Monday, August 12, 2013

What We're Reading: A History of Our Times

by George Packer

This history of recent years in America, although it does have a degree of chronological progression, is less a narrative history than a mosaic portrait of the “new” America, comprising a collection of biographical sketches and stories. What the author has to say here--the story that we are told--comes not just from the details or component pieces but from the arrangement. These tesserae of both famous and unknown Americans have been placed in such a way as to give us a history of the formative economic and social trends Americans have experienced in recent years, to give us a sense of what they have come to feel--and fear--about their country’s future. The heart and poignancy of The Unwinding is contained chiefly in a number of longer pieces that recount the personal histories of some relatively obscure Americans: an Ohio factory worker, a Washington political operative, a North Carolina rural entrepreneur, and a Silicon Valley billionaire (and also in those sections that tell us about individuals caught in the bursting of the home mortgage bubble in Tampa and those who participated in the anarchistic “Occupy Wall Street” movement). The threads of their stories are picked up over the course of three decades, interrupted from time to time by shorter sketches of major cultural, political, and economic figures: Sam Walton, Newt Gingrich, Robert Rubin, Andrew Breitbart, Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, Alice Waters, Raymond Carver, and Elizabeth Warren. These shorter “celebrity” vignettes are for the most part critical and acerbic. Packer’s anger seems to result in his best prose and most trenchant asides. He credits Newt Gingrich with changing the way elected leaders spoke to one another: “He gave them mustard gas, and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him.” The two people Packer seems to admire most are Raymond Carver, for his stark and sobering portraits of the struggles of the common man, and Elizabeth Warren, a person who has watched and studied the actions of major banks and their impact on consumers for a long time, and who was recently elected to be the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

Packer tells us that those of us born about half a century ago have witnessed “structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.” He is talking not only about the physical structures of the plants and neighborhoods that were part of an industrial economy, or farms and smaller communities, or public schools, but also about the dissolution of the social compact that kept the country stable and middle class. Manners and morals have changed, in Washington, yes, but particularly in American financial structures. What has replaced the construct of accepted behavior and regulated means is organized money, which controls politics and has funneled essential power about the important economic decisions in American life to a financial plutocracy, creating a society in which “winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.” The Unwinding is not a book of hope or a book that points to the way out of this crisis. There is little here that portends rebirth or renaissance. This is a book that traces the reasons for our pervasive and unsettling feeling that the nation and its people are adrift. We fear America is in decline, and that life for those in the younger generation and those who will come after us will not be as good here as the life we have lead. We may appreciate the spirit of some of the individuals we meet, but the path forward in The Unwinding is a thing largely uncertain and unknown. The picture is of a captive national government controlled by broken and corrupt financial institutions. Readers of The Unwinding are likely to conclude that those institutions in their present state will not be the source of answers. The Obama administration is faulted for putting Wall Street operatives in charge of the recovery, for not prosecuting vigorously those involved in the fraud that led to the collapse, and for accepting measures for the re-regulation of banks and financial institutions that do not go far enough and are not likely to be effective.

The art and achievement of The Unwinding may be in itself an example of the innovation we need in order to find our way out of the woods. Packer has created in The Unwinding a new literary form; it’s hard to think of another book like it. In its ambition to represent the experience of ordinary Americans, it most resembles Studs Terkel’s marvelous oral histories told by individuals speaking about their world in books like Hard Times, Working, and the Good War. But Packer’s book attempts to cast a wider net than those books, presents more context, and is more contemporary. Rather than entertaining direct speech, he tells the narrative mostly in his own voice while often assuming his subject’s perspective. The hardest thing to record for posterity, the most elusive obligation of history it seems, is to recount how people actually thought and felt about the experiences that were happening to them at a given moment in time. The “inner” history of a time, the zeitgeist of an era, is one that we perforce must reconstruct from the art of the period: novels, film, television, and other cultural mediums where its essence seems to linger just behind the forms. We won’t find it in the headlines. It never seems to be there in the present moment, as events unfold, it seems to be something we recognize and affirm as true only through a backward glance. But Packer has created here a new form of social inquiry and a new way of expression, one that transcends the limits of traditional history, journalism, and fictive genres to say something pressing, and contemporary, and something that we feel is real and true. It is what we have been thinking, and thinking we were thinking it alone. We may disagree with Packer about its origins, and have differing ideas about the ways and prospects for its remediation, but it is an apprehension he has dared to show we share in common. He has given it here a communal voice. It is the feeling of our time, and that knowledge is where we must begin.

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