Q&A: George Packer's The Unwinding is journalism with literary genes
George Packer’s latest book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, is both huge in scope and a model of economy. The New Yorker journalist and author manages to load almost a half-century of collective American experience into The Unwinding’s 400-plus pages, creating an often heart-rending panorama of the nation’s internal struggles and ideological twists from the 1960s to the present.
He does this through a ground-level view, rather than a bird’s-eye one. There is no defined narrator in the reporting here, no punditlike voice proffering theories. Instead, Packer focuses on the life stories of four citizens: Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman who raises a family on blue-collar jobs in Ohio; Dean Price, the son of North Carolina farmers who sets out to build a chain of biodiesel stations; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington aide and lobbyist; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley magnate and multimillionaire.
Packer simply places these stories side by side, without overt comment. In the spaces between, he adds sketches of many of the age’s most influential figures—from Newt Gingrich to Oprah Winfrey—as well as clusters of quotes and headlines from the passing decades. The result is a powerful kind of journalistic collage, allowing readers to move across and recognize connections in a huge spectrum of experience from an era when many once-crucial social mainstays have toppled, and individuals have been left to fend for themselves, for better or worse.
Packer will appear at the upcoming edition of the Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 22 to 27. See writersfest.bc.ca/ for event details.
Georgia Straight: Do you see this book as belonging to a particular tradition of writing? Does it have ancestors?
George Packer: There’s only one remotely close ancestor, and that’s John Dos Passos and his USA trilogy, which, as you might know, is fiction rather than nonfiction. It covers a similar length of time—it’s three decades at the other end of the 20th century. It follows a number of fictional characters who are ordinary people but whose lives sort of illustrate getting caught up in the gears of history. And then he also moves into other narrative modes—profiles of important people, sort of a stream-of-consciousness first-person writing. So I didn’t try to do what Dos Passos did, because it’s an incredible piece of modernist fiction, but it gave me an idea of how to use an experimental form while sticking with certain conventions. Like, the sentences are not experimental, and the reporting is not experimental—it’s all solid and very carefully researched. But to bring it together into a form that would work on the reader on a deeper level than journalism usually does, and that would gradually create a picture, and would work not by argument but by kind of unconscious persuasion—I don’t think there’s anything that I’m aware of like it in the world of nonfiction, and only the Dos Passos trilogy in literature. So it’s kind of sui generis.
GS: For a lot of writers looking at the problems or themes you’re dealing with, their first instinct might be to write a series of essays or start laying down analysis, but The Unwinding steers away from that.
GP: That is exactly right. And my instinct is also to move into analysis. I’ve written other books of nonfiction, other pieces of magazine journalism, other book reviews and essays—a lot of them. And that’s my mode—the first-person essay where I’m talking to the reader and thinking something through in a direct address. And I was restless with that form, and I thought, “To really tell this big story of America over a whole generation, there is no place for me to be in that. I could only detract, I could only be annoying, like the guy talking about the movie while the movie’s going on.” And instead I thought, “What if I take myself out?” And that opened up a whole range of narrative possibilities.
GS: In the main group of figures in the book, Peter Thiel would be the only one who comes close to being famous—he’s different from the others at least because of his wealth and resume. In a way he’d represent the meritocracy that gets trumpeted by free-marketeers and deregulators, as someone who’s been hugely rewarded for major innovations. But then you have a relatively anonymous figure like Dean Price, who is also very entrepreneurial, very forward-looking, and yet the outcome is much different for him.
GP: It shows that there is a certain meritocracy at work, in the sense that in Silicon Valley they don’t really care who you are—they just want to know what your idea is. And his [Thiel’s] idea of Paypal turned out to be a gigantic winner. And then, shortly after that, Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of Facebook was put on his table, and Thiel saw it as a winner and made a bet and won big. So, in a sense, who can complain? This is sort of the nature of the game in American business and especially high-tech. Then you look at someone as hard-working and determined as Tammy Thomas, someone as imaginative and entrepreneurial as Dean Price…and they’ve all struggled, or gone under and then struggled to get back up. My editor once said there’s a sense of elemental unfairness in the book, and that phrase has stuck with me, and I think it’s the right one—a sense that the game is no longer a fair game. The rewards going to the few are so outsize, and the struggles and failures of the many are so constant, that it’s very hard to see that virtue is being rewarded and vice is being punished here.
GS: A cynic might say that it’s always been this way. Is the situation truly different now?
GP: Yes, it is. It is. I mean, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Life is unfair.” And that was in a different period. But life was more fair. You did not have to guess right about Facebook in order to be a successful and admired American.
GS: Or even secure.
GP: Or even secure, yes! You just had to go to your job and do it with a modicum of energy and responsibility, and you had security, and you had a decent family life, and you had sort of a place in the sun. You were part of broader American life. And that’s just not true anymore….Both celebrity worship and also positive thinking, which comes up in many places in the book, seem to come forward in America when upward mobility is blocked, when equal opportunity has become a joke. And that’s where we are now. So I would say absolutely it was a fairer time when I was growing up. Of course, if you were a black American, if you were a woman, if you were gay, you were locked out of much of life. But there were mechanisms, both mass movements and institutional structures, that could correct the injustices.
GS: You suggest at the start of the book that unwindings are almost cyclical events in American history. Is there a sense that previously tried solutions to institutional failure—say, something like the New Deal—tell us anything about what to do? Or is what’s happening now unique, more new than old?
GP: I’ve tried to avoid the terminal-decline, sunset-on-the-empire kind of talk, because I don’t know the future, and we always think it’s the end of the world and then something new comes along. But I am struck by how many opportunities we’ve been given to correct course. I mean, 9/11 was a big one. The election of Obama was a big one, the financial crisis, the tremendous ravages of the recession. And here we are, and it just doesn’t seem like a whole lot has changed, at least not in the centres of power—Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley, the media. I think in small, out-of-the-way places there’s a tremendous amount of ferment and dissatisfaction. I don’t know how that adds up to a historic change. I think it might, and we’ll look back and see what we’re missing now, but it’s very hard to game it out from the middle of it. There are some analogies. Imagine this is the year 1900 or 1910—it’s sort of late into the robber-baron era; the robber barons have turned into the trusts; there’s still no real reform legislation being passed, but there’s reform impulses all over the place. That’s kind of where we are now, I think. You know, the idea of whole progressive era I don’t think occurred to people at the time. It occurred to historians writing about it. We may be at an early stage of a new progressive era. It’s just that, because we’re still in the darkness, we can’t really see it.
GS: Many of your readers will be people who’ve been adults for a long time but who are too young to remember anything of the previous era, before this unwinding. Maybe some of them see what’s going on now as normal. How might the book speak to them?
GP: I think, first, to suggest that it’s not normal—that there are other arrangements that might work better. I think they see a lot as normal—for example, mobile phones and constant sharing and sort of a semi-employed life. But there’s a lot that pisses them off. I think they know they’ve gotten a raw deal economically. They’ve gone to college, gotten saddled with debt, can’t find a job or are working behind a counter. Studies show that if you come of age and enter the workforce in the middle of a recession, it sort of marks you for the rest of your life. You never really catch up. And I think that’s what this cohort is facing, and they know it. And they’re quite jaded and angry about it. But they’re also quite distracted—there’s a lot of things they can do to feel better, like, you know, go on Facebook. So I’m hoping my book gives them a sense of the history of how this came to be, and a sense that it doesn’t have to be this way and hasn’t always been this way.