George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013)
This is a genuine 21st century masterpiece. The comparisons with Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy do not do it a disservice, neither does the suggestion that this wonderful piece of non-fiction and oral history is the closest we’ve had to the “Great American Novel” in some time. Packer uses the life-stories of a range of Americans to show how the institutions and narratives that once held the country together – or at least claimed to, or which people hoped would – have slowly “unwound” since the 1970s. Based on over 100 hours of interviews, it follows Dean Price, “the son of tobacco farmers who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South,” Tammy Thomas, a quiet hero of a woman struggling to keep her job and her kids fed as her once-industrial city collapses around her, Jeff Connaughton, a “Biden guy” who spends his life shuttling between politics and lobbying, Peter Thiel, the son of German conservative Christians who set up Paypal, invests in Facebook and is obsessed with technologies of immortality, and the city of Tampa as the property boom hits its highpoint and recedes. These tales are punctuated with viscerally derisive portraits of celebs like Sam Walton, Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey. What makes the book so remarkable is the ease with which Packer moves between the particular and the general, and how that helps him create incredibly moving portraits of individuals which also show how most of them, as Oliver Burkeman put it in the Guardian, have been “pummelled by the forces of big money.” Packer isn’t just empathetic and able to marshall narrative, though the way he brings all these disparate narratives together briefly at the moment of Occupy Wall Street is masterful. He’s also an incredible writer. Here’s how he describes the point in 2008 when the foreclosure epidemic hit Tampa:
By the thousands and thousands the foreclosures came. They came to Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, to inner-city Tampa and outmost Pasco, to Gulfport and northeast St. Pete. They arrived at houses where three months of mail lay in a pile at the front door, and houses where children were watching Dora the Explorer and adults had stopped answering the phone, and motels with 20 percent occupancy, and obscurely named investment entities with no known street address. they came like visitations from that laconic process server, the angel of death.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
This novel appears simple, organised around a very self-conscious “telling of a story.” But one knows that that effect is precisely intended: the nameless character telling us his life story is by turns calming and unsettling, friendly and threatening. When he refers jokingly to the wallet in his pocket that might be a gun, we don’t know how knowing that joke is, how many bluffs and double-bluffs are going on. This novel is anything but simple, then, and it is a tiny wonder – of narrative control on one level, but also of implication: the reader, like the recipient of the story, is called out for their racial, political and religious assumptions.
the poetry of Audre Lorde
Teaching a poetry course this year allowed me to spend time exploring it in a way I’d never been able to before. I should mention here the work of Muriel Rukeyser, particularly “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” which struck me for its controlled disregard for form and its ear for the street, but Audre Lorde’s poetry is that which stood out the most. Beguiling and confusing, but welcoming in its difficulty, I found myself thinking about language, identity and expression in new ways. I love how she uses spaces within lines to offer numerous simultaneous interpretations and meanings. I’m looking forward to exploring her work more in the new year.