Monday, September 1, 2008


I am in the process of just tearing through Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. It lacks the formality and diplomacy of The Audacity of Hope, so I think it gives you a better sesne of Obama as a writer.

His writing is a weird mix of master and novice. His descriptive skill is incredibly compact yet extremely vivid. Rarely does he not come up with the exactly the words and details to draw a picture in the minds eye, and when relating events, every phrase builds towards the scenes point. There is an ambiguity to his writing as well. Barack is much more of a shower than a teller. Scenes are often related, and though he often explains the effect some scenes had on him emotionally, like when Auma tells him about the fate of his father, other scenes receive no discussion and analysis. This actually, can often be aggravating. When A black Reverend tells him that his congregation won't work with Barack's organization because they don't want to work with some jews and Catholic churches, and besides the mayors black and he's friends with him, so why work with them now, You kind of want to know what this scene means, what it signifies of Obama, but he doesn't really say anything particular about it, just leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

On the novice front, Barack seems to have some difficulties maitaining the verisimultude of the memoir genre. The long passages of conversation are fine. You can just assume that he is recalling the broad outline of something that was once said, and he renders the character's voice acutely enough that we can buy that even if these are the exact words they said, they were in tis same voice. Besides this is just a nessesary convention to keep such writing interesting. But he has the tendency, expecially in earlier passages (you can feel him improving as the book goes on) on having the speaker state information that both characters know already, like in comic books with two old foes restate their entire origins to each other while fighting. It pulls you out when you know a character wouldn't say something like that. Also, remembrances prompted by other events are other framed as things he is thinking of at the time. I can accept that the conversations are somewhat the product of invention, because i can beleive you know the outline of it, or at least the gist. But expecting me to buy that you remember not your train of thought from several years ago is just asking to much of me, I think. It's a convention of narrative that I just can't buy as realistic.

Also, there is a fragmentary nature to the narrative, which is somewhat reminiscent of Joyce. The chapters, especially the earlier ones, jump over whole points of experience. To a degree, this is ok, since you can fill in a lot of details yourself. But sometimes it just seems fragmentary. Its hard to connect the anrgy, young, semi-militant black man of his first two years of college relates to the young boy growing up. It's kind of hard to figure how someone who relates to Malcolm X can reconcile that with being raised by entirely by white relations. Sometimes, his showing, not telling approach means he stops even showing. This would be eaiser to deal with, I think, if each of the chapters had a more cohesive whole, some kind of conclusion, but they don't They are more like breaks in the narrative. Cliffhangers. And then the narrative jumps ahead, and you are left wondering what the significance of the last chapter was. If he is going to encapsulate one period in his life, then he needs to give the capsule some sense of completelyness. The book lacks any degree of closure or conclusion. In a sense this is a good approach, because he keep reading, hoping for the various threads to come together by the end, but I am kind of doubting that Barack is going to pull this all together at the end, and make all the chapters retroactively fit into a concrete worldview. It's more like he is just offering up his experiances for perusal.

On that front though, the book is pretty devastating. The depiction of race relations in 1980's Chicago is just about the most depressing comment on the subject I have read. its just an endless series of ethnic rivalries, with all sides working against each other, making it impossible for anything to get better. I hope it's not still like that.

Which brings me to another point. This book is obviously not the work of someone who was planning on eventually running for president, or even really any political office. There's just too many details that people wouldn't want on the record, and no politician would want to be caught leaving such harsh depictions race relations. They certainly wouldn't structure an entire chapter around sitting up at 3 a.m. (heh) after a wild party, drunk and stoned and miserable. Or throw in all this cursing, including passages where he calls people motherfuckers. (There is a great novelty to thinking of the Eloquent Hopemonger saying "motherfucker." Is there an audiobook? Read by him? If so, I NEED it.)

And yet the book also makes me more trusting of him, because the image of him that emerges is very, very familiar. Take this passage:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer.

There wasn't much detail to the idea; I didn't know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn't answer them directly. Instead, I'd pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.

That's what I'll do, I'll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.
Sound familiar? That's Obama writing in 1995, before he ran for public office, about himself in 1983. He all but says "change from the bottom up." And he knows what he is thinking is slightly nuts; I am pretty sure that last sentence is a bit of self-deprecating irony. But he does it anyways. And now here is that guy, years later, running for the presidency, and he is espousing the exact same things. That's stunning. There is a dreamer running for president.