The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013)
If the quality of Hollywood fare is taken as a fair reading of the nation’s state of mind, then maybe there is meaning in how pervasive the corporate blockbuster model has become: all or nothing, boom or bust, like a desperate gambler deep in the hole and betting his last thread of clothing on the success of this one prospect and no other—the whole time denying there is any gamble at all.
Go Big or Go Home is the setting the dial of modern U.S.A. is stuck on. Only, as more and more people arrive in population centers whose rents rise as more and more people arrive (city as blockbuster), home, for many, fades into fiction—which makes real fiction, the kind we read or watch or listen to, more and more of an adult necessity, a bastion to fill the absence where a home would be. Go Big or Go Big might be the more apt banner for the age. For those who can’t hack it, there’s always Kafka.
Superman meant a lot to me as a kid. My father had a talent for drawing, a degree in architecture, and an enthusiasm for the comic books he and his older brother grew up reading. Before I knew how to read myself, a hardcover containing a decade-by-decade anthology of Superman comics was the first I took off his shelf. Its pages alternated between color and black-and-white, and although the words looked indecipherable, what I found was an embodiment of American heroism, tales that, in the range of their illustrators’ styles and abilities, seemed artfully imprecise, rumors surrounding a legend whose being, like a Greek god’s, was too big to be contained on the page. Probably the only phrase I knew with respect to Superman, and one I repeated tirelessly, pointing to ask my father if that is what was written there went, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” The suggestion being that what most people first recognize about Superman is that they have mistaken Superman for something else.
Although wildly beyond my ability to verbalize at the time, those panels gave proof to an American pride, a belief in our ingenuity and know-how, an infinite capacity for setting things right. We had the wherewithal to surprise and amaze. We were champions of surprise and amazement. My Superman was mainstream America personified. This is what I felt linked to while turning those pages—communion with a force as fast-moving and mighty as the Mississippi River, the great world beyond the walls of my parents’ suburban home.
The movie that Zack Snyder has made: Can a blockbuster awaken a country to a recognition of the excluded middle, the somewhere that lies between Go Big and Go Big? Is there even such a place anymore? (Our president is a communist revolutionary or a betrayer of the one liberal good, and no other judgment is possible.)
Aggressively unpretentious. Crashingly disjointed. In moments, beautiful-looking. Misleadingly advertised. Leaden with a fleet of corporate sponsorship, a Spanish Armada of ad dollars. Schlocktacular.
The first half of Man of Steel’s two-stage climatic sequence seems to have been imagined by a parent watching a child pit a Superman doll against a vacuum cleaner. And that is, in a real way, what this movie does and is about: an idol of yesteryear versus the pulverizing constraints of the modern summer action blockbuster, a brand of vacuum cleaner unto itself.
It’s thunderously loud and mercilessly dogged and makes a pulp of nuance, critics write, even as Superman does battle with a giant alien machine that is thunderously loud and mercilessly dogged and makes a pulp of every unique city feature. So that finally, Laurence Fishburne, a famous actor, doing his interpretation of Daily Planet Editor-in-Chief, Perry White, extends a hand to encaged reporter Jenny, played by Rebecca Buller, whose career trajectory both as a Daily Planet employee Jenny and Hollywood actress Buller is anything but certain in this age of all or nothing, boom or bust, wider and wider tracts of flattened middle lying between two extremes.
The shadow of the giant pulverizer passes over them both and the expression on White’s face reads, “We’re not going to make it.” Two non-vital characters like us who, not incidentally, have received zero development out of deference for the movie’s relentless momentum, and what’s amazing is that there is nearly an equivalence between them, the two actors, one this moment in the movie makes you see clearly. Famous Fishburne and relative unknown Buller both play severely limited roles. Beyond the veil of their performed expressions, there lies only the raw facts of celebrity and a script that didn’t have time for the parts they were given.
Snyder’s Superman is a Superman who owes as much to John Carpenter’s The Thing as to the 1950s TV show starring George Reeves. On the surface, Man of Steel looks great. More than a little pulpy, sure. But is there a director out there who invests more exactingly in the appearance of the fantastic, with the possible exception of James Cameron? The commercials and posters were beautifully realized, iconic even: the sublime isolation of the hero as a blurred streak across a dark sky like a searcher sifting a Google haystack for a needle of needed data. Based on early trailers, critics might have expected a meditative movie in the vein of Terrence Malick—critics, at least, unfamiliar with Snyder’s work. Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer teamed up in writing Man of Steel; their scripts for the Dark Knight trilogy featured numerous meditative moments amid the mayhem. But only two scenes of Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s genetic father, are necessary to loose Snyder’s sucker-punch: the frenetic, no-time-for-questions pacing, the flying Avatar dinosaurs, the revved–up whine of space blasters. This is pop culture pastiche, a pedal-to-the-metal enactment of Jonathan Lethem’s definitive essay “The Ecstasy of Influence.”
