What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies—precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.
We can see the dilemma he faced. Obama signed a contract to write a racial memoir. They were all the rage in those days, but in fact their moment had passed. Even with the distant father and absent mother, the schooling in Indonesia and the remote stepfather, Obama lived a life of relative ease. He moved, however uncomfortably, into one elite institution after another, protected by civil rights laws, surrounded by a popular culture in which the African-American experience has embedded itself ineradicably. As Obama’s best biographer, David Remnick, observed, this wasn’t the stuff of Manchild in the Promised Land; you couldn’t use it to make the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or the Auto-biography of Malcolm X. So Obama moved the drama inside himself, and said he’d found there an experience both singular and universal, and he brought nonexistent friends like Regina and Ray to goose the story along.
He did in effect what so many of us have done with him. He created a fable about an Obama far bigger and more consequential than the unremarkable man at its center. He joins us, haters and idolaters, as we join Huell Howser, looking this way and that, desperately trying to see what isn’t there. Isn’t that something?