Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Article excerpt

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America George Packer Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

As all who are familiar with art know, Georges-Pierre Seurat's impressionistic paintings involved a unique "pointillist" style that formed its pictures out of a great many discrete dots that the viewers' visual perception then put together into a comprehensible whole. One could liken George Packer's The Unwinding to such a painting. Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of several award- winning books, has patterned this book after John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, leading the reader journalistically through an extended array of descriptions and biographical accounts, which in this case deal with people and events in the United States during the past half-century. The intention is that, taken together, they paint a word picture, in effect, of the dissolution of American manners and morals, which creates a void that Packer says is filled by "organized money." It is a social crisis in which "everything changes, nothing lasts." The picture that results is not as coordinated or serene as a Seurat painting, but is intended to be considerably more ragged and tumultuous, even though in itself each of Packer's accounts is well and engagingly told. Another art analogy would be to a collage comprised of posted-notes stuck on a large board. Readers come away with an impression of social chaos and venality, mixed with considerable human struggle and some success.

It would seem that the despair conveyed by the book as a whole far outweighs the optimistic dialectic that Packer somewhat paradoxically expresses in his Prologue but never develops: "The unwinding is nothing new," he says. "There have been unwindings every generation or two... Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion." A renewal, or even the beginning of one, is not evident in the remainder of the book. Perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.

The book consists of a series of biographical sketches. A chronology of the lives of three individuals in particular is given in recurring segments and is based "on hundreds of hours of interviews" with those three. Exactly why they were picked as the chief focus, and why their stories are broken into parts that a reader has to patch together to maintain continuity, remain a mystery to this reviewer; but their respective life stories, each in its own way, conveys a message of the subject's very personal struggle through an economic and cultural wasteland.

There are, in addition, separate essays on a diverse spread of well-known personalities based on secondary sources, and each is well worth reading in itself: Republican former Speaker-of-the-House Newt Gingrich; television super-personality Oprah Winfrey; Raymond Carver, a "literary chronicler of blue-collar despair"; retailer Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame; Peter Thiel, who made a fortune in the Silicon Valley; General Colin Powell; restaurateur and later evangelist Alice Waters; Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin; rap singer Jay-Z; Tea Party blogger Andrew Breitbart; and now-Senator Elizabeth Warren.

To all this is added considerable attention to two locations that have been hard-hit by the gale-force winds of the recent economic and financial tempest: Youngstown, Ohio, a victim of the hollowing- out of American manufacturing; and Tampa, Florida, decimated by the housing mania and eventual bust. Further to enhance the impression of a sweeping eclecticism, Packer here and there inserts pages of assorted quotes and news items under various years' headings illustrating what would seem to be the detritus of a society spinning off in many directions. There is much commentary, which, though it sometimes expresses Packer's own opinions, often presents the conflicting perceptions of others. Packer has not, however, made The Unwinding a vehicle for theory or systematic analysis. Packer must feel that it is enough to "let the facts speak for themselves. …

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