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]
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories