The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
This intimate history of the unravelling of the American Dream both fascinates and agitates
Faber and Faber
Because Packer never offers a clear explanation or account of the unwinding – much of what he has to say is compressed into a two-page preface – we are left without standards to judge the varying responses to it. Consider one of Packer’s minor characters, a political activist named Karen Jaroch. Swept up in Tea Party orthodoxy, Jaroch worked tirelessly to defeat a light-rail project in Florida that would have created jobs, modernised a failing infrastructure and revitalised a blighted urban centre. In his portrait of Jaroch, we can read Packer as saying that in times of upheaval different persons will craft different strategies for muddling through, that it is not for the author to judge which is superior. And yet if the unwinding is, as Packer elsewhere suggests, the result of the deregulatory zeal that scuttled Glass-Steagall, then this style of Tea Party politics deserves a sharp critique, as does Thiel’s unreconstructed libertarianism.
Ultimately, The Unwinding is less a fully digested historical account than a vital document of the times. The reader ends the book sensing that, like his four protagonists, Packer is engaged in a struggle to make sense of a phenomenon that he neither entirely comprehends nor holds the key to mastering. The book’s great achievement lies not in its diagnosis or answers, but in its creative, sensitive portraits of ordinary people summoned to live through the challenges of our age.
Lawrence Douglas is the James JGrosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College in the US. His most recent book, The Vices, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, 2011.