In Snyder’s Man of Steel, Kal-El, a baby shepherded away from a dystopian pod harvest out of The Matrix, does battle with villains whose appearance seems a cross between Matrix chic and the designs of Ridley Scott’s recent Prometheus. Michael Shannon’s gleefully scene–chewing General Zod enters the frame by toasting to a crisp a member of the aesthetically superior panel that governs doomed Krypton. Snyder’s Zod is a hack nonpareil with the governing council as a stand-in for sensitive critics who mistake overt complexity, elegant transitions, and an elevated tone for meaningful movie-making.
What is it exactly that Snyder, Nolan, Goyer & Co. have to show us about the state of mainstream U.S.A.? Something definitely has happened since the Superman starring Christopher Reeve premiered in 1978.
Our addiction to celebrity, and the pervasive blockbuster model enabling celebrity might be the signature feature of our time. It is the wake of this addiction across the continent that is of immediate concern here in the U.S.A. Few recent books are better at capturing that wake than George Packer’s The Unwinding.
Both the principal and supporting characters of The Unwinding are Americans whose lives have been cast in their own words and set in a greater context. Analogous to Studs Turkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) but with a supple narrative arc or Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) but with less hyperkinetic pacing, The Unwinding synthesizes whispers of many trending titles of recent years—Thomas Frank’s What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010), David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010), George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context (2007), Todd Gitlin’s Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (2012), to name a few—while dramatizing what they do not: what each might have to do with the other. This is, after all, the mission the most vital novels have fulfilled historically, and, curiously, like connective tissue, what a thriving middle class also does: keeps it level.
Seen from Google Earth, the U.S.A. is a landmass whose curves and wiggles are reassuringly familiar, that shape an imposition of order on what is, after all, only land, only water, only planet. Alone at a computer, much as the programmers who designed the software that runs the computer spend hours alone, a viewer’s experience is not that different, in certain respects, from reading a book: generative solitude begetting generative solitude.
What has become widely available is the experience of soaring alone through the sky or zipping down on a specific street without any real inkling of what the life of the community is like behind the surface of things. The word itself, community, seems almost a fantastical construct when advancing from one Google Street View frame to the next, seasons visibly altering with every virtual step, so that the leaves on the trees which appeared green from the corner are yellow farther down the block, green again farther on and gone at the next intersection, fallen without a trace.
For all its transfixing qualities, the patchwork of Google Earth’s eternal present begs for a filament of stories. Language rushes to fill this vacuum between our most amazing conceptual models of the planet and our lives as they flow from one sunrise to the next. And books, for better or worse, are the guardians of the language we speak, the border between the names we give things and the vibrancy of life capable of shaking off an assigned meaning. Think of Encyclopedia Britannica on the one hand and The Rolling Stones on the other; the small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and the desire to escape that small town, to live somewhere else, to do something else, to become someone else. This tension, writ large, goes a long way in accounting for the diminishment of Main Street, U.S.A., and it is exactly the transformation in the lives of U.S. citizens that Packer traces from the 1978 release of Superman to the present of Snyder’s Man of Steel.
The Unwinding does what great American novels have done historically, which is to tell a story of momentous scope. Equal air is given to the libertarian views of tech billionaire Peter Thiel and Senatorial aide Jeff Connaughton’s efforts at passing regulatory legislation aimed at tempering Wall Street excess. The collapse of industry in Tammy Thomas’s Youngstown, Ohio—steel, most prominently—is given the same consideration as the manic expansion of suburban Tampa, Florida. Packer’s approach makes manifest “the lattice” that Dave Eggers’s grief-propelled, irony-soaked quest for earnestness A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius pined after, the same that a website like Facebook expresses literally. There are any number of conclusions a reader of The Unwinding might draw, none of them loud, none of them obvious.
