Review: ‘Fulfillment,’ by Alec MacGillis

Review: ‘Fulfillment,’ by Alec MacGillis

Portraying the phenomenon as a widening urban-rural divide is the simplistic version of a more nuanced and bigger story, MacGillis emphasizes. In 1969, the 30 metropolitan areas with the highest per capita personal income included Detroit, Cleveland, and three other midwestern cities. In 2019, only two midwestern names—Chicago and Minneapolis—appeared on that list, and nearly all the rest were on the coasts. Meanwhile, within the coastal cities that have grown wealthier, the gains have been disturbingly uneven. Rising rents and a lack of affordable housing have left the Seattle area, for example, with the third-biggest population of homeless people in the U.S., after New York City and Los Angeles, according to 2019 data.

These numbers document a stark divergence, but they don’t capture its human dimensions. That is MacGillis’s goal, as he explores what the erosion of power and possibility means for regular people. Internally, Amazon uses the word fulfillment in reference to processing customers’ orders. MacGillis, of course, has another usage in mind: the very American emphasis on the chance to seek satisfaction—a sense of meaning, purpose, and value; a feeling of personal empowerment and communal solidarity—in our labor. No corporation provides a clearer vantage, or more angles, than Amazon does on the strategic choices that have expressly contributed to foiling that quest.

F ulfillment begins in a basement. Hector Torrez (a pseudonym) is an Amazon warehouse employee in Thornton, Colorado, who earns $15.60 an hour moving packages and boxes all night long. When the book opens, he has learned—from co-workers, not the company—that he has been exposed to the coronavirus on the job, and his wife has exiled him downstairs. From Torrez’s basement, MacGillis travels to Seattle and Washington, D.C., where so much of Amazon’s wealth is concentrated, as well as to cities in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that have Amazon to blame, at least indirectly, for their historic decline in fortunes since the ’90s.

In some of MacGillis’s stories, the connection to Amazon is so tenuous as to be almost indiscernible; the characters’ problems seem to arise more from larger forces, such as globalization, gentrification, and the opioid crisis, than from any one corporation’s influence. A young man from small-town Ohio—alienated by his experience in D.C., where he starts college—returns home and enters Democratic politics. After scoring a local success, he runs for Congress, determined that the party not write off his opioid-ravaged, Trump-supporting region, but he fails to drum up more than a couple of union endorsements. A gospel singer who became a cultural force in Seattle during the ’80s watches as her neighbors are pushed out of the city’s historically Black Central District one by one.