Monday, August 19, 2013
It’s fitting that a sequel to John Dos Passos’s renowned USA trilogy is a non-fiction book. Dos Passos’s work is a mix of brilliance and overreach, the newsreel, camera eye, and bio segments read as well as if they were written yesterday, but some of the fictional arcs drag which cannot be said for Packer’s continuation of it. The original trilogy covers the three decades in which America moved from a developing country towards empire, and Packer covers the three decades were America seems to be attempting to reverse this process. I am sure there is a collection of writers and journalists kicking themselves for letting Packer beat them to this idea, but one wonders who else could pull it off. This book I found at a luck day (2 hard to get titles for three weeks) rack at my library, and decided if I was bored once I would return it, needless to say I did not find myself bored for even a minute. His short bio pieces and newsreels are well handled but where succeeds the Dos Passos doesn't cut it anymore is in the key stories, he finds fascinating characters whose transformations and tragedies bring home the broad sweep of his portrait. We get to see the rise of Silicon Valley, the foreclosure crisis (his surreal descriptions of the failed suburban ghost towns of Tampa resembles Ballard more than Dos Passos), tea party movement, the occupy movement (providing great reporting on this showing starkly how Hedge’s and Sacco’s recent book failed in this regard), the scary divisions in our society, and the collapse of our industrial sector. Libertarian computer nerds, conservative movements that destroy infrastructure in their own communities(with money provided by rich industrialists), community organizers, dreamers and con men, billionaires and people left with five dollars after bills for a whole month are among the cast that Packer humanizes in these pages. I am intrigued how this book intersects with Simon Reynold’s Retromania and what many in the science fiction community having been harping about for a while is our mass inability to visualize any kind of a future anymore. I have had many bones to pick with Packer on issues in the past but have always respected him on his thinking even if I find some of his conclusions jarring, here his love for portraying complex characters and for wrestling with his beliefs in regards to the realities of our situation, and his rage at how deeply we have been cheated by the current system all serve to make this a remarkable summary of this nation’s current crisis. I fear the future will require a sequel.