7 Novels that Defined the Obama Era
Andrew Ridker, author of "Hope," recommends books that capture the cultural moment of Obama’s America
You can tell a lot about a country by the culture it consumes. The Bush era was defined by a brand of bombast befitting a blundering empire: from 24 to 300, Team America to Talladega Nights, the U.S. in the new millennium seemed intent on both dramatizing and lampooning the nation’s new role as dunderheaded defender of democracy. Trump hasn’t been out of office long—and he may soon be back—but to my mind, his presidential term is best embodied by colorful grifters both real and imagined: Joe Exotic, Kendall Roy, Howard Ratner.
The pop culture of the Obama era, by contrast, betrays an upbeat earnestness that obscures a commitment to the status quo. Those were years when new media companies like Buzzfeed and Upworthy made millions pumping positivity into our feeds. Macklemore rapped about being “on some Malcolm Gladwell shit.” Alexander Hamilton rapped about establishing a national bank. Sincerity was in, irony was out. Obama’s campaign slogan, HOPE—which I borrowed for the title of my second novel—nailed the national mood.
Speaking of novels, many of the most important works of fiction of the era explored questions of identity. Race, gender, history, trauma: the election of the country’s first Black president pushed these topics to the forefront of American life.
In compiling the following list, I’ve limited my scope to Anglophone novels, which means excluding international sensations like My Struggle or My Brilliant Friend. The books listed below are not necessarily the “best” of the era, or even my favorite, but the most definitive—the stories that captured, and in some cases shaped, the culture of America under Obama.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Published months before Obama took office, O’Neill’s postcolonial Gatsby is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch financial analyst, and his friendship with a Trinidadian cricket enthusiast named Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck introduces Hans to a New York he’s never known before, a city populated by immigrants, hustlers, and strivers. Chuck shares with the forty-fourth president a gift for oratory, a natural charisma, and an unshakable belief in the American dream. That Chuck, who turns out to be a con man of sorts, meets a tragic end, illustrates the interplay of hope and disillusionment that would come to define Obama’s presidency.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing.” So begins Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie’s bestselling 2013 novel of star-crossed lovers Ifemelu and Obinze. But Americanah is much more than a love story, tackling heady topics like immigration, identity, and meritocracy with sly humor. (Ifemelu’s blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” is a perfect vessel for Adichie’s trenchant commentary.) Few books better celebrate, and critique, the notion of America as a “melting pot.” In her introduction to the 2023 edition, Adichie writes of her desire to “contribute to that tradition [of Black American writing], but obliquely, as someone standing outside of American culture, a Black person without America’s blighted history.” In Americanah, she has done just that.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Two of the bestselling books of the Obama era, Gone Girl and Lean In, center on the difficulties facing women trying to thrive in a patriarchal society. One of these books offered practical, step-by-step advice for achieving that goal. The other was Lean In. Granted, Amy Elliott’s advice in Gone Girl involves forging a diary, staging a murder, committing a different murder, and lying about all of the above. But Gillian Flynn’s twisty thriller has more on its mind than revenge. In the book’s iconic “Cool Girl” monologue, Flynn’s Amy upbraids women who spend their lives “pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be.” Like another major Obama-era novel, Fates and Furies, Gone Girl’s dueling perspectives paint a complex portrait of a marriage and male-female relations writ large. (The he-said, she-said narrative structure would take on even greater resonance a few years later, with the emergence of the #MeToo movement.) Why bother struggling to overcome imposter syndrome when you can frame your husband for murder instead?
Taipei by Tao Lin
Love it or hate it, the literary phenomenon known as “alt lit” was an original, organic outgrowth of Obama’s America. Unabashedly sincere and extremely online, the movement coalesced around one writer in particular: Tao Lin. (Nothing screams “Obama era” like the title of Lin’s 2009 novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel—or the fact that the book was sold in Urban Outfitters.) Lin’s breakout 2013 novel, Taipei, can be described as both alt lit and autofiction, another literary movement born—or rather, reborn—somewhere in Brooklyn circa 2009. Like other autofictional novels (Open City, 10:04, How Should a Person Be?), Taipei tracks a period of time in the life of a character who might as well be the author as he goes about the mostly-mundane business of life. Critics were divided on the novel—a critic at the Observer called it a masterpiece, while a critic at the Times said it made him want to kill himself—but whatever your take, Taipei is undoubtedly a book of its time.
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
While many writers remained committed to sincerity under Obama, holdouts like Tony Tulathimutte and Paul Beatty (The Sellout) delivered the satirical goods. Private Citizens, which follows four recent Stanford grads in San Francisco, was published at the tail end of the Obama era, which might account for its more gimlet-eyed perspective. And while we’re on the subject of eyes, one character, Will, has his surgically removed after a botched surgery to make him less Asian-looking and therefore more marketable for his paraplegic girlfriend’s lifecasting venture. But the wild plot turns and dark jokes all serve the novel’s larger purpose: exposing the outrageous hypocrisies of millennial America.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The historical novel, once considered fusty and stale, was gut-renovated in the 2010s. During Obama’s two terms, novelists (and especially Black novelists) turned history (and especially Black history) on its head in a series of formally inventive books. James McBride’s National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird was a comedic reimagining of the life of John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Marlon James’s Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings was a polyphonic telling of (among many other things) a real-life assassination attempt on the life of Bob Marley. And then there’s Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won pretty much every prize there is. To focus on the premise underpinning Whitehead’s novel—what if the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a functioning railroad?—is to miss his even more audacious thematic gambits, collapsing centuries of oppression into one phantasmagoric journey.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
In his 2017 essay, “Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama,” to which this list is indebted, Christian Lorentzen defined four kinds of books that “have been particularly germane to the Obama years”: autofiction, fables of meritocracy, historical novels, and trauma novels. The biggest trauma novel of them all, in every respect, was undoubtedly A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara’s epic was full of extraordinarily high highs—her four main characters are all some combination of handsome, successful, rich, loving, and glamorous—and unbearably low lows. (A tote bag bearing the names of her protagonists was ubiquitous in Brooklyn for a time, a rare feat for any novel, much less one that features so much physical abuse, pedophilia, and self-harm.) Lorentzen attributes the trauma novel’s success to the relative tranquility of the Obama era, “when American writers had the luxury of looking inward, investigating the systems that formed them, reimagining the romantic days just past, and registering the echoes of personal traumas.” Interestingly, the trauma novel only became more popular after Obama left office. It makes a kind of sense. After 2016, who wasn’t traumatized?