Originally I had set out to do a write-up of Neil Gaiman’s short novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a book of magic and wonder and British children battling nefarious forces, not unlike Harry Potter or Mary Poppins. But in Gaiman’s book those winning attributes are spun a degree darker, creating a story more akin in mood to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It’s a fantastic tale, and I’d like to be able to describe it beyond simple comparisons, but I’m at a loss to adequately put some of the magical happenings into words. Here’s a quick attempt -
A seven year old boy starts hanging out with a farm girl who is somewhere between eleven and infinity years old. She takes him on a walk to a magical plane of existence where they are confronted by a giant burlap monster (or maybe it was some other form of durable cloth – gabardine, perhaps?). The boy ends up contracting a foot worm from the monster which he brings back to this universe, and wouldn’t you know it, the worm becomes an evil witch that isn’t really a witch – but really was a durable cloth monster – and all heck breaks loose.
I’m sorry if that sounds terrible, because it isn’t.
So instead of going on about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I want to shift gears completely and make mention of George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, a book that seems especially poignant in this current maelstrom of political intransigence. Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and his book takes an investigative look at the pervasive decay of confidence blighting our nation’s most essential institutions. The Unwinding – a contender for the National Book Award – is composed as a series of profiles, each featuring an individual whose personal experience exemplifies the conflicting interests at the intersection of commerce, politics, and community (spoiler: commerce wins).
Packer introduces us to a cross section of folks afflicted by the prevailing socioeconomic forces: a factory worker turned community organizer who lost her job when manufacturing fled the Rust Belt, a farmer and small business owner who tried to embrace the green economy but couldn’t turn a profit with biodiesel, a Tampa-area journalist trying to wade through the blind destruction of sub-prime mortgages. In each of these instances greed and an abdication of accountability destroyed many of the foundational components of community – safety, security, and a sense of self-determinism among the people.
With problems this intractable and systemic, what can be done to save the day? Packer doesn’t provide a clear cut answer, but I think the solution is obvious: magical British children.