Here, journalist and New Yorker writer George Packer explains the power of leaving “I” out of the text in his book The Unwinding. Depending on the subject matter, that may be a goal for my next book. Just let the narrative speak for itself.
Alex Star: Over the course of your career, you’ve written fiction, reportage, memoir and essays. Where does The Unwinding fit in this constellation of genres? And why, in a book defined in part by its unusual form and particular perspective on America, do you never write in the first person?
George Packer: Getting rid of the first person was a drastic thing to do. It was like trying to see if I could hit left-handed. To some extent this book submerges my natural voice. It uses indirection and impersonation. It’s more like a third-person novel (I published two of those in the 1990s) dominated by its characters — especially the obscure ones, but also the famous — whose thoughts and rhythms of speech and diction control the prose. But not completely; my point of view is here, but more implied than stated. And the effect was quite liberating. I got to write sentences I never would have written before, in a way that felt more free.
There was another reason for the change. The Unwinding takes on a huge subject — America since the 1970s — in an idiosyncratic way, moving back and forth chronologically between people and places, longer narratives and short biographical sketches. All of these elements add up to a kind of multi-perspectival history, as it’s lived and spoken and felt by individuals. Where would “I” fit in that? It would make the book too subjective, and its implied argument too obvious, maybe even banal. It would take away from the effect I’m after, like talking in the middle of a movie.