I was supposed to be in Italy last summer, not living Death in Venice. Besides travel, remodeling my kitchen ranked high on my list of priorities for a year that looked in January like a culmination. Now, although I’m lucky enough to have kept the nest egg I’d saved for the job, I can say I’ve read more books than ever, written hundreds of thousands of words, and learned the value of daily walks. Six short stories, 6.2 miles, and War and Peace — not bad for this Age of Anxiety.
I must admit: the first thirty-six months of the Trump administration were for me personal and financial triumphs. Promotions, raises, conference work, publishing credits, cool Instagram photos, the usual. Then the man’s venality, perfidy, and venomous self-regard fused with conservatism’s devotion to tax cuts and racism endemic to la causa since January 1981. Donald Trump did not create nor import the coronavirus himself, but explaining its deadly seriousness to even the people who voted for him taxed his fourth-rate car salesman’s abilities. Telling citizens to wear masks may not have been enough to reelect the first president impeached in twenty years, but millions of Americans will have lived to celebrate holidays and take trips to Italy.
Sure, 2020 sucked. Social distancing disrupted what Mick Jagger long ago called my notion of circular time. Did February happen? Did I speak to so-and-so at Pitchfork Festival in 2019 or 2018? “Remember sex?” a close friend plaintively wondered last month. Many of us in the parched groves of academe were used to Zoom before March; we just hadn’t reckoned with the long-term consequences, for example feeling like you’d endured an onslaught of gin and tonics without the euphoria. Words reassembled — what were they for? At lockdown’s start, the inchoate clatter of Lil Uzi Vert’s phrases replaced the expressive clatter of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters so beloved by colleagues. As governors lost their patience with lockdowns because FREEDUMB and case loads spiked, so did the pressure to keep our lives from turning into Catherine Deneuve’s madwoman-in-the-apartment horror film Repulsion. Small mercies like the reopening of my condo pool and, best, Miami-Dade public libraries had the impact of winning Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes (I type this entry at my Westchester Regional outpost).
Among the many recently published books I didn’t read until 2020, Autumn rises near the top of the list. A threnody for a political order so geriatric that Brexit and Donald Trump weren’t surprises so much as inevitabilities, Ali Smith’s 2016 novel came out too soon. She might’ve written the following passage the week before Election Day:
All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimated. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulders. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied.
Excerpts appeared in contemporaneous reviews; this is one more in a four-page denunciation that accrues power with each negation. 2020 didn’t work like, though. Learning about another example of catastrophic failure last night, I remembered we had done one thing right: ended Trump’s malevolent political career for now. “We” as pronoun obscures the truth, for almost 47 percent of voting-age Americans chose him over Joseph Robinette Biden. COVID deniers who became COVID victims remain in office, however. Boris Johnson yet plods down the corridors of 10 Downing Street, while Jair Bolsonaro has seen his approval ratings rise. The failure of global liberal democracy is as complete as it was in the late 1930s.
Tragedies writ large matter insofar as they aggregate our personal devastations. I suppose Elizabeth Bishop was right: the art of losing isn’t hard to master, especially with practice. Minneapolis City Pages ceased publication. I lost a friend to COVID. Another friend succumbed to cancer. It should can get worse — things are “worse” when they touch us. What awaits me tomorrow fills me with a momentary, real dread.
Yet I wrote many things I liked in 2020. I honored the Killers with a review as florid as they deserved. I examined the legacies of Bill Withers, John Prine, Larry Kramer, and Florian Schneider. This Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders supporter explained why I voted for Joe Biden. I’m sure readers have a list with a favorite preface.
Finally, we need to look forward to things! Here’s what I’ll do or finish by December 2021:
1. I will learn to love liver that doesn’t come from an avian friend.
2. I will participate in a sport with other people.
3. I will not leave things at the homes of friends and in the back seats of Lyft vehicles.
4. I will water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots.
5. I will give Alicia Keys a fifth listen
Take care of each other.