George Packer is a living statement of the phrase “matter-of-fact.” In a talk at the University of Chicago’s International House last Thursday, Packer wore a slate gray button-up with black slacks, topped off with a pair of solid black spectacles. He wasn’t kidding around. A former Peace Corps member and Guggenheim Fellow—and currently a staff writer for the New Yorker—he could easily exude an air of intimidation. But he didn’t. Packer’s most salient quality is his interest in people’s stories and the creativity required to tell them. His most recent book, “The Unwinding,” which he had appeared to discuss, is the most resounding testament yet to his commitment to true, narrative journalism.
“The Unwinding” takes a novelistic approach to the story of the last three decades of American decay. In fact, Packer was so entrenched in relating these events as a “story” that he referred to the people cited in his books as “characters,” though they very definitely exist in real life. Over the course of many months, Packer followed (literally) the lives of a few select members of middle- and working-class America, whose stories comprise most of the narrative. Their experiences typify a set of general trends, among them increasing economic inequality, dwindling demand for labor, and corruption in and lack of access to government. Packer was scathingly critical of Washington throughout the talk, calling it “a place where idealism goes to wither.” He lamented money as the driving force behind the intra-governmental relations that are ultimately “transactional,” and cited the proliferation of the filibuster as a sign that there are no longer any “limits” to this game of transaction.
But despite all the doom and gloom, Packer seemed to believe that writing “The Unwinding” was a hopeful act—he found the individuals he profiled “creatively inspiring,” unwilling to surrender, and determined to make a difference from the bottom up. As he put it, that’s how today’s great progresses will need to be made. Even so, Packer did not produce “The Unwinding” as a policy prescription: when asked for solutions to the problems he featured, he joked, “How should I know, I’m just a fucking writer!” A “fucking writer,” true, but also a storyteller, one who can cultivate empathy and, hopefully, motivate action.