The Chronicler: George Packer’s The Unwinding

Print Friendly

Print Friendly

The chronicler has to use the stories people tell him about themselves, all the little dramas in other people's lives he gets glimpses of without knowing just went before or just what will come after, the fragments of talk he overhears in the subway or on a streetcar, the letter he picks up on the street addressed by one unknown character to another, the words on a scrap of paper found in a trashbasket, the occasional vistas of reality he can pick out of the mechanical diction of a newspaper report.

John Dos Passos1

Reading the reviews of long-form, stylistically innovative reportage in mainstream print media can be a curious business. One quickly learns that when even well-known journalists depart from a more familiar nonfiction genre like biography, narrative history, or memoir, they can find their experiments in form greeted with a mixture of faint praise, puzzlement, or outright hostility. No better example might be found than the reception greeting George Packer's ambitious The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, starting in the spring of 2013. Operating as a panoramic history of the present tense, Packer's book provides a breathtakingly wide-ranging, detailed look at contemporary American economic, cultural and political life by tracking the biographies of four citizensa rural, white entrepreneur; a black community organizer; a Democratic party lobbyist; and a Silicon Valley tech billionairewhile documenting the major trends and calamities of the past few decades: the rise of the Tea Party, the real estate crisis of 2008, Occupy Wall Street, and much more. And at the stylistic level, consciously following the example of John Dos Passos's powerful U.S.A. trilogy from the 1930s, Packer counterpoints these biographical and historical narratives with mash-up collages of contemporary news headlines, late-night TV segments, rap lyrics, and capsule biographies of celebrities, politicians, and corporate leaders: Newt Gingrich, Robert Rubin, Andrew Breitbart, Jay-Z and a half-dozen others.  Packer's book found itself on bestseller and best book lists, eventually earning National Book Critics Circle and National Book awards in nonfiction. And yet, if you leafed through press reviews after The Unwinding's release, you'd discover that the response to Packer's style was much more ambivalenteven dismissivethan these accolades would eventually suggest.

Take, for example, the reaction of David Brooks in The New York Times Book Review. Brooks begins his review, as many a reviewer will, by retelling one of his author's central storylines: in this case, the struggle of a working-class family in Tampa, Florida during the Bush-era credit-default-swap crisis. At first, Brooks acknowledges The Unwinding's debt to Dos Passos as a way of demonstrating that Packer could be a gifted creator of "pure narrative," whatever that is. In Brooks's view, however, this debt to U.S.A. actually works to Packer's disadvantage, distracting Packer from putting his individual stories into an overarching interpretive scheme. The heart of the problem, as Brooks sees it, was the supposedly unsystematic, sentimental, "left-leaning economic populism" underneath The Unwinding's avant-garde techniques. In the Great Depression, Brooks claims, writers like Dos Passos, hoping to "arouse working-class consciousness and protest," had drawn upon the "rigorous intellectual structure" of Marxism to arrive at "an undergirding theory of society." But to Brooks, Packer's story-telling skills were a poor substitute for genuine theoretical rigor and evidence. By the end of his review, Brooks calls The Unwinding merely "anecdotal," adding that it had "no actual sociology, economics or political analysis" at all, andgaspvirtually no hard "data."2

To be sure, Brooks's opening gambit shows that he is hardly above rehashing his author's supposed "anecdotes"well, anecdotally. To a degree, such a response reflects how, at the Times or on PBS, Brooks typically positions himself as the urban liberal's chummy antagonist. However, not everything in Brooks's reaction to The Unwinding was driven by his politics or his elitism. In this essay, I mean to show that Brooks's ideas about the relationship of story and analysis in nonfiction are all too typical of the reviewing trade more generally. Sympathetic to Packer's politics or not, all but a few commentators on The Unwinding preferred to approach a work of nonfiction in terms of its "content," and thus to base their reviews on Packer's prior reputation as a liberal commentator rather than on his work as a novelist and playwright. For example, rather than delving into matters of Packer's literary technique, reviewers typically used his book to expound on contextual parallels between the Great Depression and Great Recession; to point out similarities to U.S.A.'s plot (e.g. remarking on echoes of U.S.A.'s famous crescendo refrain "all right we are two nations" in the "one percent" cries of Occupy Wall Street that Packer captures); or to connect The Unwinding to Packer's alleged disillusionment following the war in Iraq. In other words, because they were reading nonfiction, reviewers assumed Packer's ideological or intellectual commitments made his aesthetic goals all but irrelevant.3

Ultimately, therefore, much more is at stake here than random instances of reductionism or misreading. The Unwinding's reception pointed to default settings in public reviewing that at least partly reflect instincts commonly at work within academic criticism as well. Despite a recent surge in scholarly interest about what has been variously called "literary journalism," "narrative journalism," "long form journalism," or even "slow journalism," criticism devoted to interpreting such workas distinguished from advice about how to write itonly sporadically appears in academic discourse. Unlike the recognition one finds surrounding autobiography, essay writing, memoir, and the adjacent field of "creative nonfiction," one would barely know that narrative journalism could even count as "contemporary literature," much less qualify as germane to discussions of modernism's legacy. Ongoing discussions about narrative journalism are markedly disconnected from each other: some take place within "craft talk" among practitioners, often backed by emerging university storyboards and foundations; others remain within Communications scholarship on news narrative, or within relatively marginal literary and literary-historical studies, which are themselves almost exclusively focused on traditions of social realism or the New Journalism of the long 1970s. Despite a number of incisive studies on Joan Didion, or John Hersey, or William Vollman, analyses of nonfiction that departs from documentary and/or social realist practices tend to be too few and far between. This imbalance, in turn, seems to have left public reviewing free to fall back on common-sense and largely empiricist notions of representation that still dominate the mainstream journalism trade.4

In the case of The Unwinding, these default settings resulted in several layers of misinterpretation. First, even when reviewers did deliberate on Packer's debts to the signature four modes of U.S.A.its continuous storylines that I will call "commoner-chronicles," its famous newsreels, its capsule biographies, and its semiautobiographical Camera Eye prose poemsthe intent and overall result of Packer's stylistic borrowings were usually misconstrued.  Specifically, reviewers tended to confuse Packer's form with the more familiar mode of "epic" narrative, rather than the often-disjunctive, self-reflexive modernist experiment that The Unwinding (like U.S.A.) had been designed to be. But the second, more startling consequence of these blind spots was that reviewers, for all of the contextual parallels they meant to draw, were also not uncommonly wrong on just about every historical count they proposed to muster. For example, take Brooks: Dos Passos had completed his trilogy not enamored with Marxism, but in the throes of his own disillusionment with it; if anything, U.S.A.'s third and final installment, The Big Money (1936), cruelly eviscerates those lonely souls on the left still looking to animate the working class. Finally, by reducing Packer's governing motivation to a shorthand ideological labelthat of a "liberal"reviewers often foreclosed the possibility that his aim was not to reaffirm a default set of ideological premises. In truth, as his earlier writings reveal, Packer had long regarded his indebtedness to the liberal tradition as deeply vexedand the tradition itself as ideologically fragmented, often pulled in different directions by sporadic outbreaks of collective action and individual will. If anything, The Unwinding itself reflects liberalism's fragmented legacy. 5 

