Magazine article The Spectator

Change and Decay in All around I See

Magazine article The Spectator

Change and Decay in All around I See

Article excerpt

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer Faber, £20, pp. 434, ISBN 9780571251285 The Unwinding is a rather classy addition to the thriving genre of American apocalypse porn. The basic thesis can be found online in Jim Kunstler's The Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto, which runs to a few thousand words, but over hundreds of pages George Packer gives it the full literary treatment. He signals his ambition by taking as his model the USA trilogy of John Dos Passos, which spliced mash-ups of newspaper cuttings and pop lyrics, brief lives of public figures and longer episodic biographies of obscure ones, into an indignant portrait of America in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Packer's book is non-fiction, and his 'obscure Americans' are real people - Tammy Thomas, a laid-off factory worker in the Midwest; Dean Price, a doomed entrepreneur in the rural South; Jeff Connaughton, a disappointed apparatchik in DC - but he has adapted Dos Passos's method to portray the past 30 years, during which 'the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip. . . gave way', and the country was utterly changed.

'If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.'

And as Dos Passos was outraged by the Great Depression, Packer evinces - albeit indirectly, through the characters of his narrative - a similar anger at the Great Recession, at a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline, abetted by both political parties - America's masses fed on processed poison bought with a food stamp swipe card, low-skill workers structurally unable to ever contribute again and too dumb to know their old jobs weren't coming back, the banks in Gotham leeching the last drops of wealth out of the country, corporations unrestrained by any notion of national interest, the system of property law in shambles, the world drowning in debt.

Packer is a star reporter on the New Yorker, and is adept at unpicking intricate details, such as those linking the crooked owner of a tattoo parlour in Florida to Lehman Brothers in New York. He is at home in the centres of power, in Wall Street and Washington, and Silicon Valley, where autistic billionaires preside over weirdly anti-social social network companies, engineering change without progress: 'We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters. …

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