By George Packer.
The Unwinding was an undertaking. I requested it from the library shortly after Trump won on Nov 8th; it was recommended reading by some left-wing news site for understanding what is going on in this country. Then it sat on my desk for a week or two while I finished up Future Sex. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was one of those books I requested on a whim, by some random recommendation, and generally it’s 50/50 whether or not I actually like it. I knew it was nonfiction and about the United States.
When I got to it I was immediately struck by how literary it was. The Unwinding is really a series of stories of people. Some of the people are regular people who we keep going back to, starting with their family history from before WWI and following them through childhood in the mid-1900s and seeing them grow up and into 2015. Some of the people are famous, they get these one chapter character sketches that try to set them in time and cultural trends. The book is chronological, sections representing years, but it does not feel like a history book or even a political book. It feels like a postmodern novel.
Packer follows a woman growing up in ruined old industrial towns and a man from an old farming family, a southern man who goes on to work for Biden in the White House and then a lobbying firm and then back to Congress, many more people from various parts of the country and livelihoods, Packer looks at towns where the steel mills closed, at the housing bubble developing in Tampa, at Occupy Wall Street. It’s a harrowing look at the country — it’s called ‘The Unwinding’ after all — but it’s also incredibly personal and real.
Almost every chapter I came out angry, aware, uncertain: I didn’t really understand the housing bubble, I didn’t really understand Obama, I didn’t really understand steel mills or farming but I got a little bit closer. It struck me that very few people seemed like bad people (perhaps the only exception is Newt Gringrich!) and yet the country unraveled anyway. Still I found glimmers of optimism: the community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio trying to make the city right again after the steel mills left, the rural south entrepreneur championing biofuel, the Washington aide trying to put bankers in jail. There are so many people in the country trying to be the best they can be and do the best they can do. I have to believe we have what it takes.