Mistake these dimensions of Packer's craft, and much misreading will follow. In all, one of the more incisive and prescient books about our Post45 American scene has been pigeonholed as a soft, left-leaning lament about the decay of what Packer calls the institutional "pillars" of mid-twentieth century American life. What I will show, instead, is that by emulating Dos Passos, Packer draws upon the legacies not of Marxism, but of the aesthetic and intellectual disposition of an important strand of 1930s-style antifascism. By a "strand," I mean that Packer imaginatively calls up neither the internationalist wings of '30s activism, nor those parts of '30s antifascism that, some recent scholars have argued, conjured up a proto-multiculturalist bloc or multi-racial democratic front. Rather, he implicitly hearkens back to those parts focused on emergent, domestic manifestations of fascism in the 1930s, particularly the growing synergies among authoritarian politics, capitalist retrenchment, and jingoistic neopopulism. And in class terms, Packer focuses on the cultivation of both working- and middle-class insecurities by this faux populism, especially as it mobilized "mass" politics and mass-cultural technologies into volatile campaigns of demagoguery and community disruption. In particular, Parker tacitly re-invokes those styles of political and cultural expression that, as Dwight MacDonald put it in the 1930s, often cloaked fascist tendencies in a "Just Folks" vernacular that heralded supposedly "plain, ordinary, one-gallus, shirt-sleeves, grassroots" Americanism, while actually posing threats to civil liberties, workers' rights, and civil debate. Thus, like Dos Passos, famous for tracking American life through Veblen rather than Marx, Packer is especially focused on public speech, voice, and audienceintent on tracing the impact of technological transformation not only on corporate authority, but on the relationships of language and vernacular speech to political power.6 Packer's form, I believe, is what foregrounds his debts to antifascism. In his view, the former pillars of American common life are not merely being eroded, but re-tooled in an angrier, more socially disruptive, and more authoritarian way.

The rub, I think, is that Packer's stylistic experiment both enriches these arguments and, paradoxically, leaves some of them in places harder for his readers to find. His approach to contemporary American life also becomes subject to pitfalls strikingly reminiscent of Dos Passos himself. Repulsed by the darker, dystopian trends of our moment, Packer, like his predecessor, often takes refuge in refrains about American "resilience" and common sense that carry with them exceptionalist and even middlebrow undertones; moreover, the finale of his book, detailing the outlook of the tech innovator Peter Thiel, seems to unconsciously dally with Thiel's libertarianism (thus echoing Dos Passos' eventual trajectory as well), even as The Unwinding would seem designed to discount that philosophy. In all, if these are "liberal" outcomes of Packer's explorations in experimental narrative journalism, they are so only in a very conflicted way. But we can only discern these different strands if we take the time to exploreto try out my own imitation of Dos Passos's signature, modernist compoundings of the American vernacularboth the intent, and some of the unintentional effects, of The Unwinding's storyformargument.

 I

As I've suggested, reviews of The Unwinding evoked expectations about nonfiction narrative that are too often the prevailing common sense in public affairs reviewing and, lamentably, much of the academic-critical field. The most prominent position these days is that literary journalism is, as if by default, a realist mode. It's a mode that, as Mark Kramer famously observed on the Nieman Foundation's Storyboard website, shuttles between specific, detailed scene-setting and moments of narrative framing that (to use a reporter's coinage) "step back" in time or perspective.7 Nonfiction authors, it is said, generally use these rhetorical "step back" moments to shift into argument or broader data, while limiting these elements sufficiently so that major characters remain, as in realist works of fiction, rounded and "fleshed out."8

Under the banner of these expectations, Packer's book, in spite of its prizes, could be found wanting. Even when it was praised, The Unwinding was commonly faulted for too heavily favoring story over argument, for avoiding explicit social and economic theorizing, and thus for making it too hard for readers to infer Packer's own opinions. To some reviewers, Packer also wrote too abstractly about the "forces" surrounding his chronicle-commoners and too often left those forces offstage.9 In large part, these responses suggest that reviewers had in mind something more like the epic form of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth Of Other Suns (2010), which cross-cuts among three individual commoners caught up in the sweep of the Great Migration, and offers many passages rhetorically identifiable as argumentation or data-driven reflections: disputes about the Migration that developed within contemporaneous social science, reflections about the demography of the peoples moving North, asides about jobs and ongoing racial tension, and much more. 10 As I have written elsewhere, successful works of this kind are praised with words like "exhaustive" or "empathetic" or, especially, "seamless," a term used to signal how characters can be connected to a historiographical civic or policy debate without being reduced to stick figuresor so it is said.11 The mode of epic "moves" the reader, quite often, with a sense of shared national history, to be swept up in a trajectory towards the present. Here, the supposedly primary modality of narration actually becomes contingent on the secondary step-backsmuch as, we might imagine, iron filings come to align with the magnetic (or unseen) forces of history. As Hayden White famously observed of this realist mode in classical historical narratives, the driving ideal is to create a story that works as "a simulacrum of the structure and processes of real events" within which readers, albeit tautologically, customarily understand history itself to function.12

Now, were we to read The Unwinding as an epic, it would be fairly easy to unearth Packer's central arguments. Since the 1970s, he tells us, the U.S. has experienced (a) a dramatic unwinding, or destabilizing, again of what he calls the fundamental pillars of social cohesioninstitutions like the major political parties, the military, Congress, the banking industry, media, and more.13 In his rather upbeat Prologue, Packer strives to present this unwinding as an alternatively liberating and destructive process that happens every other generation or so. On the one hand, it releases energy, creates new freedoms, and allows even obscure Americans to define their own destinies; on the other, it creates isolation, impermanence, loss. This particular destabilization, we will subsequently learn, has been fueled by and enabled (b) the runaway excesses of "Big Money" (a phrase itself alluding to Dos Passos), particularly large capitalist entities (e.g. Exxon or Wal-Mart), thus creating (c) widespread social polarization, culture wars between the coasts and the heartland, and the erosion of entrepreneurialism, middle-class home ownership and upward mobility. All of this has been accompanied by (d) the blighting of neighborhoods by crime and poverty, the disappearance of small-store local economies and their traditional "civic core"resulting in "Jane Jacobs's vision of hell," as Packer calls it (198). And the everyday life of the unwound and hollowed out America, in turn, has been filled up instead by (e) an obsessively materialist mass culture that displays self-help, yet at times celebrates inequality.

dospassos Packer

Good so far. And yet, such a summary might suggest that Packer aimed to create an epic much as Wilkerson had, when that was not at all his intent. Rather, as my epigraph means to suggest, the narrative backbone of U.S.A. actually represents a complex experiment with the genre mode better known as the chronicle. To many historians, the mode of the chroniclethe looser, grainy, more dispassionate narration of events over large spans of historical timeis a form thought to have originated at the intersection of journalism and literature. Unlike epic, which typically folds its commoners into large historical forces (e.g. North and South, in the Civil War), the chronicle originally became a means of dispensing with seamlessness in favor of layered, even encyclopedic accretions of the commonplace, or what some have called an "archeology of the present." As Robert Scholes puts it, chronicles typically foreground small events and feelings that may seem "historical" but which are in fact not yet quite History. Moreover, the chronicle is classically associated with liberating the interpreter from the burden of activating such events with retrospective meaning (or hindsight).14 As John Diggins has demonstrated, Dos Passos had actually been interested in the chronicle as a way to avoid the illusion of simple causality or explanation; instead, Diggins writes, the idea was to find a "way of expressing what [Dos Passos] himself [could not] explain." In Dos Passos's hands, as several studies have shown, modernizing the chronicle form also became a complex experiment, as in the work of James Joyce or Sergei Eisenstein, in rethinking characters' interiority, aiming less for realism than for a more improvisational, free-associational pasting of different fragments of experience, snippets of speech, commercial slogans and more into the rendering of everyday consciousness. 15

As it turns out, Packer fully immersed himself in these legacies, as interviews after The Unwinding's release made clear. Along with referring to the absence of novelistic interiority in his design and in U.S.A. itself, he indicated that he was drawn to U.S.A. because it freed him from the primacy of ideological or argumentative cohesion, and drew him more to "burying" himself in his subjects' worldviews and, in particular, their own vernacular. Here, in fact, is one important payoff of The Unwinding's rebuttal to realist expectations. Packer understood Dos Passos's form as having focused on the pre-logical or intuitive dimensions of felt experience.  This approach, Packer has said, meant writing "history as it was felt in people's nerves"attending to the will and emotional ethos behind experience, rather than a set of political ideas (liberal or not) that characters might be asked to articulate or illustrate.16 Moreover, instead of sweeping us up with grand historical events, as epic typically does, we are set down in the grainy, ordinary events that preoccupy our days. Raymond Carver, the subject of The Unwinding's third capsule biography, was also an inspiration for Packer's preferred focus on language, emotional experience, and the archeology of mundane, lived experiencethe idea "that the country's future would be most unnerving in its very ordinariness, in the late-night trip to the supermarket, the yard sale at the end of the line" (74).

