The Unwinding by George Packer: How America became like Walmart

An impressive piece of work – but not a happy one.

The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America
George Packer
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20

George Packer’s vivid account of the American invasion of Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate, won him prizes and attention when it was published in 2005. The Unwinding is following suit. It is an inner history of the destruction of what Packer aptly describes as the “Roosevelt Republic”, a process that is far from complete, unstoppable by politicians or the public that elects them, and unlikely to be curbed by the financial elite who are its main beneficiaries. The outer history of the great unwinding is a familiar story: the destruction of US industry and the collapse of the industrial towns of the Rust Belt, the collapse of small-town commerce at the hands of Walmart, the rise of a politics dominated by rich donors and the arrival of a new elite of the super-rich of Wall Street and Silicon Valley who measure their success by how many billions they have made.

What makes this an “inner history” is its form. The book is structured by the lives of four characters, three of whom Packer follows all the way from 1978 to 2012: Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio, and a victim of deindustrialisation and a dysfunctional family; Jeff Conaughton, a southerner from Alabama, drawn into politics by the mesmerising (if sometimes plagiarised) rhetoric of Joe Biden; and Dean Price, from the tobacco country of North Carolina, a typical small-store-owner victim of the competitive advantages of big business, but still pursuing utopian dreams of success in the biofuel business. The last is Peter Thiel, the immensely rich and successful creator of PayPal and investor in Facebook, who seems at the age of 45 to be possessed of megalomaniac ambitions and not much idea how to realise them. The conquest of death is his most recent preoccupation.

Recurrent chapters on their successes and failures – Conaughton made his money as a lobbyist in a line of work he would have despised as an idealistic teenager – are surrounded by short set pieces on such heroes and anti-heroes of our time as Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Robert Rubin. And because both the housing boom and bust and the collapse of Lehmann Brothers were features of the first decade of the 2000s, they get chapters of their own, as does the Occupy Wall Street movement. The town of Tampa, Florida, is almost a character in its own right even if, strictly speaking, it is more of a shelter for the hard-luck stories of the victims of the bust, acid portraits of venal politicians and crooked developers and their financial backers, with a little over 20 pages on two heroes of the scandals.

One of these is the journalist Michael Van Sickler, who began by exposing the crimes of the developers and local crooks who profited from the boom in sub-prime mortgages, and bit by bit saw the way the money trail ran all the way back to respectable bodies such as Citibank and HSBC, a connection that struck him shortly before the collapse. The other is a foul-mouthed lawyer, Matthew Weidner, who has been fighting a holy war against the kleptocracy, one foreclosure at a time.

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 Packer is an artful writer; he knows that the unravelling of the Roosevelt Republic is a messy process and wants a literary form that reflects that.

Every so often he presents us with a single page of quotations from a particular year – 1978, 1984, 1998 and so on – culled from politicians, newspapers, broadcast reports. I’m not sure they add much to the book. They hardly need to, because Packer pushes three uncomplicated thoughts, and nails villains big and little, with a deeply engaging passion. 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. This was the achievement of the Roosevelt Republic, which did a strikingly good job of achieving FDR’s “four freedoms”, especially freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The second is that, as a consequence, individuals find themselves on their own, with nothing to rely on but their wits. The new world is Margaret Thatcher’s world: the operating principle is the devil take the hindmost. The third is that America has suffered a moral collapse. It has always been true that financial and political elites can predate on the worse-off, the less educated, the less well connected. Unless they practise self-restraint, the only limit on how much they will take for themselves is the fear that their victims will finally rise up against them. Some time in the late 1970s, the elite took off the shackles of moderation and decided that there was no such thing as enough.

Oddly, two of the characters for whom Packer seems to have the deepest loathing are far removed from Gordon Gecko and his mantra of “Greed is good”. The chapter on Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, is a fairly plain piece of narrative, though the observation that all his life he got a five-dollar haircut from the local barber and never left a tip signals the unfriendly tone. Packer’s conclusion is sobering: “Over the years, America had become like Walmart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.” Meanwhile, “six of the surviving Waltons would have as much money as the bottom 30 per cent of Americans”. Robert Rubin, on the other hand, has never looked like one of the plain, everyday folks Walmart employed and sold to. Harvard, Goldman Sachs, the Treasury, Citigroup are his territory. What enrages Packer is Rubin’s disavowal of responsibility for the meltdown of the financial industry. He taught Goldman Sachs how to profit from risk-taking of a wholly novel sort, he encouraged the deregulation of the industry and he was chair of the executive committee of Citigroup when it loaded up with, it turned out, worthless derivatives. Even Alan Greenspan confessed that he had made mistakes. Rubin not. The Unwinding is an impressive piece of work – but not a happy one.

Alan Ryan is professor of politics at Princeton

A closed-down factory in Waterbury, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear