Things Fall Apart: In ‘The Unwinding,’ George Packer Aims for Dos Passos, Comes Up Sub-Gladwell

George Packer.

George Packer.

Around the turn of page 266 of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, when I was about to be late for my day job, I had an unusually vivid daydream. I was at some literary event significant enough to draw A-list bylines outside the known skirt-chasing demographic, flailing past the hour mark of the world’s most comically Sartre-esque conversation with its author, the New Yorker writer George Packer.

Vainly (in the dream) I kept blaming myself: for my being overly misanthropic and/or overly magnanimous, insufficiently lucid and yet insufficiently drunk, for wearing heels; then finally and belatedly for having skipped the Prologue of Mr. Packer’s book, which crams more dealbreakingly masturbatory declarations into The Unwinding’s first 400 words than Ezra Klein commits across all of his platforms in an entire day:

-”No one can say when the unwinding began.”
-”The unwinding is nothing new.”
-”The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted.”
-”There have been unwindings every generation or two.”
-”Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways, and at some point the country—always the same country—crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.”

When a hack is willing to submit the above sort of flatulence to his highbrow publishing house editors, there is really no telling what he might inflict upon an underemployed younger woman in the presence of an open bar; the unwinding of such an encounter can seem in the moment almost as mysterious and impenetrable as Mr. Packer apparently finds American institutional decay…

But then: a game changer! Malcolm Gladwell appears, stone cold sober; the flight home from keynoting the annual Grupo Salinas Ciudad de las Ideas Thinkers’ Forum was delayed.

“I’m still not sure what you mean by ‘the unwinding,’ Packster, but you actually can pin down when most trends ‘began’ if you study them analytically. I wrote a book about this, in fact; although I was admittedly less interested in the moment big trends actually began—which is typically random—than the inflection point at which they take on that self-perpetuating aura of inexorability that denotes ‘critical mass’ because, you know, I wanted to sell books…”

In Mr. Packer’s defense, his latest is not a book that seems designed to sell. Stylistically it is no 50 Shades of Grey, with the exception of nine two-page sections culled from a random assortment of headlines, pull quotes and song lyrics from a given year of recent history, in a “device” Mr. Packer borrowed from John Dos Passos but which the reader will recognize from Twitter. Content-wise it’s a sustained onslaught of misery, depression, radiation, chemo, cost-cutting, paradise paving, ponzi scheming, union avoidance, pharma lobbying, bank lobbying, astroturf lobbying, etc. It is punctuated by what passes for brain activity among the oblivious plutocrats “critics inevitably accuse” of reaping the spoils of this Real American rot, namely the billionaire cartoon Randian Peter Thiel. Mr. Thiel’s magnitude of assaultive boringness is matched only by the space Mr. Packer lavishes on his every dinner party declaration/interior design decision/childhood freaking memory.

In summary: depressing, depressing, depressing, despicable, depressing, annoying, depressing; repeat 8x. No one’s optioning this movie, much less broadcasting the wisdom of the $11.04 ebook purchase to his friends and followers. There are no hackneyed but memorable conclusions, actionable investment ideas, unified self improvement strategies or misc. “takeaways” lending it social media currency–because there are no generalizations/conclusions/ideas/takeaways, period.

Ten years ago I might have been conned into finding Mr. Packer’s narrative “restraint” to be, if not quite admirable, at least aspirational along the lines of a Condé Nast contract. Five years ago I would probably just have considered it dated—which is to say, still an outgrowth of a fundamentally aesthetic sensibility that just happened to imbue most intellectual publishing. But at some point over the past few years the understanding crystallized among a small but critical mass of my generation that the industrial output of the nation’s reigning prose cartel has at its very essence mendacity. This essence is mostly obscured in The Unwinding by liberal quantities of the highest quality verisimilitude the Condé Nast travel/transcribing budget can buy, which only heightens the unnerving sensation that accompanies the occasional detour into full-on lying, like the one Packer parenthetically takes in a mini chapter on Bob Rubin:

(Citigroup, the world’s largest financial services company, had been created the year before from the merger of Citicorp and Travelers, a deal that would not have survived under Glass Steagall, but Glass Steagall no longer existed, though [Robert] Rubin had nothing directly to do with its repeal and no one could justifiably accuse him of being paid back handsomely by Citigroup, though critics inevitably did.)

Seriously, dude? With apologies to Mr. Dos Passos, an abridged Nexis highlight reel from April 1998:

BANKING ON FINANCIAL REVOLUTION: TRAVELERS-CITICORP MERGER IS CURRENTLY ILLEGAL, BUT…
Citicorp and Travelers Group are gambling that they can use their political muscle and the sheer weight of the marketplace to break down the longstanding barriers…Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman, and Robert Rubin, treasury secretary, gave their blessing. Finally, the night before the deal was announced to the markets, Weill and Reed telephoned President Clinton.

The subtler deceit at the heart of all this is the notion that Mr. Packer is, as his publicists’ obligatory superlative “of his generation” sentences insist, a “journalist.” Check that prologue again: does it sound like the opening line of a writer with much experience running out to collect the proverbial five Ws for the late edition? Virtually every member of the vast menagerie populating The Unwinding–an articulate, informed mess of activists, journalists and disillusioned corruptionists play starring roles—has been profoundly changed by specific events of the sort that not long ago were made real by the newspapers that covered them. But in scrapbooking all their testimonials without ever even indirectly connecting one fate with another’s, or effect with cause, The Unwinding commits something like the opposite of journalism, the literary embodiment of the status quo. On some level this is Mr. Packer’s point: rudderless, disconnected America needs a rudderless, disoriented book. Whatever; he’s a hack.