Let's start, then, with Packer's own commoner-chronicles. His four chroniclesagain, about failed Piedmont farmer and entrepreneur Dean Price, factory worker and community organizer Tammy Thomas, lobbyist and Democratic Party political staffer Jeff Connaughton, and tech innovator Thielserve as entrees into their respective quadrants of the American experience. Connaughton takes us into the world of Washington lobbying, Wall Street finance, and the slick maneuvers of the centrist Clinton-Biden Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Thomas gives us access to the splintered worlds of race and class in the moment of deindustrializationand with that, into the hollowing out of places like her home city of Youngstown. Dean Price, perhaps Packer's most idiosyncratic character, is a self-educated, Bible-toting, irrepressible individualist, trying to find his way as a convenience store owner and energy entrepreneur in a world of peak oil and big-box stores. Thiel takes us into Silicon Valley, and its ethos of disruptive technological transformation, libertarianism, and consumer pleasure.

Packer's character-array can thus certainly remind us of Dos Passos or Steinbeckor, indeed, many writers of the 1930s. (Edmund Wilson, one remembers, embraced the term "chronicle" as well.) And yet, we also have to confront what is different about The Unwinding: Packer's chronicle-characters, unlike Dos Passos's, are nonfictional. Naturally, Packer still avails himself of the authorial privileges of selection, framing, and interpretation, as writers invariably do. But as David Shields has observed, writers of nonfiction actually do not have the total authority over the verisimilitude, causation, and even the interior lives of their "characters" (if that's even the right word) that novelists do. As Shields writes, precisely because of the journalist's commitment to verifiable fact, literary-journalistic genres occupy a more contractual, negotiated space where the autonomy of one's players, and thus a more limited authority over their life stories, is a given.17 Then there is the matter of Packer's controlling metaphor of "unwinding." Customarily we look for grounded or "rounded" characters, and perhaps a seamless paralleling between plot and subplot. Packer's more diffuse and fragmentary style of chronicle, however, simulates how larger social transformations unwind characters and settings, disrupting the "plots" that individuals plan for themselves. Even the cultural power centers to which they are drawn are in flux.18

For instance, in several important places, the figures in Packer's narratives are depicted as living in a moment where an unwinding has already happened. Thomas's Youngstown, we are told, had already been deindustrialized by the time of her youth; Connaughton's lobbying profession has crossed traditional moral boundaries before he gets there; Newt Gingrich is said to come to power when the old party system was already "obsolete," and so on. Remarkably, Packer even writes that the supposed barrier on Wall Street between commercial and investment banking "had already eroded . . . [was] a fait accompli" well before Congress eviscerated the Glass-Steagall Act with Robert Rubin's blessing (223). Packer's narrative, in other words, often posits its unwindings as a premise of its chronicles. Unlike the force behind a unilateral jeremiad, that premise is usually something more anarchic or disruptive at its core.

For these reasons, it is worth pausing to recognize why any invidious comparison to the supposedly more "systemic" schemata of Marxism proves inapt in Packer's case. Although such formal systems commonly lead us to look for how characters' fates are, in Raymond Williams's classic Marxian explication, determined by their social conditions, Packer's nonfictional commoners often turn out to have both unpredictability and more resiliency.19 As if unmoored from their narrative ground, they seem to spin away from the actual places, and thus the story placements, in which they are put, such as Tampa or Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Or, they spiral away from their given institutional placements, like the military (Colin Powell), or banking (Rubin), or government (Gingrich or Connaughton). Packer's settings thus have the effect not so much of hardwiring his nonfictional characters as repeatedly forcing them to rewire themselves. Farmers morph into entrepreneurs, displaced factory workers and mothers into community organizers, utopian tech prophets into retreating Luddites. Connaughton rebels against his own role in what might seem like a permanent political class; Thomas learns to think beyond race alone, despite a culture that criminalizes her ethnicity and that of her kin; Thiel, while still the libertarian, becomes a critic of the cultural ethos of privatization created by his tech peers, who all come to seem to him "'sort of autistic'" and self-involved (384).  

These reversals of character, setting, and plot development inevitably return us to the business of interiority. As I've suggested, Dos Passos himself had dispensed with psychological depth in favor of collecting the scraps of testimony, speech, and behavior that reflected the penetration, re-scripting, and rearrangement of a nation's inner life. Dos Passos therefore preferred to work not with what we might call "step backs" but, as Brian McHale has argued especially effectively, with forms of free indirect discourse that captured the colloquialisms that his chronicle-commoners used. And which, simultaneously, reflected an exterior perspective from their author. ("He felt stuffy from the movie he killed the afternoon in," Dos Passos writes of one such character, Charley Anderson.)20 In such moments, Dos Passos demonstrates that, as a result of the numbing, mechanized, and even violent forces surrounding his characters, interiority itself may have become flatter or less reflective. In my parenthetical example, the movie stuffs Charley Anderson and even kills his afternoon.

Free indirect discourse can also subtly alter when we turn to journalistic narrative. In the hands of many narrative journalists, this novelistic device functions as an indirect form of attributionwhat has been directly told to the journalist or that which can be reconstructed from other witnesseseven from paraphrased interior thoughts.21 Moreover, free indirect passages in reportage also typically signal the results of what Albert Stone has called "the telling occasion." As Stone puts it, "While a believable singular self stands at the center [of what we read] ... [we are aware that s]omeone else has been and is present, prompting and checking memory, liberatingand limitingimagination. What normally occurs within a single consciousness has here occurred in and between minds."22 There is, in sum, a blurring effect, an overlap, an echo of collaboration that pervades Packer's chronicling of his commoners' reflections. Two of the book's most important witnesses to the unwindingConnaughton (who shared a draft of his Wall Street exposé with Packer) and the Tampa-based journalist Michael Van Sicklermight even be seen as collaborative ghostwriters of Packer's narration. Packer commonly redeploys analytical formulations that such characters originate (e.g. "The Blob," Connaughton's term for the Wall Street-Washington axis [169]) as The Unwinding's own guiding terms.

But this collaboration works at a much deeper level. Typically, The Unwinding intersperses paragraphs of direct and/or indirect quotation that usually begin with past-tense attribution to one of the commoners (e.g. "Connaugton felt"). At first, we might think these attributions signal renderings of interior thought or memories, causing us to wait for "step back" moments we label "George Packer." But on closer examination, Packer leaves traces of the telling occasion I've described above in the implicitly attributed passage. For example, instead of stepping back, Packer will remain within one of his commoners' colloquialisms, even while using the third person: "... [Tammy Thomas] had to remember where all the freaking wires went," we're told (89). Or, Packer will use the direct address "you," as in his description of Thomas's work on the assembly line for General Electric cars, to double as a character's interior monologue: "If you weren't paying attention it would get away from you" (89). Meanwhile, statements seemingly from the political fringes are allowed to resonate with what the narrative's mainline commoners feel in their nerves. In his depiction of Tea Party protests against mass-transit development in Tampa, for instance, Packer quotes a jobless construction worker talking about the "bunch of communist sons of bitches who [just] want to raise taxes" but won't run light rail in areas where he can actually use it (314).  He then explains why he won't apply for the unemployment benefits he's due: "'We have the pursuit of happiness, not the guarantee. I'm tired of both parties not listening to what the people want, and the corruption, the inside deals, the backroom deals. We have to eliminate the political class bit by bit'" (314). While we might logically infer that this is not what George Packer thinks, the statement nevertheless reverberates back against stories he's chronicled earlierfor instance, against what Jeff Connaughton comes to feel about being in such a political class. (Conversely, we're told that Connaughton feels a sneaking sympathy for the Tea Party itself.) A similarly covert exchange takes place with a crusading Tampa lawyer named Matthew Weidner, who voices a litany of woes that might well come out of one of the dystopian novels Packer's characters seem always to be reading. "His mind filled with visions of a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline, abetted by both political parties ... the banks in Gotham leeching the last drops of wealth out of the country, corporations unrestrained by any notion of national interest ... the world drowning in debt" (272). However extreme this vision is, it is also, we might say, merely a Gothic rewrite of some of the social plots The Unwinding itself has already been tracking.

