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State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey
Friday 12 December 2008
In the depths of the last great depression Washington came to the assistance of struggling authors, funding the Federal Writers Project. Its greatest legacy was the 500-page-a-volume, 50 volumes, state by state, WPA guide to America. Almost 80 years later and here we are again. A new democratic President faces a global economic meltdown and intractable security problems. This time around we have a smaller, leaner literary response to this American moment; just one volume, a private sector publisher and 50 writers on the 50 states. But it is a bold and ambitious response by editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.
I started, because it seemed to make sense, at the beginning of the alphabet with George Packer's family memoir of Alabama. To my pleasure I discovered the lost history of the state's liberalism and populism, alongside Packer's own faltering but beautifully rendered education in the personal politics of race.
The piece sets the tone for almost the whole book – a mix of memoir that holds you and history you didn't know, an open and self-reflective attitude to race and fantastically good writing.
Alaska was calling next, and I would get to Paul Greenberg's account of the salmon industry amongst the Inuit, but for then it was a journey too far and I reverted to the geography of America I have come to know best – the geography of the presidential election. So it was straight to the big four. Jonathan Franzen's interview with New York State herself, by way of her PA, lawyers and geologists, was wry and cutting and wistful. California got the almost hallucinatory epic treatment from William T. Voleman.
Joshua Ferris told a sweet tale of growing up amongst the human debris that washed dishes in Florida diners. Cristina Henriquez gently probes the Texan stereotype to find its deep Latino connections. The tone and technique of this collection are brilliantly varied. Swinging through states solid for Obama there were smartly observed graphics from Joe Sacco on rainy Oregon and Alison Bechtel on kooky Vermont. Dave Eggers playfully, teasingly, makes the case for Illinois as the centre with the swing and bravado of old-time Midwestern boosterists. Phillip Connors quietly but devastatingly demolishes the myths of "Minnesota Nice" while Antony Bourdain serves up his usual big slice of unabashed life in suburban New Jersey; and all point to the range of perspectives that the editors found – those who stayed, those who left, those who are drawn back, and those that never going back.
In the current spirit of bipartisanship, the blue states have got no monopoly on good writing. Joshua Clarke's Louisiana story is poignant and scary and finds him searching for souls with real life Ghostbusters in the flooded lower ninth of New Orleans where many generations of spirits have been dislodged from the swamp. Ken Brockemeir's tale of the bumper sticker war in Arkansas was just hilarious.
Does anything consistent emerge from this raging cacophony of voices? In part what one would expect: that America is both vast and unbelievably diverse in every way and as the pieces by a Ghanaian on Michigan, a Chinese American on Georgia and on Bosnians in Missouri show – the mix isn't finished yet. Yet perhaps the most persistent image in the collection is the spectre of a homogenised landscape, the endless suburbs, strip developments and Wal-Marts and box stores. More darkly, one finds in many pieces, the recognition that corporate America is as rapacious in tearing up the domestic environment as it is the rest of the world; nowhere clearer than in than Jayne Anne Phillips mournful essay on West Virginia where the mining industry is steadily blasting the top of every last mountain in pursuit of coal.
At a micro level the same raging process of economic transformation that reaches every corner of this country is the background to Charles Bock's bitter sweet recollections of growing up Jewish in Nevada, where his folks ran a pawn shop in the shadow of the Golden Nugget in the old downtown, a shadow that eventually killed it. And there's no escape: Benjamin Kunkel's Colorado ends with the mournful reflection that the combination of romantic individualism and unlimited mobility of life in the mountains is utterly unsustainable.
If the new American administration is serious about its cultural diplomacy and it use of soft power, it might want to let the rest of the world in on what America looks like from the inside. From the pages of this book it looks funnier, quirkier, smarter, more fragile but more thoughtful and generous-hearted than most of the world has imagined it recently. The state department could do a lot worse than issue every embassy with a box or two of State to State.
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