The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

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A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

This year I didn’t read anything obscure and I didn’t read any beloved classics either (Sorry, David Copperfield, let’s try for 2016). I read what everyone else was reading or had recently read because I kept getting seduced by everyone else’s enthusiasm. Not that I minded. I don’t care about your Hamilton (that’s a musical, right?), or your Gilmore Girls reboot (that’s a TV show, right?), but I can get down with some passionate book-love.

At the beginning of the year I read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was a 2013 National Book Award winner. It’s a big, serious nonfiction book, and I try to read at least one big, serious nonfiction book a year so that I can perform better at dinner parties and also win arguments with people’s dads. I’ve always enjoyed Packer’s writing for The New Yorker, but I wasn’t prepared for how moving and informative his book would be. It follows a diverse cross-section of Americans, from a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to crazy-ass Peter Thiel of Twitter (guys, he wants to live forever and is seriously researching his options!) Packer synthesizes these personal, particular narratives into a larger story about our changing, wounded country in the wake of the 2008 recession, and traces how we got here, beholden to lobbyists, big money, and Wall Street. This book slew me. Despite that fact that it’s nearly all narrative, with little analysis, for a few weeks after finishing it, I had a hard time returning to fiction — oh silly dialogue! oh fake people! (I remember the same thing happened after I finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo a couple of years earlier.)

And then I got pregnant, which brought me back to the indelible fact of my body: its hormones, its capacity to feel nauseated and tired and to cry through every interview on Fresh Air. I needed certain books (specifically novels) for this state of affairs. Such as: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it did me in like no other. It made me sob next to my husband and son on a cross country flight until I had a headache, and it reminded me that fiction devastates in a way that nonfiction does not, because it’s only the imagined world that’s able to get inside an inner life. And burrow there.

A Little Life is also the only novel in recent memory that I both loved and hated; I agree with everyone who calls it a masterpiece, and I also agree with fellow staff writer Lydia Kiesling, who in her review calls it a “self-important sort of melodrama.” Regarding the novel’s structure, Lydia remarks: “Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.” I concur. And yet. A novel that puzzles me this much is truly worthy.

In my second trimester, I read and reviewed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

In my third trimester, I read and loved The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the last (and, in my mind, the strongest) of her Neopolitan novels. Midway through the book, I thought, These books are so…female. I feel like…I’m sucking on a tampon. I realize this probably isn’t the most enticing endorsement, but it’s true: never before have I read a series of books that captures so vividly the lived experience of being a woman. Ferrante writes fiction that feels as real as the body I’m in, as real as my family who needs me, as real as my ambitions and my failures. It’s passionate and messy and necessary.

In the final days of my pregnancy, I struggled to find books that complemented my scattered state of mind. The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits’s deceptively artful diary, the entries of which are rearranged so as not to be chronological, reflected and validated my days of anticipation and boredom. The diary’s breezy tone belies the craft of each entry; a few reminded me of Lydia Davis’s best stories, where the profundity sneaks up on you in the final line, having secretly gathered energy by a series of previous associations and matter-of-fact details. One entry, for instance, ends with Julavits recounting what she calls an “irksome” situation where she had to soothe her crying son when she’d rather be doing something else:

I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.

My son is also four. I’ve had this same thought. I was so grateful to have it articulated here, by a talented writer. Sometimes that’s all we require: to see ourselves reflected on the page.

The day after I finished this book, I gave birth to my daughter. May my next year bring as many gifts as this year has.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Bloodletting: On Mark Doten’s ‘The Infernal’

In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this:

Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.

After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.

The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.

So goes the myth of the trauma hero.

Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and — more to the point — those responsible for it.

The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book.

Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world.

The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy.

Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley.

Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq.

Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell.

Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . .

Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . .

And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles…

Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world.

At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why.

Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell.

Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century.[1] Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist.

Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.

[1] A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
6 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
6 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
6 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
6 months

5.
5.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
6 months

6.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
4 months

7.
8.