That being said, it is vital to underscore that there is no evidence, at least here, that Packer is putting words in his informants' mouthsbut neither are such testimonies wrenched into novelistic parallelism or seamlessness. On the contrary, we are instead allowed to see the seams between stories and speakers, even as we hear their resonances. Let me demonstrate this effect by juxtaposing two passages from and about Jeff Connaughton and Dean Price, respectively. On the left, the former lobbyist, coming back to Washington, as a senator's speechwriter; on the right, Dean Price, reflecting on the impact of Big Box stores on his plans:

But that had been three decades ago: years in which Washington was captured captured by the money power. [Connaughton] had been captured as well, and until now he hadn't fully grasped how much the "influence industry" . . . had transformed Washington. "When you go back into government, you realize how dramatically asymmetrical it has become with the public interest. Virtually no one walks in your door trying to educate you about the public's argument." He had come to see himself as Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King's Men - tainted and disillusioned by politics ..."Washington changed me," he said. "And if it changed me, it must have changed a lot of other people, too."
There were three thousand lobbyists swarming Capitol Hill, urging Congress not to do anything fundamental about the wreckage the banks had made. Who stood on the other side? An angry but distracted public that didn't know how to use the levers of power ... (290 - 291).

Dean began reading around on the Web and found that when a big-box retailer came into your community, eighty-six cents of every dollar spent there went somewhere else. Very little money stayed home to benefit the people who lived, worked, and shopped there - just like with the local truck stops that kept only a dime on every gallon sold. Even before Wal-Mart showed up, the main streets of Madison and Mayodan were emptying out, the center of economic life moving to the highways where Lowe's and CVS had already arrived. "And if you think about it," Dean said, "the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community. They were the leaders. They were the Little League baseball coaches, they were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to. We lost that." ... Anyway, how many investment bankers and software designers were there around the country? Then think of how many farmers (145).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, it's important to recognize that there are contradictions apparent within and between the two passages. On the left, Connaughton is simultaneously losing control over the levers of power and losing interest in pulling them. But he also exhibits an impossible contradiction between his own populist outbursts ("the money power") and his closing lament about an "angry but distracted public." Price, on the other handshould I say "the right"?voices a neopopulist case, yet cannot (individualist entrepreneur that he is) fully embrace such a platform. Thus the two figures become placeholders for an already unwound set of social relationships: one losing elite power to the other, and the other distrustful of ever acquiring the power that the first one comes to loathe. Again, rather than seamlessness, Packer's storyformargument thus produces something more like an aporia or impasse between his two passages.23

In my final section, I will suggest a phase of The Unwinding where Parker's free-indirect technique, and this courting of contradiction, may well have gone off the rails. Before turning to Packer's finale, however, let's look at the other two modes The Unwinding draws from Dos Passos: its collages of headlines and other mass cultural phrases, and the biographies of celebrities or power brokers interspersed between the commoner-chronicles.

II

Those on alert for the liberal voice supposedly behind The Unwinding were often drawn to its nine headline-collages and ten biography chapters, where Packer's narration seemed more forthright, polemical, even brashmore himself. The irony, however, was that the headlines and biographies where Packer's voice was perhaps at its most experimental and, I think, most visibly drawing on the strand of the antifascist legacy I described earlier. Specifically, the more satirical cast of these sections was partly a result of Packer's attempt to mimic the hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing discourses of celebrities and the powerful, and thusas Dos Passos and others had (one thinks of Orson Welles, or Nathanael West)echoing the new cultural vernaculars that celebrities, advertisers, or political figures had helped to create. Recent scholarly work on Dos Passos specifically can be of considerable help here. For instance, many now think that U.S.A.'s own collage technique (in its newsreels) had been intended not merely to provide a hard, material scaffolding for an epic form, but to create, in the words of Michael Denning, its own "ahistorical serial," a "mass daydream" that focused on consciousness, memory, and cultural amnesia.24 Similarly, we now know that the newsreel or biography modes in U.S.A. had been designed to function, as in Cubist or Futurist painting, as intentionally disjunctive with the commoner-chronicles, demonstrating the fracturing of modern consciousness and everyday experience. Thus, rather than providing a transparent window into history conceived as epic, the form of U.S.A. had been intended to show what was happening to consciousness and language itselfboth to vernacular speech and the linguistic totality generated by word-slingers, slogan makers, and politicians. As it were, the form is designed to breathe in, and then breathe out, a changing nation's fractured modes of explanation and storytelling.

Of course, Packer departed from Dos Passos in places, as well. He did not typically range, for example, into the free-verse, free-associative riffs of U.S.A., which often played with typographical shifts, line breaks, mock versification and those compound words. Gone, too, is the particular technological imprint of the newsreel (e.g. the voiceovers of "THE MARCH OF HISTORY"). Packer was likewise inspired less by modernist poetry or painting than by the mass-cultural arts, especially what Stuart Hall once called the "demotic" neopopulist idiom of the tabloid.25 In his headline-headers, for instance, Packer touches on news items about Tampa's housing market, or announcements of "COUNTRYWIDE BEEFING UP SUBPRIME MORTGAGE LOANS," or dismal clippings about factory evacuations, rising crime, or the celebrity scandals of the moment (137). Packer also uses his headline collages, as Dos Passos did, for a mocking chorus effect. Redeploying the clipping-and-juxtaposition techniques common to newsprint forms, his headlines work to summon up collective auditory and visual registers, reminding us of the eye-catching blare of popular culture, filling us up not only with the content of headlines or with rap lyrics, but with their rhythm and excess: over-the-top catch-phrases by politicians, salacious gossip from the National Inquirer, and screeches from talk radio.

As with U.S.A., too, the governing principle in both modes remained disjunction and juxtaposition. Sarah Palin, for instance, is recalled saying that the "real America" is in its small towns; then Packer pastes in Jon Stewart, quipping that Bin Laden regrets he had apparently attacked the unreal one (217). But beyond offering occasions for such editorializing, one effect of the collage form is to push argument in the direction of non-logical associations rather than direct causation; again like Nathanael West, what is juxtaposed often invites our own mixture of comic disbelief and re-cognition.26 So, for instance, in the headline collages, a snippet about Oprah's weight loss is followed by "A HISTORIC REPUBLICAN TRIUMPH" (107). Or, stories about murder in the inner city by "SHAMEFUL DAWDLING ON RWANDA" (107). Celebrity allure or Wall Street power is put in a comic, upbraiding call-and-response format, grandiosity met by the utter disdain coming from music or the movies. Martha Stewart's rise is sketched in one headline story; then the "Fuck Martha Stewart" soliloquy appears from "Fight Club" (137). The usual targets of these retorts are mainstream or insurgent Republicans, but not always: Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," for example, crashes into Bill Clinton's "The sun is still shining on America" (137). (The art of clipping even appears in events: Joe Biden, for instance, is caught giving a speech in which he plagiarizes wholesale from a British politician.)

