Andrew O’Hagan

ISBN 978-0-571-38135-7  Faber  £20

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

If this is a “state of the nation” novel maybe it’s also a “state of the novel” novel, in which case, do not resuscitate is appropriate. O’Hagan’s characters aren’t people but embodiments of ideas. There are fifty-nine, which is supposed to be astonishing. There are five hundred and eighty in War and Peace. The first we meet is the protagonist, Campbell Flynn. Even his characters’ names are caricatures. Flynn is a successful art critic. Therefore, part of the “liberal elite”. In the first paragraph, O’Hagan includes a sneering aside at this alleged group: “Oh, the progress of guilt and vanity in the average white liberal of today.” This is a narratorial intervention, intrusive and defeating. The sentence is peculiar. How are guilt and vanity hooked up? Why does the narrator evoke guilt? Why not anger or outrage? What’s wrong with outrage at injustice? What exactly is the “average white liberal”? How incompetent to have the narrator grab the reader by the throat in this way at the very start of the book. The same novelistic incompetence is evident throughout: O’Hagan can’t permit his readers to discover, he has to rub their noses in what they are supposed to discover, as if they have no senses. This absence of confidence is evident in the style. Good prose is always reaching for what it can’t quite attain. In this, it brings awareness of how we are our own problem. At the heart of all good prose is doubt. O’Hagan will have none of that. He’s too intent on vulgar success.

 The “liberal elite” is, of course, an invention of the right. It doesn’t exist. The elite in the UK is not made up of vegetarians from Islington or transgender folk from Hebden Bridge.  It is supposed to be the betrayer of the common folk who have no truck with agony about our colonial past; understand there are two genders and everyone is firmly embedded in one or the other (hermaphroditism being, apparently, unknown); dismiss the notion of being “woke” ie having at least a minimal awareness of what’s going on in the world; jump on aeroplanes to be transported like suitcases to their pre-determined destinations where they pay no attention to the language, culture or even their geographical location in bland disregard of climate change; know that education means authoritarianism and collecting certificates; love the royals and celebs and understand Muslims are the greatest threat to world peace. The term is related to others, Hampstead Socialist, for example, frequently used by Nick Griffin, or “north London metropolitan liberal-elite” which slithered often from the mouth of Priti Patel. North London has a high Jewish population, which has led some to claim a hidden antisemitism is at work. It’s fairly uncontroversial that the more educated tend to liberal or leftist ideas. The stereotype sneers at the literate and informed. It isn’t any kind of considered descriptor, merely a propagandist weapon, intended to undermine opposition to the ruling market and authoritarian dogmas. Like all such terms of abuse, it subsumes people to a category and its on this false view O’Hagan bases his novel.

There is a real phenomenon which needs criticising. Since 1979 there has ben a huge shift of wealth upwards. The richest one thousand in the UK now command something like seven hundred billion.  The trend is global. Bernie Sanders points out that the richest handful in the US are wealthier than the bottom fifty per cent. Their wealth gives them power. This is the real elite, but it’s peripheral in this book. William Byre makes a fortune from sweatshop fashion but O’Hagan doesn’t explore the vital question of how enormous wealth scuppers democracy. Flynn isn’t super-rich. He’s done well out of conformism (like O’Hagan), lives in Thornhill Square cut off from those below him in the social scale by the road of the title, but is not one of the masters of the universe who rule the global economy. O’Hagan doesn’t want to take on the obscenely wealthy because his book appeals to narcissism: he indulges his readers identification with the evil he claims to be spiking. Some reviewers have commented on the Dickensian scope of the book, missing the obvious fact of the Victorian’s remarkable narrowness. Kafka is an expansive writer. The Castle embraces humanity. Dickens, because his characters are caricatures and his apparent outrage sentimental, can never escape the parochial. He is truly a parish writer. His moral reach is tiny. The famous murder of Nancy followed by the pursuit of Sykes is typical of his moral compromise: indulge the blood-lust of the reader only to let her off the hook by having the police arrive sounding their whistles and waving their truncheons. O’Hagan works like this too: “Here is a cast of horrible, evil people. Don’t you just love ‘em !” In essence this book works at the level of true crime. Its readers are supposed to be open-mouthed at the disgusting behaviour, and then go to be with a nice cup of cocoa.

 O’Hagan says it took him ten years to write. What he means, probably, is he was at it, now and again, over that period. He wasn’t working at it like Flaubert on Madame Bovary (five years) or Joyce on Ulysees (seven), or if he was, he is far worse writer than even the evidence of this ponderous tome suggests. He’s a journalist. He was on the staff of the LRB in his early twenties. Sharp elbows. Journalism operates at a far lower level than literature. O’Hagan is now editor-at-large for the prestigious review whose essential characteristic is that all its notices could be written by the same person. It might be worth trying an experiment: take chunks of reviews by  a hundred writers from over a good span, give them to a group of Eng Lit Phd students and ask them to sift one writer from another. The LRB reviewers are informed and intelligent but they aren’t stylists. There is no Orwell writing for the LRB. It’s likely O’Hagan has spent too much time and effort on journalism and had too much easy success (like Flynn) to be aware of or bothered with the effort of literary style. But style is everything. Here’s a fairly typical O’Hagan sentence: “Jake Hart-Davies had a way of showing interest that Campbell found to be masterfully shallow.” (p 238 if you have time to waste). How is that a better sentence than: “Jake Hart-Davies had a way of showing interest Campbell found masterfully shallow” ? Three redundant words in one sentence. The book is full of this kind of sloppiness and it’s over six hundred pages. If you’re an attentive reader, a literary reader, if you’re used to prose that has been worked on (like hair, Flaubert said, it shines with brushing), you’ll throw this book at the wall after half an hour. Or again: “….she had put the house up for sale finding a buyer within four days of it being advertised.” (p636) What work are the last four words doing?  

