Book Review: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer; Part Two: The Frog in the Pot

Coming to the end of a great book is an exhilarating experience tempered only by the fact that the ride is over.  This book, though it is a work of nonfiction, concludes like a novel, with a buildup in a number of themes and stories to…  Not exactly a resolution, because there is no resolution.  The unwinding is still happening.  More and more threads are being exposed all the time like raw nerve endings.

The climax centers around the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Throughout the narrative, as it documents the stories of various Americans from the late seventies to 2012, sociological, political, and economic threads are woven together to emphasize the unwinding.  All the angst and frustration and confusion and rebellion came together as desperate Americans, in the chill weather of late fall 2011, began camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York near the site of the rebuilding of the twin towers.  The book chronicles the heady thrill of those moments, but also the uncertainty, and the uncertainty of the Wall Street protesters mirrors the uncertainty of those who are witnessing the unwinding of America.  In the end, what were they doing it for and what did it accomplish?  It received publicity, yes.  Celebrities and the media put in their appearances, expressed sympathies and affirmed solidarity.  But the protestors refused to meet with or negotiate with government officials, refused to make statements, refused to submit demands.  What was it all for?  We might also ask a similar question about a book such as this.  What good does it do to realize that the system is unraveling before our eyes, that it is geared towards keeping the elite on top and providing them with more wealth while at the same time sucking the life juices out of the poor and middle class?  One of the most chilling, sinister closing scenes, in fact, shows the super-rich meeting together in mansions in Silicon Valley to discuss funding and research for programs in cryogenics, longevity, and immortality.  It is a stark contrast to the despair and struggle to survive and feed themselves many individuals experience throughout the rest of the narrative.  It reminded me of a movie I saw recently called “Elysium”, in which the wealthy live isolated on an orbiting space station hoarding state-of-the-art medical technology while most people live dirt-poor on the rubbish-strewn, polluted, heavily-policed surface of the Earth.

Will a book such as this change anything in a practical sense socially and economically?

That I don’t know and I can’t answer.  All I can do is express what it did for me personally.  It helped bring me out of confusion.  It helped me to realize that I am not alone, that what I am experiencing is shared by millions of others across the vast landscape of America.  You see, I came here a year and a half ago after spending thirty-five years abroad in such diverse places as India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Italy, and Greece.  The United States that I left is the United States of the seventies.  That is the social and economic landscape at the beginning of this book, as everything starts to unravel.  As things gradually, slowly fell apart I was elsewhere.  You know what they say about frogs.  If you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually warm it up, it will contentedly let itself be boiled to death without ever realizing that anything is wrong.  That’s what has been happening to most Americans my age.  As the unwinding has proceeded, as the country has gone to hell right before their eyes, they have sat blissfully and ignorantly by, because the change has been so gradual that they have not noticed that anything was amiss.  Many are waking up now when it is too late and realizing they have been boiled alive.  As for me, however – I jumped into the pot when the water was already scalding hot and I got burned.  It knocked me for a loop, I tell you, as I chronicled in my memoir, “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad”.  I experienced far greater culture shock than I ever thought I would.  And the culture shock did not diminish but went on and on.  I could not reconcile the America I left and the one I returned to.  I had changed, of course, but the country had changed far more.  Its values, such as they were, had been crumbling in my absence.  Not that they had been so shiny and bright before – that’s one reason I had left, because I was not satisfied with things as they were and I wanted international perspective.

So that’s what this book has done for me:  it has helped me put everything in place, to understand what has gone down here in the land of my birth since I left.  Now I understand why I couldn’t adapt.  Nobody can adapt to being tossed into a pot of boiling water.  The only difference is, because I have come in from the outside, I feel the pain more starkly.  I have not yet got anesthetized by proximity to it all.  Come to think of it, I hope that doesn’t happen.  If something is wrong, I would rather be aware of it, even if it hurts, than become inured to it so that I become used to it and no longer notice it.

This is one of those unique books for which there is no parallel, no similarity, no category.  It could have been an incoherent hodgepodge of unrelated detail so easily, but the great lucidity and clean style of the writer prevents that from happening.  At the same time that it illuminates, it entertains.  No higher praise can be given to a work of nonfiction.  It deserves all the awards that have been bestowed upon it.  It truly is a unique, groundbreaking, important work.  I hope it opens up the eyes of the other frogs in the pot so that they wake up, look around, realize the predicament in which they find themselves, and turn down the heat a little.  I wish there was a way we could adjust the temperature to that of a nice, comfortable swimming pool.

And by the way, concerning that international perspective I mentioned earlier:  what I found out is that the rest of the world is not better or worse, only different.  The world is an intricate, complex place, and its diversity, overall, is an asset.  But remember that I returned to the United States because it was better for my sons that I do so.  Despite the unraveling, despite the deep heat of corruption, despite the dissolution and decay, I have hopes that the unwinding will not reveal an empty soullessness but a solid core of the integrity that the country was founded upon that will help us build anew.

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