Relying on what they knew about Packer, commentators sometimes read the book's biographies as revamped New Yorker profiles. But it is more accurate to say that Packer rewrites the heroic plot and timelines of celebrity self-help genres into mock primers voiced in a journalistic deadpanning of those genres' diction.27 Here, Packer tried to use free indirect discourse in the biography portraits in a way that, he told interviewers at NPR, "mimics [his subjects'] way of talking about themselves ... [including] what they're doing to the language." In other words, Packer attempted to give himself over to his subjects' own ways of speaking, in part to exhibit how they had come not merely to succeed but to model new social vocabularies that explained their success.  Packer has also said, rather pointedly, that he could not use interviews for his biography portraits of celebrities and the powerful ("because there's just too many layers of P.R. between me and them").28 His occasionally nonfactual repurposings of celebrityspeak and tabloid gossip thus come closer, like his headlines, to a technique like pastiche, or, in his terms "mash ups." (Ghost-writing, it seems, turned against the original writer.)

As a result, many of the biography tales are in the spirit of broad-stroke and even slightly fairy-tale-ish mash-ups that overdraw their subjects' emotional states and visionary aspirations. Much like The Big Money's portrait of William Randolph Hearst, entitled "Poor Little Rich Boy," Packer's renderings of Gingrich or Rubin or Walton are turned back into child-like versions of themselves: "Little Newtie" or "Robbie Rubin" or "young Sam" grasping and backbiting as they crawl their way up. In their own memories, these figures cast their earlier selves as Davids overcoming a world of Goliaths, throwing their ambitions into the prevailing machine, if only to break it down. However, Packer's twice-told primers themselves become stories about language and pseudofacticity, barely-factual stories about the recreation of oneself as a social emblem. Indeed, if we are thinking about language as a code, these figures literally become emblems that overcome facts: Oprah is said to be "so big she owned the letter O," while Walton "is so cheap that he kept the sign [of his first store] to as few letters as possible: the new store was called 'Wal-Mart" (57, 102). Jay-Z, whose name puns on letters or initials, is said to have "scour[ed] the dictionary for words to use," but kept "every trace of failure ... hidden" (253, 258). Restaurateur Alice Waters, obsessed with healthy eating, is seen as relentlessly self-promoting, creating a gospel, a "sanctifying power" around the word "organic" (187). She has that "change the world" mixture of libertarianism and consumer-utopianism that is one of Packer's central interests. Gingrich, suitably the subject of the very first biography in The Unwinding, is likewise cast as a word-slinger, a reducer of language to aggressive, anti-deliberative populism, not unlike 1930s versions of talk radio. "Most of all," we are told, Gingrich "liked throwing verbal rocks at established institutions," developing a volley of catch-phrases like "corrupt elite," "the corrupt liberal welfare state," and so on (20).

Through this primary interest in language, Packer explores how the forces created by his figures had become fundamentally disruptivemanifesting neopopulist disdain, anger, and distraction. Such figures took the culturally pervasive sense of injury or marginalization and converted it into powerfor example, Oprah Winfrey's HARPO (literally an inverted branding of her name) or Wal(ton)Mart or the rap empire of Jay-Z. However, as these very examples suggest, there is a second step to The Unwinding's storyformargument about its pillar institutions that many reviewers missed: that Packer's celebrity and power broker figures actually sustained their power by reincorporating such disruption or disdain into their symbolic or iconic meaning. The young Jay-Z (then Shawn Carter), for instance, was a boy run wild, a drug dealer. But about turning to rap, he says, "I saw it as an opening, a way to recreate myself and reimagine my world" (253). And then, as "[t]he mainstream embraced rap," Packer juxtaposes again, "rap copied the mainstream" (257). The point of Packer's attention to language was that these figures had become an unwound culture, in the poetic sense of the phrase, "in themselves." They became, as it were, new institutional pillars. Jay-Z does not merely become a "businessman"; he becomes a "business, man," a bleak synthesis of put-down and re-incorporated power (257). He is "worshipped," Packer writes, "for getting to the top with a big fuck-you and no standing in line, still telling the world why he was dope, doper than you" (258). Oprah, likewise, comes to stand for "[e]mpowerment, entrepreneuriship, the self-made celeb," thus embodying a REPUBLICAN TRIUMPH (59), a headline. ("[E]verything is about imagery," she says [57].)

This attention to iconography and public speech might also suggest something else Packer inherited from the 1930s: the antifascist visions of the day that connected news-production to political speech and demagoguery, as in West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1931), the "Living Newspapers" of the Federal Theatre Project, or Citizen Kane.29 Welles's film, in particular, focuses both on the widespread social feeling of being abandoned or socially demeaned, and on a leader intent upon creating headlines for the sheer pleasure of seeing himself in them.30 The Unwinding likewise worries over the synergy within the faux populism of our day, a media-fueled politics that plays upon fears that social identities of all kinds have become unwound. This anxiety may also suggest why, in narrative terms, Packer's most prominent figure of the future and its disruption, the tech innovator Peter Thiel, receives perhaps the most ambiguous treatment in The Unwinding, especially as it draws to a close.

KaneO_Magazine_cover

 

III

However understandable the tendency to use Packer's liberal reputation to unlock the meaning of The Unwinding, such a reflex is consistent with what I have suggested is reading for realism. An author's personal and/or ideological positions are assumed to be "behind" a text, preceding it rather than having evolved in its making. And yet, the challenge of such an unmasking of Packer's personal views in The Unwinding comes up against one final irony: that he had decided not to employ the fourth major modality of U.S.A., Dos Passos's autobiographical Camera Eye prose-poems. The Unwinding, moreover, not only avoids the first person; to many, it may seem to avoid autobiographical reflection altogether.31 If only for that reason, Packer's exchanges with Silicon Valley billionaire Thiel, especially near the close of the book, bear closer examination. Though Thiel can easily be mistaken for a monochromatic nemesis figure in The Unwinding, his story covertly connects to Packer's own experience growing up in Palo Alto while his parents had both taught at Stanford, also Thiel's alma mater. Examining the portrait of Thiel thus allows us to speculate about how Packer's own experience, consciously and otherwise, might have affected the crafting of The Unwinding, especially its final phases.

Admittedly, with The Unwinding, it can often seem inappropriate to talk about closure at all. The centrifugal energies we saw earlier, generating only social diffusion and polarization, can seem even more pervasive in the book's late phases. There is, for instance, Packer's counterpointing of Tea Party shock troopsdownloading their talking points from the Internet in order to shout down opponents at public meetingsagainst the reporter Van Sickler, the guardian of fact who finds himself seen with contempt by the very people he reports on (314). Or, one might point to the continuing story of Dean Price, who sees Tea-Party-supporting billboards (actually paid for by the Koch Brothers) and thinks only of Nazi Brownshirts (316). Or, one might look at narrative montages involving Occupy Wall Street, which ends up unwound by the NYPD, seen clearing out the movement's campsites (376-380). As I've suggested, such an unwinding patternpolarizing conflict leading only to exile or entropyis common throughout the book. Therefore the more The Unwinding travels out to the streets of protest, or to the margins of politics, the more our expectations of realist closure, which typically direct us to turn to a summarizing "I" of explanation or final reflection, are liable to be frustrated.32

9.12_tea_party_in_DC Day_60_Occupy_Wall_Street_November_15_2011_Shankbone_18

On the other hand, it is interesting how Packer implicitly "comes home" in his engagement with the Silicon Valley figure of Thiel. Depending how you look at him, Thiel can either be the most anomalous figure in the book's narrative design or its most representative. A billionaire thanks to his inventions and investments, Thiel doesn't easily fit the idea of a "commoner" to chronicle. Yet he is not given a biographical section of his own, either, though he possesses many of personality traits evident in the biography primers (regressive, child-like narcissism; grandiose dreams of social leadership; affection for dystopian fantasy, and more).33 Nevertheless, especially in the final phases of the book, Packer allows Thiel to expound more and more. As the inventor spirals away from his tech cohort into idiosyncratic fads like cryogenics, Thiel is given long meditations on social diffusion and historical change that can seem eerily similar to the framework Packer himself has all along been constructing.

