Vinson Cunningham’s Great Expectations Retells the Obama Era

Vinson Cunningham’s debut novel, Great Expectations, follows a staffer working for a magnetic young black senator making a bid for the US presidency. It’s a book about the emptiness of political symbols and the comforts and dangers of blind faith.

Barack Obama speaks at a rally after winning primaries in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 12, 2008. (Bruce Bernstein / NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

In 2007, the New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham was in his early twenties, working as a tutor in Manhattan. These were exciting times for the liberal public sphere: the iPhone, Tumblr, and Nancy Pelosi had just made debuts, the latter as the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. Through luck, or fate, or divine intervention, Cunningham’s tutoring connections drew him into the orbit of a charismatic black senator from Illinois making a bid for the presidency. Working on Barack Obama’s campaign, he called potential donors, collected checks, clutched a clipboard at the entrance to the apartments of the rich and famous — the kind of work that inspires and requires jaded cynicism. Cunningham has lent his own potted biography to the protagonist of his debut novel, Great Expectations. Like its namesake, this is a story about searching for identity, but race, religion, and political disillusionment in early 2000s America take the place of Charles Dickens’s class-inflected Victorian romance.

Great Expectations follows David Hammond, a black man, also in his early twenties, over the eighteen months he spends working for the senator’s campaign. One character jokes about the similarity between his and the name of the artist David Hammons, whose work has dealt ironically with symbols of race and power in the United States (“magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol,” he told the critic Kellie Jones in 1986). Cunningham’s novel, much like Hammons’s art, explores the hollowness and malleability of symbols. At its center is the unnamed senator, referred to throughout as simply “the candidate” but clearly more than inspired by Barack Obama.

When the novel opens, David is a twenty-two-year-old college dropout with a child he didn’t plan for and a whole lot of promise he’s afraid he has squandered. The campaign takes him into a world of BlackBerry phones and sensible heels, cocktail parties thrown by liberals with good tailoring and Park Avenue mansions. He has affairs, takes some drugs, has a brush with financial scandal. This is a bildungsroman for the West Wing generation.

Political machinations provide the skeleton of the novel, but the candidate barely figures. David moves from New York to New Hampshire, Los Angeles to Chicago, making recognizable stops in the months leading up to Obama/the candidate’s 2008 victory. The political world into which he has been thrust acts as the backdrop for a series of diaristic digressions on art, fatherhood, religion, and race. Pair this with the first-glance similarity to the author’s own life, the basis in real world events, and Cunningham’s novel might sound like yet another work of autofiction. But in interviews he has made clear that he rejects the collapse between author, narrator, and protagonist that occurs in the works of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, etc. Diversions from reality seem surface level at first — while Cornel West appears as himself, Ed Koch’s park commissioner Gordon Davis is renamed “Wilson Taylor” — but they are emblematic of the novel’s preoccupation with digging into a symbol to see what, if anything, lies beneath. David observes, “in the end they did treat [the candidate] like a sign, like something whose outward image was intrinsic to its identity.”

Like Cunningham at his age, David wants to be a writer. The people he meets through the campaign, and the spaces they occupy, provide fodder for his various ruminations. At one party in a publisher’s Brooklyn brownstone, he finds himself fixated on a Jenny Holzer artwork, words scrolling over an LED screen. “My interest in the visual arts,” David admits, “often came down to meaning, which, for me, mostly came down to words.” A Renoir painting, a schoolgirl’s drawing, a set of vintage photos from a secondhand market are each subjected to visual analysis, but David doesn’t look for meaning in the artworks themselves. Instead, his thoughts flow from image to his own experience. Renoir was Catholic, David is reminded of his Jesuit middle school; the drawing shows a lonely figure, David feels guilty about his relationship with his daughter; a man in a photo looks like Jean Toomer, David recounts a conversation about the effect the candidate might have on American politics of race.