Those on the freewheeling coasts may think they know the best way forward and those in the tight-knit south may feel they hold the spiritual high ground, but the U.S.A. cannot do what the U.S.A. can do without the coasts and the South and the Heartland and Rocky Mountain country all signing on. Widespread environmental innovation cannot take root on a meaningful scale without embrace by states that lean Republican. In his effort to make biodiesel a legitimate mainstream choice, Dean Price,* the grandson of a North Carolina tobacco farmer, must overcome the inertia he encounters in pioneering new ideas. Once upon a time, this was a country where innovation did not reside solely with the people who design our laptops.
The Unwinding is a book everyone ought to read. Then read again. But the inclination to call it a masterpiece, a work of indisputable relevance, a vital correction to the direction of American discourse would be so much bluster, exactly the kind of verbiage the blockbuster model demands. So let me just put it this way: you don’t have to read The Unwinding. But if you don’t the loss is all of ours.
“Man of Silicon” wouldn’t sound the same. Even if that is who Zack Snyder’s Superman turns out to be. Like Neo in The Matrix he has a bifurcated identity, two names, neither of his own choosing. He is a boy overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of data available to him. As a man he zooms from one distant locale to the next, like a user of Google Earth, and when a patron at the bar where he works bullies him, Clark Kent hacks his operating system by going outdoors and twisting the tractor-trailer he drives into a pretzel. Clark’s identity as Superman arrives readymade as in the opening sequence of a video game; all he has to do is insert a zip-drive into the game console (a spaceship abandoned in the Arctic centuries ago by Kryptonian colonists) for his persona to appear. Superman has two fathers—one kindly and forgiving about the prospect of his own obsolescence, the other a program with a near-living consciousness, able to walk Superman through various challenges like tech help from the assistance desk on Mount Olympus. Superman travels at obscene speeds and revels in that pleasure. Nothing can catch him. He only wants to be left alone to do his thing. His arrival wreaks enormous destruction on everything he knew before. He shuts down the giant pulverizer. He violates his most cherished tenet to save the lives of a fear-struck American family. He lives almost completely in his own world, an endless mystery to himself and the cause of all the story’s machinations (represented, usually, by actual machines). The people in the world he shares, those who presumably suffer in great numbers from the devastation that follows him, are total unknowns, only a shade less developed than the characters played by Fishburne and Buller. Main Street, U.S.A., the place Superman is sworn to protect, is utterly leveled. Zod encourages Clark to think it appropriate that they eradicate the human race given his and Clark’s Kryptonian elite status. Clark/Kal-El disagrees and expresses his disagreement with punches that cause more destruction.
Does this sound monumentally stupid? On the surface, Man of Steel would seem to shout down any attempt at thought. The sound in movie theaters is loud enough to diminish an audience’s ability to hear to sub-normal, much less sub-super, levels. Yet the movie somehow manages to provide sharp commentary on the spectacle of its own apparent stupidity.
What is a superhero, after all, if not the embodiment of the blockbuster, one being elevated above all others, the focus of countless stares? It is strange, isn’t it, that as chosen Hollywood blockbusters reach greater and greater monetary heights, people could feel more and more alienated, more individualistic, more and more doubtful that every word they hear in the media (including the Web and blogs and everything else) is not some kind of lie? The feeling that things can be saved, that something could be done—whether a viewer’s deepest misgiving is how the practice of fracking for natural gas forever poisons reservoir water in American communities, or that the relativists on the coasts have lost all sense of moral compass, producing one outrage after another for consumption by a populace that doesn’t know whom to trust—summer superhero blockbusters ritualize the demand that something must be done, while the public at large goes on feeling increasingly powerless, incapable of clarity, the two or four or however many Americas we are said to have become.
That is what Man of Steel dramatizes: Kal-El, as embodiment of the Silicon Valley, the U.S.A.’s current crowning industry, arrives in old-fashioned Kansas, bringing with him the creative destruction that will ensue. Superman himself is presented as the libertarian ethos incarnate (better, faster, stronger, and totally alone; if things break, they break) but a libertarian ethos encountering as if for the first time a sense of accountability for the community at large.
Art cannot save us. Not Packer’s finely constructed The Unwinding, not Snyder’s Man of Steel—the art it can be said to deploy in service of high-volume commerce. What art can do is reflect back on us a vision of ourselves, and in that reckoning with a sublime canvas, the range of its expanse, we can turn back to the country we live in, the canvas marking the actual contours of this land, the range of the continent’s true expanse. In the end, it turns out, everything depends on us.
J.T. Price's writing has appeared or will soon appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Opium Magazine, Floodwall, the Millions, the Tottenville Review, the Daily Beast and elsewhere.