Monday 29 May 2017 News Updated at 09:05 AM IST
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Out of proportion - Deccan Herald
Out of proportion
Michiko Kakutani, The NewYork Times,
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Rising Star, the voluminous 1,460-page biography of Barack Obama by David J Garrow, is a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive.

Many of the more revealing moments in this volume will be familiar to readers of Obama's own memoir, Dreams From My Father; a host of earlier books about Obama and his family; and myriad profiles of the former president that have appeared in newspapers and magazines over the years. Garrow has turned up little that's substantially new - save for identifying and interviewing an old girlfriend from Obama's early Chicago years, who claims that by 1987, "he already had his sights on becoming president."

In the absence of thoughtful analysis or a powerful narrative through line, Garrow's book settles for barraging the reader with a cascade of details - seemingly in hopes of creating a kind of pointillist picture. The problem is that all these data points never connect to form an illuminating portrait; the book does not open out to become the sort of resonant narrative that Robert A Caro and Ron Chernow have pioneered, in which momentous historical events are deftly recreated, and a subject's life is situated in a time and a place. Instead, Garrow has expended a huge amount of energy on giving us minutely detailed accounts of early chapters of Obama's life, like his years at Harvard Law School, his time in Chicago as a community organiser, and his work in the Illinois State Senate. Garrow gets to Obama's presidency only in an epilogue.

While the Chicago chapter sheds valuable light on Obama's connection with black residents and his developing sense of vocation, many of the other sections that try to chronicle his day-to-day life feel extraneous and absurdly long-winded, as if Garrow wanted to include every last scrap of information he'd unearthed. Are we really interested in what numerous Obama classmates, colleagues and passing acquaintances remember about his personality - that he struck them as cool or friendly, arrogant or voluble, cheerful or detached? Do we really want to read repetitious discussions about his cigarette consumption and poker-playing habits?

Indeed, this entire book suffers from a poor sense of proportion. Garrow adds nothing to our understanding of Obama's intellectual evolution during his years at Columbia, or the role that the civil rights movement played in shaping his political consciousness and ideals. And yet Garrow prattles on for pages about legislation Obama worked on in the Illinois state Senate, and about discussions in law school classes he attended or taught. The entire first chapter of the book is devoted to examining the social and political landscape of Chicago's South Side in the early 1980s before Obama arrived to work there, but Obama's 2008 campaign and two terms in the White House are compressed into a 50-odd-page epilogue.

Perhaps, as the title Rising Star indicates, this book is meant to focus only on Obama's early years, but in that case, the epilogue - with the snarky title of The President Did Not Attend, as He Was Golfing - seems even more inexplicable.

Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue - which almost reads like a Republican attack ad - devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian.

Then there is the innuendo. Garrow portentously cites a poll indicating that 64% of Republicans and 42% of whites agreed that it was 'probably true' that Obama was 'hiding important information about his background and early life'. This could be a reference to the birther movement, or perhaps to the bitter musings of Sheila Miyoshi Jager, the former girlfriend Obama had met in Chicago - who remained upset for years over their breakup, and whom Garrow has turned into one of his main sources. Jager is quoted as saying that 'something changed' in Obama 'after we went our separate ways after Harvard, as if the part of him that was so vulnerable and open went underground and something else - raging ambition, quest for greatness, whatever just took over instead'.

It's odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover's anger and hurt, and try to turn them into a Rosebud-like key to the former president's life, referring to her repeatedly in his epilogue. He even tries to turn her perception into a pejorative, when the act of self-invention, as other biographers have noted, was the enterprising and existential act of a young man who essentially had been abandoned by both his black father and white mother, and who found himself caught between cultures and trying, as he wrote in Dreams, 'to raise myself to be a black man in America'.

Perhaps Garrow leans so heavily on Jager because she is a source mentioned only in passing in David Maraniss's Barack Obama: The Story (2012). It's telling that Garrow mischaracterises the reception that both Maraniss's biography and David Remnick's incisive book The Bridge received, suggesting that both volumes failed to get the accolades they did, in fact, receive. The reader interested in Barack Obama's life would do well to turn to those books, or go back to Obama's own eloquent memoir.


Rising Star

David J Garrow
William Morrow
2017, pp 1,460
Rs. 1,700

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