At the end of this year's most-talked-about novel, the author Philip Roth feels compelled to underscore a point. " 'The Plot Against America,' " he writes, "is a work of fiction." He then spends 27 pages demarcating the line between "historical fact" and "historical imagining" in his chilling, World War II-era what-if book.
It's a line that, in years past, might have gone without saying. But in 2004, it turned out to be a major cultural theme. Reality -- factual and imagined -- was big this year, very big, bigger than "Spider-Man 2" and SpongeBob even.
In the few Cineplexes where "Fahrenheit 9/11" wasn't playing, biopics -- "Ray," "Alexander," "Kinsey," "Finding Neverland," "The Motorcycle Diaries," "The Passion of the Christ" -- crammed the marquees. Memoirs and tell-alls climbed the bestseller lists all year: Bill Clinton's "My Life," the anti-John Kerry treatise by the euphemistically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the federal government's bestselling "The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States."
The draw on the Internet -- next to the political blogs during the presidential campaign -- was the Smoking Gun website, where fans of true crime could feast on the latest court documents in the Scott Peterson murder trial and read all about the sex habits of the National Basketball Assn. in the transcripts of Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case.
On TV, even the fantasies were reality-checked. "Sex and the City" gave way to the suburban exploits of "Desperate Housewives." The desert-island hit "Lost" may have been inspired by "Lord of the Flies" but it felt a lot like "Survivor."
William Hung, a baby-faced grade-grubber at UC Berkeley with a thick Chinese accent, won brief fame and a record contract merely for the true-blue sincerity with which he butchered Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" on "American Idol." Utah software engineer Kenneth Wayne Jennings earned $2.5 million slinging facts as a "Jeopardy!" contestant and became a national darling as "KenJen" -- thus acquiring the year's trendiest accessory next to the Lance Armstrong "Live Strong" bracelets: a two-syllable tabloid nickname.
Popular culture is a kind of mass dream. What we want, who we are, what weighs on us -- it all gets expressed in the mix. In the conventional, uptight Reagan years, we dreamed of Cyndi Lauper's unconventional hair and Madonna's seeming lack of inhibition. When tech nerds were in ascendance, we dreamed of lusty Internet porn and computer games that made skinny eggheads feel like tough guys.
This year -- an election year in which campaign spin and mudslinging reached an unprecedented degree of sophistication -- began with a fight over whether the commitment of same-sex couples was as "real" as that of heterosexual married people. It ended with the second presidential election in four years to be clouded by fears of potential voter fraud.
It was a year in which Sen. John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was smeared as a flip-flopping, French-loving, "sensitive" girlie-man and a network anchor was disgraced for not verifying "proof" that President Bush was a wartime weenie.
It was a year in which outrage over the partial exposure of Janet Jackson's breast on television was treated, for political reasons, as a genuine mass uprising.
In which Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner testified, under oath, that they hadn't been best pals, even though they said they were back in the day when one hired the other to run Disney.
In which regular claims of "good news" in Iraq were undercut vividly by the photos of Abu Ghraib.
In other words 2004 was, in real life, a big year for dissembling -- a year in which historical imagining was openly presented as a viable alternative to historical fact. Most purveyors though, unlike Roth, forgot to remind us that the two aren't to be confused, that reality is too precious. But we know that, if not consciously, then at the level of our mass dreams.
This is why Truth -- tweaked, cropped and maybe endangered -- was this year's preoccupation and hottest fad.
The fads of 2004
Sure, the election and a certain Northern California murder trial were the biggest attention-grabbers throughout 2004, but amid all that angst and tension there were outlets to lighten the psychological load. Playthings got more advanced even as fashion stepped back in time -- in a cool, modern way, of course. Here are some of the things that dished out style with a smile:
* '80s fashions such as Le Tigre and Lacoste polo shirts and Vans sneakers
* Balenciaga and Botkier purses
* Ugg boots (and their knockoffs)
* Body spray for boys
* The Lance Armstrong Foundation's yellow "Live Strong" bracelet
* Apple iPods and their accessories, earplugs and covers
* Teeny-tiny motorcycles
* Motorized scooters
* Revamped Schwinn Sting-Rays