The Lowland
6 months

8.
10.

Just Kids
3 months

9.


Beautiful Ruins
1 months

10.


The Circle
1 month

 

The first six spots in the March Top Ten are unchanged from February, and only two newcomers — Beautiful Ruins and The Circle — managed to crack this month’s list. Their arrival was made possible by the ascension of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge to the hallowed ground of our Millions Hall of Fame.

It may come as a surprise to faithful Millions readers that this is the first time Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has made our Top Ten. First published in 2012, Walter’s novel has been a mainstay in our Year in Reading series ever since. First came the estimable trio of Emma StraubRoxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum, who by turns referred to the book as “precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted,” “one of my favorite books of the year,” and “especially special.” More recently, Kate Milliken commented on how it seems the entire world has read the book already, and that she was late to the party when she got to it in 2013. Of course, that didn’t stop her from diving in, later confirming what others have said all along: “Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.”

(If you still need more convincing, then know this: the book is on its way to the big screen, too.)

On the other hand, Dave Eggers’s The Circle has hovered outside of the Top Ten ever since Lydia Kiesling identified it as “occup[ying] an awkward place of satire and self-importance.” It wasn’t the most positive review she’s written, but it wasn’t altogether negative, either: “There are noble impulses behind this novel — to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain — and it basically delivers on these fronts.” And if nothing else, Kiesling notes that the book provides a reliable glossary of “awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak,” which should prove useful for anyone hoping to understand the language of blog posts on TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and other sites devoted to the latest digital secretions from Silicon Valley.

Stay tuned next month for the likely graduation of six titles to our Millions Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will surprises emerge? As with March Madness, the only certainty is uncertainty, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Near Misses: Eleanor & Park, Bark: StoriesThe Son, The Unwinding, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines, and The Good Lord Bird. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
5 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
5 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
5 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
5 months

5.
6.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
5 months

6.
5.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
3 months

7.
9.

The Interestings
6 months

8.
8.

The Lowland
5 months

9.
7.

Bleeding Edge
6 months

10.
10.

Just Kids
2 month

 

No new titles were added to this month’s Top Ten, and the four books in the top spots held onto their exact positions from last January. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering the fact that The Goldfinch is everywhere these days, and was also the subject of Claire Cameron’s recent Millions piece, “How to Tweet Like Boris from The Goldfinch.”

Meanwhile, Alice Munro continues to ride her rightfully-deserved wave of post-Nobel Prize publicity, and her Selected Stories held onto her second-place spot in our list as a result. Still, it may behoove some readers to check out Munro’s other works in the coming months, and for guidance in that department, look no further than Ben Dolnick’s classic, “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.” In the event that you’ve exhausted her bibliography, or you’re simply bitten by Maple Fever following Canada’s hockey sweep in the Sochi Olympics, you might also want to check out Michael Bourne’s essential “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Lit.” (The cure for Maple Fever, incidentally, is a serving of Timbits from any Tim Horton’s establishment.)

Another item of interest for avid Top Ten fans is the recent debut of Paper Monument’s Draw it With Your Eyes Closed supplemental website of the same name, which was developed to “expand on the previously published content, allowing a broader range of teachers, students, and artists to access, share, and contribute to the project.”

Rounding out this month’s near misses is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which surely blipped onto some readers’ radars after being nominated for the The L.A. Times Book Prize a few weeks back. That Prize will be awarded on April 11. Ozeki’s novel was also featured prominently in our recent comparison of U.S. Vs. U.K. book covers.

Lastly, I’d like to take this moment to announce that I’ll be taking the Top Ten reins from now on. My hope is that I can use my experience with the Curiosities blog to supplement each month’s list with as much recent news about the books as possible. See you in a few weeks!

Near Misses: The Circle, Eleanor & Park, The Son, The Unwinding, and A Tale for the Time Being. See Also: Last month’s list.

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