In particular, Thiel's views come to resonate with the historical losses that The Unwinding has been tracing. These views are presented, once again, in free indirect discourse. For example, Thiel begins to say, precisely as earlier sections had implied, that it all goes back to 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo: "The seventies was the decade when things started going wrong. A lot of institutions stopped working" (381). Two pages later, Packer picks up the thread of retrospect once more, yetnot using quotation marksonly belatedly signals that he is actually recounting Thiel's point of view rather than his own:

The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was "a net plus, but not a big one" (383).

Even industry leaders like Apple and Twitter seem completely oblivious to anything but the elegance of their designs. As a result, Thiel states:

"We have this messy real world where things are incredibly difficult and broken, and there are crazy politics, and it's hard to get good people elected, the system doesn't quite work. And then there's this alternate virtual world in which there's no stuff, it's all zeros and ones on a computer ..." (384).  

Taking a swipe at the Twitterverse that we are liable to read a bit differently after the election of 2016, he says, "'We wanted flying cars ... instead we got 140 characters'" (384).

Now, if we read these commentaries as produced solely by Thiel's memory, their central arguments can seem contradictory, even self-indictinghardly views supported by Packer himself. After all, throughout the rest of his book, Packer has pilloried the go-for-broke, rage-driven individualism permeating rap or Republican politics or private life. From a conventionally liberal perspective, Thiel is hypocritically nostalgic for a world he has himself helped to unmake. Nevertheless the possibility of Packer's covert identifications cannot be entirely discounted here. For one thing, Thiel's philosophy echoes the journey of John Dos Passos, whose own technocratic enthusiasms played a role in a move towards libertarianism, just as his anti-authoritarian impulses morphed in an even-more exceptionalist view of the American past. (Others in the antifascist cause, recoiling from Nazism and Stalinism, had found themselves re-embracing different strands of classical liberalism to the point of becoming stridently anticommunist.)34 Indeed, this involution of antifascist thinking, always potentially present in the Popular Front as well, might be compared to Packer's own refrain about American individualism and resilience. Little wonder that such ostensibly rival visionsPacker's and Thiel'ssometimes end up sounding so much like each other.35

Another way to say this is that partly as a result of slippages in Packer's free-indirect technique, Thiel's position is rather hopefully transposed, at times, into a left-sounding libertarianism, one that gives voice to the idea that the nation must call upon its traditions of entrepreneurialism, political diversity, and technological ingenuity to build new forms of democratic commonality. Yet one can't help but recognize that Thiel's subsequent alt-right-wing alliances, after all, suggest Packer's first instinct was the better one.36 Moreover, the long-historical view that these two men supposedly share isn't really documented in Packer's book much, at all. Reviewers, as I have said, sometimes complained about Packer's "abstract" or offstage depictions of the forces governing his commoners' lives. But to me, what seems truly absent in The Unwinding is any fuller delineation of the past that Packer, and supposedly Thiel, look back to: how such institutional "pillars" functioned, to whose benefit, with what social consensus supposedly behind them. We might even say that this deeper historical accounting is as absent in The Unwinding as Dos Passos's "Camera Eye" is.

The exception, perhaps, is a brief moment when that Packer's own voice implicitly surfaces, early on in The Unwinding. In a passage quite uncharacteristic of the rest of the book, and without any explicit autobiographical acknowledgement, Packer pauses to describe the world of his childhood: the pre-Silicon valley community of Palo Alto.  It is cast much as a happy valley:

The Valley was egalitarian, educated, and comfortableone of the finest examples of postwar middle-class life in America. More than almost anywhere else, ethnicity and religion and even class tended to bleach out in the golden sunlight. Residential streets around the Valley were lined with modest two-thousand-square-foot midcentury Eichlers built on quarter-acre lots. The average house in Palo Alto cost $125,000. Commerce in downtown Palo Alto consisted of variety stores, sports shops, several movie theaters, and a pizza parlor. Across El Camino Real, the Stanford Shopping Center was dominated by Macy's, Emporium, and Woolworth's; in 1977 Victoria's Secret opened a shop, but there was no Williams-Sonoma or Burberry, no upscale boutiques at all. The parking lot was full of Pintos and Datsuns (121-122).

To be sure, Packer's tone here may have been designed as one of mild amusement, meant to offer a counterpoint both to the hyperaffluence that Thiel's disruptive revolution would create and to the irony of his liberal parents' embourgoisement.37 Yet we might also suspect that this lost valley is very much, for Packer himself, a core memory, even perhaps a larger presence in The Unwinding than he quite lets on. One might see, for example, that this Valley is the negative photoimage of Matthew Weidner's distended, even dystopian Tampa; a contrast to the evacuated landscapes created by Wal-Mart, across the U.S.; a riposte of calm, measured consumption to the twin towers of excess, Washington and Wall Street. That it is Palo Alto also matters: as an offstage portent of change, Stanford University itselfgiven its own power as a institutional driver in the new tech economymight legitimately be seen as an epicenter of the transformation most on Packer's mind. Thus, we might surmise, this valley is one still living in his nerves.

palo_alto_historical

Packer's peek at his past is not without its own contradictions. Those Datsuns, after all, threaten to disrupt the nostalgic vision of a midcentury past of full employment or labor union strength. Many readers might wonder, as well, why the supposed "bleaching" of religious pluralism or ethnicity in the past would have been an altogether good thing, or whether it was really even happening, back then, in California or elsewhere.38 Nevertheless, we might consider how this locus of value, partly reminiscent of post-World War II complacency, may have competed with the more progressive and forward-looking aspects of Packer's imagination, let alone the formal experimentation The Unwinding represents. At its heart, this is a middle-class, civil society ostensibly made possible by the expansion of consumerism, broader educational achievement, and institutional political stabilitya sunny middle-class society based in a prosperity that, without very much evidence, supposedly levels rather than separates. It remains unclear, nevertheless, whether this happier valley would actually have constituted the infrastructure (or pillar) of a liberal society or simply have provided an exhibit of its benefitsor, alas, of its beneficiaries. Indeed, the vision seems, in light of Thiel's disruptions, so very moderate, middle class, and centristso mythically Main Street, one might say, in the fashion one finds, for example, in the work of converted Republicans like Thomas Frank. Or, for that matter, hovering beneath many of the suburban laments of David Brooks.39

Pinto_img

IV

It goes without saying that when it came to Dos Passos's legacy, Packer's was necessarily a selective remembering. One can't know whether Packer would appreciate my own invocation of Dos Passos's libertarianism, or my focus on the antifascist, dystopian strains in The Unwinding rather than its stories of popular resilience and common-man endurance that seem, at times, to echo either the Popular Front or the Saturday Evening Post. ("Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again," Dean Price says, quoting Henry Ford [326]). And after all, the entire thrust of his chronicle of "unwinding" is to suggestagain, unlike epic, which often converges on the nowthe uncertainty of the future. Not surprisingly, in his interviews, Packer often preferred to talk more about his stylistic debts to the 1930s than his political ones.  In my view, however, these things are not so easily separated.  Nevertheless, the 2016 election season caused Packer, among several other liberal and left commentators, to reexamine the contemporary relevance of the "f-word" (fascism) for our national scene. This in itself was something of a turnabout: in the past, many writers of reportage have studiously avoided allusions to fascism, except via a surreptitious comparison to the extreme right-wing nationalism now so resurgent in Europe. It is as if to use the label was to invite the extremism one condemned; not using it, of course, can perpetuate the American exceptionalism within which that extremism has too often been nourished.40

It should also not surprise us that Packer preferred, in his interviews, to talk primarily about the stylistic legacies of the 1930s rather than pegging his prophecies to any political debts. Obviously, these things are not easily separated. Moreover, as I have tried to show, Packer's experiments in free-indirect discourse left some readers wondering where his arguments were; as in The Unwinding's engagement with Peter Thiel, the technique occasionally broached interpretive questions about where, exactly, a reader was supposed to draw the line between Packer and his informants. To offset such risks, other narrative journalists typically choose several safeguards: to signal the location and context of the telling occasion, to limit indirect quotation, or to make their own personaand even their fallibilityvisible in their text.41 Packer instead chose to embed his outside perspective in his subjects' own meditations, as fiction writers commonly do, thus taking free-indirect discourse further than his journalistic peers usually think is viable.

