If I thought more clearly and could write better, I'd succinctly explain Frank's success while at the same time articulate why or if I'm justified in nonetheless feeling that Frank's review, while on balance extremely good, is also a bit too dense, maybe simply too long--like this sentence. (In making that particular vague complaint of Frank's review, I feel like the emperor in Amadeus who tells Mozart that his opera has "too many notes.")
Read the review's first paragraph carefully. I didn't.
George Packer’s The Unwinding is a minor masterpiece of the social-disintegration genre—a beautifully written, clinically observed story of the slow-rolling economic transformation that has, over the last 30-odd years, made vast parts of America into a destitute wasteland while lifting a fortunate few to a kind of heaven on earth.
I initially missed three negative connotations in the paragraph. First, since when has "minor" ever been a good thing except perhaps in music or certain medical diagnoses? "Clinically observed" is not necessarily a compliment, and "30-odd years," especially in light of the rest of the review, is Frank's intimation of a complaint he'll later describe: Packer's book is too little, too late, and carries no real new news.
Actually, the earliest hint of Frank's discontent is in the title of the review itself.... "Storybook." I always think of Cinderalla when I hear the word--not the classic tale per se but specifically the Disney movie. It connotes unreality. That's probably not good in a review of content that is outside of sci-fi, fantasy, or magical realism.
The reason why Frank's opening paragraph seemed to me so laudatory when I first read the review--at least until I reach Frank's blatant criticisms of Packer's book later in the review--is in part because he's sympathetic to the plight of the middle class, as Packer is. Frank:
The gradual Appalachification of much of the United States has been a well-known phenomenon for 20 years now; it is not difficult to understand why and how it happened; and yet the ship of state sails serenely on in the same political direction as though nothing had changed.
The Unwinding is a powerful piece of work, a triumph that will last long after the follies of these days have passed away and all the billionaires have entombed themselves in their icy nitro-freezers, waiting for some future civilization that loves billionaires even more than ours to come and thaw them out so they can romp and rule all over again. Reading the book makes you ache for the democracy you love, watch horrified as it dashes itself, out of a mad narcissism, against the walls of the canyon.
But where Frank's writing seems best is in the negative assessments of Packer's work, which comes down to three points, I think, the third of which is less about Packer's book per se and more about the declining value of journalism in general. It's when I reached these in the review that I realized I'd probably been missing signs along the way that Frank was less than wholly pleased.
1) Packer pulls a lot of punches and pretends there's no real cause for anger or a good case to lay blame anywhere for the destruction of the middle class.
2) Packer's style (see #1) is basically a type of pretentiousness and one that will greatly help the book's standing among those who award major book prizes.
3) Why #2 will help Packer's reputation is because that style is non-threatening to elites--but, it might also be noted that Packer's book will make little real difference anyway (and would make little difference regardless of his style); the elites will praise it but...that's about it, given that other and better books on the subject of the middle class that are more muckraking and hard-hitting made no difference either. (I.e., Journalism's increasingly irrelevant; it's dying, really.)
Here are some of the sharper points from Frank:
George Packer has smuggled a work of far-reaching social criticism into the mainstream by means of a thick novelistic smokescreen that has fooled almost everyone into believing they’re in the presence of art.
the author’s own voice is absent from the book.
Two things need to be said about this tsunami of [books about the middle class's great decline (Frank lists around 30 titles). First, that the vast size of it, when compared to the effect that it has had—close to nothing—should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself.... We like to remember the muckraking era because of the amazing real-world transformations journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big futile naught accomplished by our prose.
I think that if I were a writer I'd be a little bit scared of Thomas Frank. I suspect most writers are scared of pretty much all reviewers. A writer could spend years writing a book, but the reviewer has the power to relatively quickly destroy that work either by revealing its low worth or, if he or she chooses to, by creating the book's poor reputation through deliberate misrepresentation or, I suppose, sometimes through misrepresentation born of misunderstanding the reviewed book in the first place.
I'd like to think that it's only a few reviewers who ever do "hatchet job" reviews, but, I've really no idea. Many reviewers are also writers; I'm sure the whole reviewer-writer relationship is a very messy affair.
Regardless, I demonstrate the review's power. As a reader of Frank's review, I now have a very sketchy and limited sense of Packer's book but no intention to ever read it. I'm left not with the book but with the review.