like "the biographical sketches of famous people are drawn entirely from secondary sources... the sketches sometimes paraphrase or quote the subjects' own words [emphasis mine]." That this appears on page 431- "A Note on Sources" (a page I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who ever reads) made me a little sad. I expect more from a New Yorker author, or really anyone presenting something as a work of nonfiction.

Anyway. I think the book is trying to tell how the US lost the middle and lower class and thus the fabric of society has unraveled (unwound, if you will). Packer follows several people from different walks of society who more or less have shitty lives for one reason or another, or who lose social capital. Then he intersperses the stories with more or less relevant vignettes about famous people like Oprah, Colin Powell, Newt, and some places- Tampa and Silicon Valley. Even Alice Waters makes a (not very flattering) appearance. Maybe the vignettes are trying to be metaphors. Here's Packer on Sam Walton: 

"It was only after his death, after Wal-Mart's downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done. Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company's bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy's, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in."

This, I think, is what Packer is telling us in 450 pages. It's depressing, and horrible and true. The book is like the beach read version of longer, more complicated and factual versions of how we got here. Like I said, an odd book.