Kevin Hartnett is a regular contributor to The Millions.
2008 was a year in which the country was looking for a story, and the same impulse directed my reading. On the campaign trail “narrative” was the analytic frame of choice. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy failed because she could never establish one. John McCain’s failed in part because the story that lent itself most directly to his biography – war hero, country-first corruption buster – was not what America was looking for. In Barack Obama, though, voters found the perfect confluence of his biographic arc and our hopes for our own national narrative arc. We wanted to be the country that matched his story, and by electing him president we established a momentous symbiosis between the rise of a man and the resurrection of a country.
The Bush years were depressing in many ways. Worse though for me, than the acute pain of any specific policy, or the sense of alienation from half the country, was the feeling of narrative disruption. The themes we’d always held to be true about our country – that we are meritocratic, virtuous, and ascendant – fell apart like loose nuts and bolts dropping from a moving car. We were not who we thought we were, or at least we were not that country anymore, and in place of a strong narrative direction, a cynical equivalence took hold. If we were not virtuous, at least we would not be duped. I found that I was often as disoriented personally as the country was as a whole.
My favorite book of 2008 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. It was not necessarily the best book I read this year but it was, start to finish, the most moving ride. The novel begins in the gentile tranquility of post-colonial Nigeria and ends amidst the barren wasteland of a civil war. Adichie loses touch with her characters somewhat along the way, but for its depiction of the precariousness of human life, her book is among the most vivid I have ever read.
Its failure to establish a convincing narrative was the main reason that I dissented from 2008 favorite Netherland. The novel is about the post-9/11 dislocation of cosmopolitan Dutch banker Hans van der Broek, suddenly alone in New York after his wife decamps to London with their young son. Hans floats through an ethereally drawn New York and at one point a woman who creates photo albums for a living says to him, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which he replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” It is a pregnant point, but also one that leads to the ultimate limitations of Joseph O’Neill’s novel. A metaphor, no matter how lushly and beautifully drawn, is no substitute for the real thing.
My other favorite books of 2008 are all from the canon. I revisited Rabbit, Run and found that the book had improved considerably since I first read it in high school. Even then I could not help but notice Updike’s virtuosity with words, but this time around I took the most joy in the many, sparkling moments when Rabbit’s character, so perfectly rendered, seems almost to poke through the page. Elsewhere, Levin’s angst in Anna Karenina, which I read back in February, is still with me, and I don’t expect to soon forget the dramatic reckoning in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
My only reading regret for 2008 is that there was not more of it, which leads me into the new year excited to read more and with a list that is already longer than the hours I know I’ll have. I take such optimism, particularly as it concerns the book, to be a good thing.