Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on George Packer, Melanie Phillips and Neil Gaiman.

The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Just over a decade into the new millennium, seismic shifts that occurred in the space of a generation have created a country of winners and losers, leaving the social contract in pieces.  Packer narrates the story of America over the past three decades, bringing to the task his empathy with people facing difficult challenges.

Alan Ryan, a professor of politics at Princeton University, dissects Packer's account of the WalMart-ization of the United States for the New Statesman. For Ryan, Packer's discursivity grates; "like other books that originate in essays in the New Yorker, The Unwinding sometimes makes you wish that the author would just get on with it and stop providing ever more redundant detail." But the reviewer praises the three central ideas Packer illustates. "The first is that what has 'unwound' is the institutional structure that allowed ordinary individuals to have a moderately prosperous, predictable and stable existence for 30 years after the Second World War."  The second is that "individuals find themselves on their own, with nothing to rely on but their wits" in "Margaret Thatcher’s world," and the third is that "America has suffered a moral collapse." In conclusion Ryan dubs the book "an impressive piece of work — but not a happy one." 

Toby Harnden in the Sunday Times calls The Unwinding  "a gloomy, eloquent and at times intensely moving portrait," which "Mix[es] granular tales of a handful of ordinary Americans with snapshots of the lives of the powerful." While in the Guardian, Sukhev Sandu cautions that Packer "isn't too clear about when The Unwinding took place," and takes the author to task for failing to use his narrative to advocate for change: "Packer's book – so decent, meticulous, concerned – reads like both a shrine to and the embodiment of a form of civics that barely exists in America these days. Is lambent lamentation enough?"

 

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain by Melanie Phillips

This memoir of Melanie Philip's own personal and professional life reflects the seismic changes in British culture and society over a quarter of a century, covering her decades as a news editor, columnist, broadcaster and bestselling author - a period which saw her transformed from darling of the left into icon of 'Middle Britain' and one of the most controversial journalist in the UK.

In her New Statesman review, Helen Lewis points out that Phillips fancies herself "a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers," but in so doing  becomes "that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator." To complain that the Left has made of her a punching bag while digging in her heels about a monolithic leftist media destroying Western Civilization, Lewis says, undermines  attempts at a rational argument, or issues-based debate. But don't read Phillips in frustration, she cautions; instead "read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that."

Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian reflects on Phillips' troubled childhood, saying that in the memoir "the writing is melodramatic, yet the dread feels real." Hinsliff  allows for the emotive content of Phillips' book: "It takes great bravery for a woman too often dismissed as emotional – the 'Mad Mel' of unfair myth – to write like this, and risk handing her critics ammunition. It would be monstrous not to feel both respect for that courage and sympathy." But she finds the conceptual crux of Phillips' complaint problematic: "Yet for all her vivid descriptions of Guardian staff who denounce anyone failing to toe the left-wing line as 'beyond the moral pale', somehow they keep promoting her."

The Independent takes a more gimlet-eyed view of Ms Phillips' literary output, as evidenced by the headline "Phillips launches ‘Brand Melanie’ as she tries to become the darling of the American right." The article's author, Charlie Cooper, asserts that the self-publication of the e-book, as part of her Melanie Phillips Electric Media LLC alongside '"baseball caps, umbrellas and tote bags", is meant to posit her as a brand of punditry for the US market alongside "Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin."

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane represents Gaiman’s return to adult fiction, however the theme of childhood remains a prominent part of this work. The nameless narrator finds himself in Sussex for a funeral and is drawn back into the scenes of his upbringing. On its journey of myth, magic and malevolence, the novel reintroduces the adult reader to the fantastical (and horrifying) experiences of childhood.

In the Express, Jake Kerridge doesn’t hesitate to award The Ocean at the End of the Lane full marks for Gaiman’s “uncanny ability to remind the reader what it felt like to be a child”. Gaiman is “perhaps the writer who comes closest to being the Dahl of his generation” and his latest novel “has a power that defies explanation” which at times wakens “a long-dormant need to find a sofa to hide behind”.

The Observer’s Edward Docx does not feel as effectively drawn into Gaiman’s magical world; he writes, “I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche”. Docx expresses his admiration for “Gaiman’s intelligence and his skill as a writer”, but he feels the demonstration of Gaiman’s talent is not something that “this somewhat laboured 'mythic' story permits”.

In this week's New Statesman (which will appear online Thursday), Alex Hern writes that “Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction”. However, criticism is drawn from the “episodic” narrative, which “feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams”.

A man walks near the abandoned car-manufacturing Packard plant in Detroit; George Packer describes this "new America" in his book 'The Unwinding' [Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum]
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge