The year started ominously, with a big fire in a big hotel in the Middle East. Remember? You were getting dressed for a party in the waning hours of 2015 and glimpsed cable news in the mirror, where an orange blaze licked the black sky near the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The fireworks show went as planned: artful magenta flashes arching through a drifting wall of smoke. That would be 2016 in a single image. Spectacle upon spectacle.
A band of armed ranchers trapped themselves in an Oregon wildlife refuge, in the name of freedom.
The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, in the name of solidarity.
A woman who represents the mythical illuminati funded by George Soros was beaten to the White House by a man who brags about sexual assault. The woman fled to the woods. The man withdrew to an upper floor of his dark tower, to plan.
The year was like a movie. Maybe the year was a movie, and we’ve finally closed the razor-thin gap between reality and entertainment. America in 2016 was an episode of “Stranger Things,” with its alternate reality called the Upside Down — from which we try to communicate with the other side via flashing Christmas lights.
We were always minutes away from a shocking plot twist, and the twists came so fast that we had to keep reminding ourselves of the basic order of the universe.
“This isn’t normal,” people said when white supremacists did a Nazi salute to Donald Trump during a conference on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This isn’t normal,” people said when the temperature at the North Pole registered 50 degrees above average.
“This isn’t normal,” people said when the North Carolina legislature threw out the public so it could pass restrictions on the incoming governor’s powers.
Yes, there were hints of normalcy: Kanye had some kind of breakdown. Terrorists attacked airports in Brussels and Istanbul. Beyoncé slayed on top of a sinking police cruiser. Gunmen rampaged in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Hesston, Kan., and Burlington, Wash., and killed cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge. In this way, 2016 could’ve been any year.
In June, a radicalized native of Long Island killed 49 people at a gay club in Orlando. Forty-nine. The number itself doesn’t have the impact as does counting to it.
Eleven . . . You get the picture. Or maybe you don’t. Over half a million people signed an online petition titled “Justice for Harambe,” the gorilla killed by the Cincinnati Zoo in May. Just 1,200 people signed a similar petition titled “Justice for Philando Castile,” a beloved school cafeteria manager who was shot by a police officer on Facebook Live in July.
The summer is ancient history now. The images and words before Nov. 8 look like relics from a different era, when we talked naively about togetherness, about firsts, about making America great again — and ignored anyone who didn’t like what we had to say.
But let’s try to remember some of those firsts, for posterity. The Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman will become the first black person commemorated on a U.S. bank note. Eric Fanning became the first openly gay secretary of a U.S. military branch. Minneapolis elected the country’s first Somali American legislator; London elected the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital; the Democrats nominated the first female presidential candidate of a major U.S. party — and she was as reviled as her opponent, who had no political or military experience but exercised his knack for getting under people’s skin.
The year was haunted by a sense of doom conjured by the candidates themselves, who argued that choosing the other would summon the apocalypse. And so each celebrity death was greeted, with black humor, as an act of prudence.
David Bowie and Prince were fed up with our national hissy fit, our utter lack of cool.
The greatest, Muhammad Ali, left to escape the worst.
Leonard Cohen — “ah, the wars, they will be fought again” — died the day before the election. Gwen Ifill, paragon of journalism, a week after.
The soul singer Sharon Jones, a cancer survivor who turned “This Land Is Your Land” into a funk anthem, had a stroke while watching the election returns, and died 10 days later. In the final week of the year, George Michael and Carrie Fisher scurried out as if a door was closing, but maybe a history of hard living was to blame, not 2016 itself.
It’s more difficult to dwell on good news. This year the unemployment rate dropped to a nine-year low! The Dow rocketed past 19,000! Giant pandas are no longer endangered! The Cubs and Cavs won!
Alas, joy is sanded down by the relentless 24-hour news cycle, the barbed hamster wheel of social media, the outrages that distract from catastrophes.
Much of Flint still does not have drinking water. Much of West Virginia is drowning in opioids. Most of Aleppo is rubble. Chicago exceeded 700 homicides for the first time in almost two decades. The Internet didn’t know or care much, though. The year’s top searches on Google, counting down:
3. Donald Trump
2. iPhone 7
1. Pokémon Go
The year as a Hollywood pitch meeting: Which sounds better as the premise for a show on Netflix or HBO?
A) Gravitational waves are detected a billion light-years from Earth, confirming both Einstein’s general theory of relativity and mankind’s intergalactic ingenuity.
B) Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a series of dungeons and tunnels under Washington, and Russia helps elect Donald Trump to win the Cold War 25 years after we thought it ended.
The calendar year may have reached its finale, but the show has been renewed for another season. We will continue to binge. On the next episode: a new president looks out the windows of his new residence. In the distance, in the Upside Down, is a monument to George Washington, an electric January sky, and tens of thousands of nasty women.