Add Mr. Gladwell and one of his winsome epidemiologists to this deathscape, however, and you’ve got a dangerous book. Whatever Faustian arrangements propelled him to his own gig over there, Mr. Gladwell at least wrote some basic pattern recognition privileges into his contract when he left his job as a Washington Post reporter to become The New Yorker’s resident consumer behavior expert.

A literal epidemic that surfaces as an unacknowledged subplot of The Unwinding, for example, is prescription painkiller addiction. Two of the book’s four main human characters suffer from, inter alia, parents who have become hopeless junkies since their doctors prescribed oxycodone for some chronic pain or another. The fifth main character is the city of Tampa, Fl, where one secondary character nearly dies from a painkiller overdose and yet another, Matt Weidner, happens to have worked as one of the state’s leading painkiller lobbyists before getting creeped out of lobbying altogether in 2001:

The moment of truth came with the handshake, when Weidner would lock eyes with the state rep and pull the envelope stuffed with checks from his pocket, and the state rep would palm it, feel its thickness, determine how much time Weidner had to explain why it was important to defeat a law requiring patients to visit a doctor every time they refilled their hydrocodone prescription because moms wouldn’t be able to get cough syrup for their kids—then Weidner would be cut off midsentence, time to move on. Over time these events made him physically sick. He would leave the room thinking, “I want to get into an honest profession, like the fucking practice of law.”

Prescription painkiller consumption and overdose deaths have both increased more than tenfold since then. In Florida, the heroin industry has been decimated over the same period by the hundreds of barely-legal stripmall “pain clinics” that annually draw hundreds of thousands of narcotics tourists to the state thanks to the strenuous check writing efforts of Mr. Weidner’s successors in the Tallahassee pain pill lobby. If you weren’t aware of this—and Mr. Packer doesn’t mention it—you’d probably just assume Mr. Weidner was being his well-intentioned though “hysterical” crank self. The nature of the seven years war with the shadowy Mortgage Electronic Registration System that transformed this former Boy Scout from a partisan Republican who “devoutly believed in God and country” to an anti-bank crusader with “apocalyptic views” about America is barely explored.

“There’s a Peruvian economist named Hernando de Soto who wrote this book The Mystery of Capital that explains how public records of property ownership are the bedrock of the whole capitalist system,” Mr. Weidner explained a couple weeks ago when I called him. Essentially, MERS “threw this centuries-old tradition out the door” and replaced it with nothing. “But no judge wants to be the one who actually acknowledges this reality.”

Appropriately, Mr. De Soto is, like so many modern public intellectuals, a longtime right wing think tank shill whose ideas have been primarily financed by/circulated into the consensusphere to advance the cause of the very banksters who concocted MERS. But The Mystery of Capital was published in 2000, when Mr. Weidner was still a Republican opiate lobbyist and Mr. Packer was a middling novelist who had just published a second memoir. (The first memoir covered a stint in the Peace Corps, the second observed the death of “liberalism” through his family history and includes such insights as: “The cause of organized labor has not turned out to be the cause of humanity.”) Today Mr. De Soto is dismissed as an “alarmist” for the blasphemous realities he’s publicized since discovering MERS and Mr. Packer belongs to the thriving population of forgettable “liberals” who propagandized in favor of liberating Iraq and against the “cri de coeur; stylish, media-distracted” memepunk fad that, as Mr. Packer concluded in last month’s New Yorker, “in the end” Occupy Wall Street “turned out” to be.

There’s a sentence on page 363 of The Unwinding, deliberately signifying I am pretty sure nothing, wherein a woman shows up at Zuccotti Park “day after day” to silently hold up a copy of Confidence Men, Ron Suskind’s nauseating 2011 account of the zombie bank lobby’s flawless occupation of the Obama White House. Mr. Packer has made cursory name-dropping references to the book in the New Yorker on multiple occasions, but his version of the past three and thirty years’ (non)events is so immaculately unsullied by those of his more linearly-inclined contemporaries that it’s hard to imagine he read past Suskind’s index. The most radical text Mr. Packer appears to have consumed is The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, the contents of which (largely stripped of their historical context) are liberally scattered throughout The Unwinding in an expansion of a profile Mr. Packer published in October of its author, the former lobbyist Jeff Connaughton.

The week that story ran, Mr. Connaughton came to town and we had dinner with an investigative journalist who is a mutual friend. “Was there anything in that piece that wasn’t in his book?” he asked incredulously when we were alone. I listed a few comically unimportant new details and agreed it had struck me as almost implausibly lazy. What we’d all missed in hindsight was the subtle but total pasteurizing effect of the presence of a New Yorker narrator in a room, the “coördinated” attack on the senses that transpires when the death of the empire is reduced to the Talk of the Town…No, what I’d really forgotten was all the magazine hacks I was a research assistant for in college before I landed a newspaper gig: the legion of writers so fundamentally incurious they literally outsource their Googling to the interns.

Those are the people who still make a decent living in this business. Them and Mr. Gladwell, whose forthcoming book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants the Connaughtons and Weidners and out of work Occupiers might as well pre-order.

editorial@observer.com