Vinson Cunningham (Arielle Gray)

For a while there—it’s funny to remember now—many of us felt as though Barack Obama was going to change reality itself with the power of his speeches. They really were, by the standards of latter-day American political oratory, rather good. The man could hold at least two ideas in his head, and in those early years, especially in his first campaign, he sometimes seemed to believe that the rest of us could as well. Perhaps he could mean the country back into shape. 

No wonder that, whatever his failures as a president—the too-small stimulus, the withering of state-level parties, the hands-off relationship with Congress, the refusal to call Republicanism any of the terrible things it is, the starving of Yemen and the strafing of Libya—he gave occasion to so much good writing. (This is one hope of the 2008-era liberal intelligentsia that he really did fulfill.) The best literary works on former president Barack Obama could already easily, and one day probably will, fill a large-ish Library of America volume, perhaps a two-parter. Such a volume would, in my opinion, have to include the first of his autobiographies, Marilynne Robinson’s “Parallel Politics,” Teju Cole’s “A Reader’s War,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Fear of a Black President,” as well as the novel here reviewed, Vinson Cunningham’s Great Expectations. That volume will, if assembled chronologically, move from hope to sourness, as Obama’s era did. 

Among those later, dourer selections, George Blaustein’s superb 2017 essay “The Obama Speeches” should find a place. Blaustein argues that, in effect, Obama’s greatest success was not as our president but as our national narrator: 

Throughout his Presidency, Obama has often been criticized in two ways: either he is sentimental and naive or he is professorial and aloof. He can capture with remarkable empathy the experiences of others and fashion them into a story representing some larger truth. He’s so good at it, in fact, that it comes across as too trusting, as not cunning enough for real politics. On the other hand, he seems distant, prone to haughty abstraction, too airy and erudite for real politics. 

It seems impossible for Obama to be both of these things at once—too nice for politics and yet at an aristocratic remove from it. But, as Blaustein points out, Obama shared this paradoxical combination of traits with the narrators of novels, who “have a similar command over intimacy and distance.” Narrators plead for a character, make us see their very human motivations better than the character might be capable of doing for herself, and yet, at the same time, they can strategically withhold this power: “[A]t key moments, the narrator pulls away.” This pulling away can “read as cold or cruel” because it reminds us of the narrator’s power to decide whether any given character is “a character or a caricature.” I have often thought of Blaustein’s essay as Obama has moved on to be—you guessed it—the narrator of his own judicious, dull documentaries.

Obama is already there, weaving his verbal spell, on the first page of Cunningham’s beautifully written, carefully observed debut novel. It’s 2007, and David Hammond—a young college dropout and part-time father—is listening to Obama’s presidential-campaign announcement. He likens the speech to “John Winthrop making speeches on the ship Arabella”—the old “city on a hill” bit—and wonders whether Obama is “the well-developed melody of which Winthrop was the earliest theme.” 

For a while there—it’s funny to remember now—many of us felt as though Barack Obama was going to change reality itself with the power of his speeches.

The novel has barely begun, and we’ve already clocked one reference to water and sea voyages. The reader’s ears prick up when, at the beginning of the third chapter, David—now, through sheer luck or the providential assistance of a Puritan God, a fundraiser on the candidate’s staff—reminds us what nautical imagery might mean to people whose ancestors never asked to take that dangerous, scurvy-ridden, metaphorically pregnant trip to the American coast. “I once had a teacher,” he remarks, “who insisted that whenever water is mentioned in a black book…we are meant to think of the passage of African slaves over the Atlantic.” For this teacher, water always means Black trauma, even if it’s just a faucet leak. 