It’s Beverly, the woman who got him the job in the first place, who points out that when everybody talks about how the candidate would “change race in America” what they mean is “he’ll change white people.” She’s one of several high-powered black professionals with whom David comes into contact in his new world, people who summer in Oak Bluffs or live in Hollywood mansions. Although he is never quite at ease among the big-money types, he watches them closely, “searching for a way to be.” Through David’s detailed observations — of the candidate’s “incredibly erect posture,” for example — we see him creating himself, assembling a collage of people to whom he relates.

The sketches of other characters are sparing, but precise enough that you would recognize them on a crowded subway platform. David’s tutee is “sweet and gangly, with an indecisive almost-Afro, ashy elbows, and a mouth crowded with braces and spit,” while Regina, a campaign-trail fling, is “tall and substantial, with dark, enthusiastic eyes, a negligible forehead, and a low hairline that sprouted handfuls of thick, near-black hair.” Elsewhere, Cunningham’s overreliance on rough-hewn adverbs — an abusive teacher whispers “hotly”; the handle of a steel toast rack gleams “lithely”; light comes “yellowly” from a lamp and “bluely” from open laptops — begins to grate. When a sidewalk is disrupted by “huge lividly fertile tree roots bursting sexually through the concrete,” the prose threatens to buckle under their weight.

But generally, Cunningham’s writing is elegant and evocative. In one passage, he produces the literary equivalent of high-definition television capturing a close-up of a politician’s sweaty pores. Here’s a moment from a sex scene between David and Regina:

She had thin, dry, protrusive lips, which she often pursed in the manner of the Buddha in certain sculptures. Each of my lips was as large as both of hers, and so she suctioned one at a time, drawing cool, inscrutable patterns with her tongue.

Cunningham’s intention is clearly to make us squirm, and he succeeds. But there is also something tender about the detail. When David arrives at her apartment, he observes a landscape of hair-clogged drains, dull razors, and a graveyard of discarded toothbrushes on the lip of the sink that he describes with a reverence usually reserved for religious relics. “I have always felt happy in spaces like these,” he muses, because their inhabitants “constitute a kind of priesthood.”

Religion, sprinkled over nearly every scene of Great Expectations, becomes so familiar that it almost feels inevitable that Regina happens to be getting baptized the day after their tryst. A building on the Upper East Side reminds David of a church, a bookfair talk of Sunday service. The campaign fieldworkers are, “together, John the Baptist, eating their locusts and honey, twigs caught in their dreadlocking hair,” spreading the gospel about Christ the candidate.

One of David’s memories of the church sermons of his youth is of a “constant stream of references, all pointing back to a languid, strolling exposition of the text via current events.” Cunningham — who, like his protagonist, was raised by a Bible study teacher and a church musician — has said he was taught to read in an exegetical way by finding correspondences between the Old and New Testaments. But when it comes to the candidate himself, connections seem to lead everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Looking back at the way Obama used his own faith to connect with Americans, at the way he treated his supporters, as David notices, “as congregants,” it’s no surprise he draws comparisons with a pastor. In a 2006 keynote speech at the Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America conference, Obama warned, “if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” This is faith as a rhetorical tool, as a kind of code through which personal experience takes on the appearance of something more universal. Cunningham’s repeated return to religion throughout the novel creates a parallel between a young man questioning his faith in god and growing skeptical of the promised land of the future politicians tend to preach.

By the end of the book, David has learned — from the candidate, from donors he’s become close to — “a language of signs.” He has lost the reverence he once held for the world of politics, seen behind the curtain and witnessed scurrying assistants, frantic fundraisers, and not much else. By the novel’s close, he has no capacity for admiration “now that I could interpret the symbols [the candidate] offered in such profusion.” When he arrives in Chicago for election day, David finds himself attracted to the “veiled God of my youth, if only because He still spoke words I couldn’t comprehend.”

Great Expectations asks what happens when what was once clouded in smoke comes clearly into view, and we discover that the symbols we had treated as synecdoche for something larger are in fact empty. Belief in hope and change alone can only get you so far.