In other ways, it is just as arguable that the problem was not that Packer had so freely borrowed from U.S.A.'s modernist modes but that his borrowings had not gone far enough. To some readers, his headline collages, bound to chronological intervals of major news events, seem to fall short of U.S.A.'s more spontaneous, free-ranging Newsreels. Packer's biography chapters may be more successful in talking about American vernaculars than in mimicking them (especially, I think, in emulating rap). And the absence of any explicit Camera Eye may mean that The Unwinding lacks not only a first person, but also the candor about Packer's own experience that such a device might have passed along. Packer may have felt he had exhausted this autobiographical vein with his prior memoir, Blood of Liberals (2000). But once again, by preferring to elide his own narrative persona, he may haveby seeming detached when he was notplayed into the very expectations of epic realism and interpretive certainty that, in calling upon antifascist aesthetics, he had set out to disrupt.

However, I should resist playing into those expectations myself. For example, an academic interpreter like me often concludes an essay by taking refuge in a conventional "step back" move: we pose as the supposedly more sharp-eyed realist, and thereby disguise our debts to the writer or writers we have critiqued. Moreover, any finale that, as the academic convention goes, asks for a writer to "do more" can unwittingly endorse the idea that a literary work should always render the world whole and, somehow, seamlessly so. This illusion of wholeness ignores what antifascist modernism in Dos Passos's and Packer's hands has told us: that social and technological change can render collective experience fragmentary and disjunctive, with commoners left to feel they are but carbon copies of larger celebrities; that even the interior, personal lives that writers hope to chronicle can become preoccupied (in both senses) with mass dreams, not just of charm and charisma or good looks, but of political disaffection and resentment; that the languages writers use to capture these transformations are not transparent, but shaped and permeated by the designs of ad- and taste-makers, pundits, and political powerbrokers, whose symbols and tag-lines can be designed to divide, polarize, and disrupt as much as they aim to unify. To paraphrase my epigraph from Dos Passos one more time: perhaps the most that any work of narrative journalism can do is gather up scraps and fragments of how we speak or write, work or vote, passively unwind or actively dissent. Armed with these more pragmatic goals for reportage, perhaps we can better learn how the "occasional vistas" of recent history can be turned into a chronicle of the now. And into a broader sense of not just where we've been headed, but where we should be.

 

Christopher P. Wilson is Professor of English and American Studies at Boston College. He is the author, most recently, of Learning to Live with Crime: American Crime Narrative in the Neoconservative Turn (2010). At present, he is completing a student guide and introduction to American narrative journalism, entitled Reading American Reportage.

Many thanks to Richard Fox, whose teaching and friendship informs this essay and much beyond it; to Carlo Rotella, Bill Dow, and Lad Tobin, for continuing conversations about reportage; and to Caren Irr, for her incisive and generous reading. I also had the pleasure of meeting George Packer briefly in 2014, following his lecture as part of the Lowell Humanities series at Boston College. Thanks as well to the editors' anonymous manuscript readers, and to the staff of Post45, especially Palmer Rampell and Anna Shechtman.

Cover image: Photograph by Patrick Wilson, "Unwinding Storm," July, 13, 2015, reused under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