Hammond goes on to eviscerate this argument for a couple of very funny pages—he is, as he experiences this reverie, on his way to Martha’s Vineyard to do cushy fundraisers for a future Black president. Not too many pages later, he considers the story of Peter walking on water—our narrator is one of those supposedly lapsed Christians who, in his obsessive and continuing attention to the central narratives of the faith, is more devout than most of the unlapsed. At the chapter’s end, he finds himself thinking of Chappaquiddick. Despite his demurral, he still recognizes that waters can close over a person’s head—for example, the head of a minor aide to a powerful politician. Can Obama, with his words, his victory, and the sheer symbolic power of his eventual triumph, unite the story of Winthrop’s pilgrims with the story of the Middle Passage and achieve dry land for everyone? We already know he didn’t, but David doesn’t yet. Part of the power of this novel is how accurately it recreates that 2008 feeling of not knowing yet. 

David is a likable twenty-first-century Oblomov roused to action by a cause that seems bigger than himself. There are obvious resemblances between himself and his creator. Like Cunningham, the New Yorker’s theater critic, he sees disconcertingly far into things, people, and works of art, far enough to make observations that might be rough for the artist or the person to hear-—yet he is not mean or cynical. Like Cunningham, who is as generous as a critic can be without becoming boring, he sees into things but does not pretend to see through them. He is alert, and records his summations of the things around him in convincing, epigrammatic descriptions. The novel is stuffed with memorable ekphrases: of Jenny Holzer artworks, Renoir paintings, old basketball games, Biblical passages, church services, magic tricks, gestures, postures, skin tones, clothes. At one point the narrator longs for a better, richer critical literature on sex. His girlfriend’s reaction is to feel sorry for him. Shouldn’t some things be beyond language?

David is also, like the candidate he works for, so facile with words that he is at risk of substituting a good phrase for a needed action. He is more aloof and guarded than he seems to realize. We learn of the formative tragedies in his life—the pitchy waters he’s had to cross—only in drips and drabs: a dead, closeted father; a beloved pastor who could not be saved by Pentecostal prayers and tears; a disastrous relationship that left him with a child; a teacher who fell from grace. We hear little of his daughter, as though she were too precious to bring onto the stage of the novel; he seems not to trust his own sharp powers of narration, analysis, and description around this defenseless body entrusted to him. He notes that his own eloquence and interpretive imagination seem to back off around her, to slow their roll a bit. This is an early clue that the novel’s faith in its own—or Obama’s—ability to solve problems through phrase-making is not absolute. The daughter, like Obama himself, is never named in the text. He is “the senator” or “the candidate,” she is “my daughter.” It’s as though they sit at opposite ends of some continuum: on one side, what is more precious even than meaning; on the other, what is made precious by its ability to absorb many contradictory meanings.

Late in the novel, David is caught up in an exceedingly minor campaign-finance scandal—though it’s serious enough to give him a few anxious days. (Even here, he is more or less blameless: he lacks the cynicism to notice what is going on around him until it’s too late for him to be useful.) David finds himself in a church again, missing God, the only being who has ever given him words—the stories of the Bible—that elude his critical intelligence. A few pages later, he witnesses Obama’s victory speech, and finds that he’s grown slightly cold to the candidate to whom he has given some of his freshest years. Obama’s power, he reflects, comes not from a Godlike un-interpretability, but from a re-interpretability so great that it ends in opacity. He symbolizes too many things to too many people. He will not be able to satisfy them all, and he may forget what he himself wanted his candidacy to mean. David Hammond and, perhaps, Vinson Cunningham are too generous to say this, but the new president-elect is at that moment already well on his way to Hollywood, that foundry of narratives and meanings, most of them false. 

Hammond worries about becoming such a symbol to his daughter—a presence who stays meaningful because of all the things that, in his distance and absence, he could mean. Taking a final snapshot of the triumphant president, he seems to walk out of his own restlessly intelligent novel to be with her. The narrator pulls away, but in doing so, he seems neither aloof nor cruel. He has decided to be, in his own right, neither character nor caricature, but person and parent.

Great Expectations
A Novel
Vinson Cunningham
$28 | 272 pp.

Phil Christman is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of Midwest Futures.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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