Oh, what a feeling! When furniture is falling through the ceiling. Abandoned Barber-Colman factory in Rockford, Illinois

Ray had his fingers on the pulse of a deeper loneliness. He seemed to know, in the unintentional way of a fiction writer, that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its very ordinariness, in the late-night trip to the supermarket, the yard sale at the end of the line. He sensed that beneath the surface of life there was nothing to stand on.

– George Packer on Raymond Carver in The Unwinding

Safety net be damned; in the America George Packer describes, there is nothing to catch those who lose their footing. A family in Tampa struggles to pay their bills (including cancer treatment for their daughter), by cobbling together an income from minimum wage work. It’s not just high school dropouts who struggle, though. There are those like Dean Price, a North Carolina man who “bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you’d be happy.” He wasn’t happy, though, and when he tried to seize upon his dream of building a self-sustaining biodiesel business for his community, he ran against skepticism and bureaucracy that defied his strident efforts for years.

While this is the reality for most of Americans, some of whom still live in communities without access to broadband internet, Silicon Valley billionaires strike deals and enrich each other further by the month. Attempt to describe what some of these companies do to merit their millions of dollars worth of seed capital, and you will often find a frustrating dearth of information. Clinkle, which recently raised $25 million in seed money, is a company launched by a 22-year-old. Its flashy website offers little concrete information; the company claims to be developing a revolutionary payment system, but how that might compete with other payment processing companies like PayPal or Square is unclear.

An economy needs creators and workers. One should not be doomed to constantly teeter on the edge for being one and not the other. No, incomes need not be equal across the board. Workers must simply be paid enough such that if they have ideas toward improving their families’ lives or those of others, then they should have enough economic leeway to explore and implement those ideas. Be they WalMart associates and waiters or nonprofit employees and teachers, many employed people can’t afford to take risks these days. They are barraged with advertisements for products that they can just barely afford, and what little money they might have available to save gets put into savings accounts that provide an interest yield lower than the inflation rate. Beneath their labor lies nothingness, the brutal truth being that wealth is squeezing ever more tightly into a shrinking  proportion of American hands. No amount of overtime hours will put you ahead. The New York TImes reports that some minimum wage-earners feel that their work situation is so poor, that they might as well speak out about their miserable employment. Even this is a somewhat of a fantasy, as many residents of fading American towns struggle even to find minimum wage work.

In V, Thomas Pynchon calls decadence “a falling away from what is human,” wherein ugly atrocities and thorough vapidity are masked behind aesthetic beauty and indulgent pleasure. George Packer profiles Alice Waters, her healthy food movement and her blind faith that organic produce will save troubled schoolchildren and their families. Though Packer seems to give Waters credit for her hard work and self-driven success, he finds fault with her efforts to marry social justice to the local, organic food movement. Waters lobbies to have school cafeterias provide more healthful and well-sourced meals, and grows frustrated when her campaign meets resistance. Though perhaps her heart is in the right place, her actions have an air of “Let them eat cake” naiveté. Beautiful, delicious heirloom tomatoes serve only to add a veneer of pleasantry to life in poverty and the ceaseless battle against structural discrimination. The proliferation of affordable luxuries–designer collaborations at Target and meals from scratch at “upscale fast food” chains like Chipotle–give people an illusion that they are doing well even as their status and support systems crumble. Meanwhile the other, ugly side of decadence is the immense financial rewards given to those in today’s golden tech and finance industries.

The harder we work for less pay than we deserve, the more we reinforce a system that siphons wealth steadily upward. It might look like we are doing well, even feel like it sometimes, but as The Unwinding makes clear, most of us aren’t.


I saw the ending of Infinite Jest coming about two-hundred pages before I finished the book. James O. Incandenza appears in the present for the first time in the book, hovering over Don Gately’s hospital bed. There’ s no mistaking who the wraith is, and the preponderance of ten-point vocab words popping in to Gately’s consciousness apropos of nowhere validate that his ghost is real as a fictional ghost has ever been.

There are things we just keep doing in life because we think if we do it, we’ll get some closure. What drives the junky forward? Physical addiction, yes, but there’s also that silent hope that the next high will be the high that will negate the need for other ones. In Joelle’s case, there’s no tiptoeing about it: She’s looking for Too much fun. You’re never going to not be an addict once you become one, so what’s the point in quitting? Why not just die doing what you, if actions really do speak louder than words, really love?

The tennis kids aren’t going to fare much better. After that high pressure Enfield Tennis Academy education, to go anywhere but the Show means they’re just going to be a “former tennis player” in maturity. The ones who do go pro will have to fight to stay there for as long as their muscles and skills support them. There’s always the next match, there’s always the next hit.

Real addiction, real habit lies in that uncanny place outside of what one might feel comfortable calling the self. That’s not just true of drugs. For every psychopathic hedge fund manager, there’s another who will tell you “This is what I do for a living, but it’s not who I really am.”

I want Don Gately to do well. He’s an Andre the Giant type whose strength pigeonholed him. I don’t see any other way to put it, really.

Who is happy? Happiness is investing oneself entirely in the creation of a thing outside of oneself. This thing can be “completed”, is completed upon the moment of its execution, its final entrance into the world. If the self is the site of improvement, happiness will be elusive. Or rather, happiness ought not be tied to the physical elements of the self. The physical wants to approach decay. Perhaps in the fight itself, the practice of the routine without an investment in the physical appearance of the body, one can find happiness. In the completion of a race, one might be happy for a moment. There is no telos for the thinking. Only at the lowest levels of intelligence can one invest all of one’s cognitive energy into a task. If one has a “single-channel” mode of thinking, maybe one can achieve bliss. Mario often seems like this. His pleasure is an extension of his body, latched onto his back with a customized rig. But the ETA boys won’t find that happiness. Why did James O. Incandenza produce films? Maybe the finitude of each filmic project attracted him. But he found that he was not the type who could “finish” a film, and the mode of cartridge distribution didn’t help. In the world of Infinite Jest, the big release doesn’t exist. And for one with so little commercial appeal as Incandenza, that release would never have been high profile enough to have satisfied his longing, anyway.

The suspension of the self into the external product.

Joelle’s beauty which becomes too much.

Avril’s infidelity.

Why did the Mad Stork kill himself?  He saw something beautiful and sought to film the pure in Joelle, or did he? On the back of purity, the most sinister exists. Young Hal ate the fungus. Though he never touched her so, Himself was thought to have trysted with Joelle. The idea of someone approaching such a temptation without succumbing unfathomable. Maybe that was his last tragedy, a triumph after which it was OK to die.