Suppose we replace the first example with: “Jake Hart-Davies’s interest Campbell found masterfully shallow.” Half the number of words, but any loss of meaning? And the second: “She sold the house in four days”. Any loss ? That’s leaving aside the simple ugliness of O’Hagan’s sentences. In journalism, it doesn’t matter much. People are reading through the words and the newspaper or journal will be in the recycling in no time. Literature is built to last. That wasn’t on O’Hagan’s mind. He was looking for quick rewards, praise and prizes, just like the characters he pretends to satirize but secretly identifies with.  

“He was early for his meeting in Notting Hill, so after parking up he went into the Churchill Arms in Kensington Church St.” (p200) Redundant drivel. If the detail is necessary this will do: “He was early so went into the Churchill Arms.” But the book is full of quite unnecessary sentences: “He sat up and put away his phone.” (p 580) “It was around eleven when they left.” (p635) For comparison, here’s a sentence from Madame Bovary: “Mais elle, sa vie était froide comme un grenier dont la lucarne est au nord, et l’ennui, araignée silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre à tous les coins de son coeur.” What you take in with this is its rhythm, its parallelisms, its metaphorical intent and its denotative meaning. It’s hard to forget such a sentence and it asks to be returned to. There is not a single sentence of this calibre in O’Hagan’s inflated novel. Nothing worked over. No “affres du style” because there is no style.  

The irony of this book is not within it but about it: it embraces the very dismal attitudes it purports to take down. O’Hagan is like his worst characters, a cheap chancer on the literary make, but what the publication of and fuss about this novel tell us is that our literary culture is on its knees. The tv rights were, apparently sold, before publication. Faber will make a mint. So will O’Hagan. Maybe he’ll spend some of it on fancy champagne in The Ivy having lunch with a sweatshop millionaire or the son of a nasty Russian oligarch. Think of some great examples: Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice ,Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Nostromo, Ulysees, The Rainbow, The Great Gatsby, The Tin Drum, Independent People, The Conformist, The Trial, The Joke. Does this novel come anywhere near their seriousness? No one dares. Our literary culture has collapsed. No UK publisher or agent would give Ulysees house-room today. Commercialism prevails. A novel is no good if it can’t be turned into a box-set and millions. O’Hagan knows this. It’s in his book; in its vulgar conception, its ludicrous bombast and lack of style. 

No one can mention this book without saying “state of the nation”, but ninety-nine percent of the nation’s people are excluded from it. This would be fine if the book was an excoriating assault on the corruption of the elite of wealth and power, but the moral centre of this book is soggy because O’Hagan isn’t at odds with those he has in his sights: he’s one of them. Flynn shares his modest Glaswegian roots (though O’Hagan grew up in Kilwinning as did James McMillan). The moral tenor here is not one of disgust but of excitement, the kind of perverse admiration shown by some towards the Krays. The rich have power and power is seductive even in the hands of psychopathic gangsters.  Flynn gets his comeuppance (O’Hagan is true to Dickens) but only after the reader’s lust for power and wealth have been exploited. On page 387, O’Hagan has a reference to Kafka, a nod in the direction of real literature, but Josef K is alienated by power, which recedes from him every time he takes a step towards it; power is impenetrable, self-enclosed, beyond negotiation or reason. No reader is going to identify with K or Gregor Samsa. O’Hagan is not prepared to venture there. For good reason: Kafka’s first book sold eleven copies in Prague. “I bought ten,” said Kafka, “I wonder who bought the other one.” That’s not for an ambitious man like O’Hagan. He wants to be where there is money, fame and power. 

There is no point wasting twenty quid, several hours and your eyes. If you want to know what’s in this book, watch the box-set. There’s nothing in the writing the filming won’t tell you. In fact, a thousand-word summary will do just as well. This is transparent writing: you can see the thought behind every paragraph, every sentence. The exact opposite of what you find in a good novelist like Kafka or Tolstoy. The significance of this depressing mess is it tells us the power of literature to contest, to be awkward, to resist corruption has been almost totally lost, but not quite. It’s in the underground some true work is still found. Where the commercial drive is absent, people can still write honestly, which means paying attention to form, recognising that style is not adornment. Almost all poetry in the UK is published by the underground. Some novels too. Away from the noisy, self-congratulatory world in which O’Hagan has made his conformist way, there is still a chance for literature. A small one. Which shouldn’t surprise us: we are close to making the planet uninhabitable or blowing ourselves to smithereens. Why should we care about novels being well written?