This somewhat peculiar book comes to the United States with a somewhat peculiar history. A collection of essays, journalism and book reviews by a writer better known for his novels, among them “Our Fathers,” “Personality” and “The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe,” it was first published in England more than four years ago but only now has made it across to this side. As to why it took so long, I have no idea; a fair amount of its content is now quite dated, notwithstanding that Andrew O’Hagan has included four pieces written since the book’s original publication. As to the other question — was it worth the wait? — the honest answer, alas, is: not really.
A native of Glasgow now in his mid-40s, O’Hagan seems to be, to borrow one of his titles, very much a Personality in Britain. In addition to his prolific writing, he does television and theater and heaven knows what else. He’s very smart, writes well most of the time, is interested in a great many things and has more than enough opinions to fill this book as well as, no doubt, many others in the future. The 21 articles in “The Atlantic Ocean” include journalism about two men killed in the Iraq war, a lengthy consideration of the bleak future of farming in Britain, and a visit to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; reviews of books about Andy Warhol, the Beatles and E.M. Forster; and musings about begging, Marilyn Monroe and guilt.
(Mariner) - ‘The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America’ by Andrew O'Hagan
A full plate — indeed, a trifle too full for my tastes. Having spent more than half a century spouting off on this, that and the other in newspapers, magazines and books, I am perhaps not entirely in a position to complain, but it seems to me that O’Hagan stretches himself too far and furthermore is given to oracular pronouncements that do not hold up upon close examination. He often calls to mind the wry comment by Clover Adams about Henry James, as reported by Joseph Epstein in his recent collection, “Essays in Biography.” Henry Adams’s wife, Epstein writes, “said of Henry James that, as a novelist, he ‘chews more than he bites off.’ ” This is exactly true of O’Hagan when he attempts to find more in his subjects than is actually there. Here are three examples, the first of which concerns Andy Warhol:
“He liked to imagine everyone being subjected to the same repetitive imagery — soup tins, Liz Taylors — and imagine that modern iconography made us all the same, all answerable to our desires, all open to the allure of the available, and all capable of becoming a famous image, for fifteen minutes, in a future nobody knows. Such faith in democracy is essentially heartless, and he knew that too. Choice isn’t everything. And some people don’t have it. Most people could buy a box of Brillo pads, but hardly anybody could buy one of Andy Warhol’s ‘Brillo Boxes.’ Warhol’s democracy had boring limitations: he trusted to the Art Market, not the supermarket.”
The second concerns Truman Capote: “The adult Capote did cartwheels for the rich. He loved those women, his swans — a Paley, an Agnelli, a Guinness, a Radziwill — and he allowed himself a long season as their jester, their girlfriend, their ornament, their pet. It is not easy to understand his fascination with those translucent airheads. He liked the small vegetables they served up, he liked their helicopters to the snow, their yachts to the clear blue yonder. They were his perfect audience, I suppose: beautiful, self-made, with too much time on their hands. But they forgot that his lies were only for living. He kept the truth for his fiction.”