  1. My epigraph is from an apparently undated fragment entitled "Contemporary Chronicles" from the Dos Passos papers at the University of Virginia, discovered by John P. Diggins; see Diggins, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977), 102. []
  2. David Brooks, "The Big Money," review of The Unwinding by George Packer, New York Times Book Review, June 6, 2013. []
  3. Echoing Brooks, the otherwise favorable review of Michael O'Donnell, for example, argues that "Packer offers almost no editorial content ... [i]nstead he tells stories ..."; "The Great Unraveling: Chronicling America's Not-Quite-Decline," Washington Monthly. 45.5-6 (May-June 2013): 56. Meanwhile, the anonymous review in The Economist praised The Unwinding as "a skilled work of narrative reporting" but said it was "fatally incurious about economics." The Economist reviewer observed that "[f]or all Mr. Packer's empathy and anger, [The Unwinding] ends up feeling oddly bloodless." See "So Many Troubles; Modern America," The Economist, July 8, 2013, 85. Meanwhile, Chris Lehmann complained in The Nation that Packer's "fatalistic" account "shuns cogent ideological or political explanations of the causes of our present crisis in favor of a thick narrative description of its symptoms"; see "Great Perturbations," The Nation, September 30, 2013, 33-37. See also Dwight Garner, "A Nation, Its Seams Fraying," review of The Unwinding by George Packer, The New York Times, May 29, 2013; Lewis Jones, "Change and Decay in All Around I See," review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Spectator, July 13, 2013, 39.  For one review that did discuss U.S.A.'s style in a more detailed way, see Craig Fehrman, "The Unwinding," Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2013. []
  4. One thinks of the classic investigations of Phyllis Frus, The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Chris Anderson, Style as Argument (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987); John Schilb, "Deconstructing Didion: Poststructuralist Rhetorical Theory in the Composition Class," in Literary Nonfiction: Criticism, Theory, Pedagogy, ed. Chris Anderson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 262-86. More recently, see the fine forays made by Franny Nudelman in "'Marked for Demolition': Mary McCarthy's Vietnam Journalism," American Literature 85 (2013): 363-387; Caren Irr, "Anti-Capitalism and Anti-Realism in William T. Vollman's Poor People," in Reading Capitalist Realism, eds. Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 177-91; Lad Tobin, "Gay Talese Has a Secret," The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 12 (2010): 135-46; Daniel Worden, "Neoliberal Style: Alex Haley, Hunter S. Thompson, and Countercultures," American Literature 87 (Dec. 2015): 799-823; and Cecelia Aare, "A Narratological Approach to Literary Journalism," Literary Journalism Studies 8 (Spring 2016): 106-139. []
  5. Packer's family memoir, Blood of Liberals, makes this distinction between liberal ideas and will; George Packer, Blood of Liberals (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2000), 396. []
  6. Like other scholarsnotably, Alan M. WaldChristopher Vials highlights the anti-racist strands within U.S. antifascism in the 1930s. Yet Vials also emphasizes how media moguls William Randolph Hearst and Bernarr MacFadden (and radio personalities like Father Coughlin) projected fascist sympathies into the public sphere; moreover, Vials underscores how U.S. antifascism was often focused on mobilizing middle, not working classes, against such threats. See Christopher Vials, Haunted By Hitler: Liberals, the Left and the Fight Against Fascism in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 40-46; Alan M. Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). For a similar examination of liberal antifascist activities not driven solely by the Communist Party, see Daniel Geary, "Carey McWilliams and Antifascism, 1934-1943," Journal of American History 90 (Dec. 2003): 912-934. MacDonald's characterization came in his pamphlet Fascism and the American Scene, originally written as the introduction to the American edition of Daniel Guerin's Fascism and Big Business (1938); Dwight MacDonald, Fascism and the American Scene (New York:  Pioneer Publishers, 1938), 10. []
  7. Mark Kramer, "Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists." Nieman StoryBoard, January 1, 1995. []
  8. For an excellent recent example of this technique, see Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). For more revisionist takes on realism's near-dominance in the nonfiction field, see Gayle Salamon, "Here are the Dogs: Poverty in Theory," differences 21 (2010): 169-77. []
  9. See in particular the reviews of Lehmann and Lelyveld. []
  10. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010). []
  11. See my "Orphans of Our Reading:  The Narrative Journalism of Foster Care," College Literature 44 (Winter 2017): 58-87. []
  12. Hayden White, "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory," History and Theory 23 (Feb. 1984): 3. []
  13. All in-text quotations from The Unwinding are George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). The book's short biography of Colin Powell has a list of such institutions; Packer, 158. []
  14. Charles Marz, "U.S.A: Chronicle and Performance," Modern Fiction Studies 26 (Winter 1980): 398-415; Susana Rotker, The American Chronicles of José Marti (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2000), 47, 59; Robert Scholes, "Heavy Reading: The Monstrous Personal Chronicle as a Genre," in The Crafty Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 104-37. []
  15. Diggins, 103; See also Brian McHale, "Talking U.S.A.: Interpreting Free Indirect Discourse in Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy: Part Two," Degres: Revue de Synthese a Orientation Semiologique (1979), d2-20; and David Seed, Cinematic Fictions: The Impact of Cinema on the American Novel Up to The Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011). []
  16. Compare Packer: "Dos Passos's characters are sort of flat. They don't have very rich inner lives, they are floating along on the surface of big historical events."  Instead, Packer added, "At times it was just bury myself in Dean or Tammy's language." See George Packer, "Unwinding 'The Unwinding,'" interview by Julia Langbein, The Airship. []
  17. David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 132. []
  18. In one moment, for example, Packer suggests that loneliness and loss is typically a premise of a Carver short story, rather than a final result of the action the story unfolds; Packer, The Unwinding, 73. []
  19. "[E]ven though these institutions are collapsing and people do feel they're on their own ... there's a resilience and even an optimism that's kind of remarkable given what's going on around them"; George Packer, "Stories Of Hope Amid America's 'Unwinding," interview by NPR staff, May 19, 2013; Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (New York; London: Verso, 1980), esp. 34. []
  20. John Dos Passos, The Big Money: Volume Three of the U.S.A. Trilogy (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991), 48; compare McHale, "Talking U.S.A.," 12 []
  21. Compare the rationales discussed in David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 537-41, and Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), xiii-xiv. []
  22. Stone, it should be said, is discussing collaborative autobiographies; Albert E. Stone, "Collaboration in Contemporary American Autobiography," Revue Française D'Etudes Américaines 14 (May 1982): 151-65. []
  23. My thinking here has been influenced by Maggie Gordon's discussion of the so-called "Kuleshov effect" as it influenced Eisenstein and others. See Gordon, "Appropriation of Generic Convention: Film as Paradigm in Michael Herr's Dispatches," Literature/Film Quarterly 28 (2000): 23. []
  24. I am indebted both to Denning's reading in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York, London: Verso, 1998), especially his observation that U.S.A. is not an epic (see 199, and note 12 p. 504), and to Caren Irr's reading of U.S.A. as a "darker, more open-ended, and chaotic narrative" whose design reflected Dos Passos's more technocratic drives; Caren Irr, The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada during the 1930s (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), particularly pp. 62-67. Irr's notion of U.S.A.'s style of "collision" might be compared to my reading of "unwindings" in Packer. []
  25. Stuart Hall, "Notes on Deconstructing the 'Popular,'" Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education), 477-87. []
  26. In his interview by Guillermo Riveros, Packer says: "I wanted to do something full of juxtaposition, with connections that aren't made explicit, history as the throughline." "Freedom's Ill-Fortunes," Guernica Magazine, September 16, 2013. []
  27.  Scholars have long noted this deadpan mode in Nathanael West's work.  For critics who connect this effect to West's antifascism, see especially Rita Barnard, who also emphasizes the synergies between West's antifascism and his style, in "'When You Wish Upon a Star': Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West," American Literature 66 (June 1994): 325-351, and William Solomon, Literature, Amusement, and Technology in the Great Depression (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 151-173. []
  28. In the posting of his NPR interview, Packer was slightly misquoted when he identified his mimicry of his characters' speech patterns as what "you might call free and direct [sic] discourse, . . . how, for example, Newt Gingrich invented a vocabulary of political polarization in order to help candidates get elected." []
  29. On Welles's antifascism, see Denning, Cultural Front, 362-402; see also Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 268 ff. []
  30. Compare Denning, Cultural Front, 384-94. []
  31. Prompted to compare this decision to his earlier work as a playwright, Packer responded: "With The Unwinding I decided to squeeze the essayistic impulse out of the book. There's no guidance from a first-person singular. This privileges the voices of the characters and allows for a certain amount of experimentation with structure. In a way, it pushed the book in the direction of drama"; "Interview with George Packer, 2013 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction," by Sallie Tisdale, National Book Foundation. []
  32. See Elizabeth Ermarth's reading of the realist tradition, in Realism and Consensus in the English Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983). []
  33. Some reviewers were thus confused about which of the four Dos Passos modes the Thiel sections represented. Or, to put this point another way, reviewers were unclear whether Packer centered his chronicle on three commoners or, in effect, four (including Thiel); see, for instance, Joseph Lelyveld, "Inside our New America," review of The Unwinding by George Packer, New York Review of Books, June 6, 2013, 27-29. []
  34. Vials demonstrates that the effect of World War II was often to push liberal antifascists towards a more traditional defense of American "freedom" and tolerance; ironically, the emphasis on Germans' or Italians' supposed cultural atavism also accentuated the tendency to see the fight against fascism in nationalist terms, a reframing that could eventually contribute, in the instances of Lewis Corey or Lewis Mumford, to anticommunist stands; Vials, Haunted by Hitler, 85-86. []
  35. Americans these days tend to equate libertarian views with "right"-libertarianism. See Peter Vallentyne and Bas van der Vossen, "Libertarianism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. For my discussion of the relationship of liberalism and libertarianism, I am indebted to G. Gaus, G. and E. Mack, "Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism," in A Handbook of Political Theory, eds. G. Gaus and C. Kukathus (London: Routledge, 2004), 115-129. []
  36. See, for instance, Eliana Johnson, "Donald Trump's 'shadow president' in the Silicon Valley," politico.com, February 26, 2017. []
  37. Compare Packer, Blood of Liberals, 210 []
  38. Near its end, The Unwinding tells us that the similarity between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was that "[n]either was willing to tell Americans they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again"; Packer, The Unwinding, 385. []
  39. Contrast, for instance, my reading to the review of Dwight D. Murphey in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 39 (Spring 2014): 96. For a nearly identical passage to Packer's, see Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004), 44, and compare the laments in David Brooks, The Paradise Suite: Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive (New York: Simon & Schuster 2011); contrast William Finnegan's banning of his own nostalgia for California of a slightly earlier time in Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (New York: Random House, 1998), xvii. []
  40. Packer's term for Trump by 2016 was "celebrity proto-fascist." George Packer, "Head of the Class," The New Yorker, May 16, 2016. For a meditation on her own reluctance to use the word "fascism," see Wendy Brown, "American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization," Political Theory 34:6 (Dec. 2006): 690-714, note 38, p. 714. This vexation might apply, again, to a book Brown cites: Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, which also invokes Dos Passos, or to the reportage of E.J. Dionne in Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatismfrom Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), or that of Jane Mayer, Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman (New York: Pantheon, 2002). By way of contrast to this hesitation, see Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: The Free Press, 2006). []
  41. Consider, again, William Finnegan's reflections: "Omniscience is really not a possibility. My fallibility, my presumptuousness, have to be acknowledged ... The right of the characters in the piece to tell their own stories seems much greater. I feel compelled to show how I am constructing the story, how my opinions are just my opinions, how the people I'm writing about may have different opinions, and how this is all about not simply their lives, but my interactions with them--and their efforts to understand me." As quoted in "William Finnegan," The New New Journalists, ed. Robert Boynton (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 90. []