‘The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America’ by Andrew O’Hagan

January 25, 2013

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.

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.”


‘The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America’ by Andrew O'Hagan (Mariner)

The third concerns Marilyn Monroe, whose grave O’Hagan visits: “What I remember most is the atmosphere of the cemetery: the place was more than just a repository of famous bones; a giant investment of common wishes lay deep in the polished stonework. American wishes. The world’s wishes. Yet the only scent that moved through the air was the scent of everyday boredom. . . . Yet in that same atmosphere there was something of America’s allure to the impressionable world — it was a mood that traveled invisibly over the surface of the manicured grass, a liturgy of success, the psalm of America, with Marilyn as its tragic muse. How could we fail to follow that compelling sound to the ends of the earth?”

In moments such as these O’Hagan seems nothing so much as a Christopher Hitchens manque, glibly spinning out fancily fluid sentences that, when examined under a cold light, turn out to mean nothing or next to nothing. Like so many flashy Brits who have written about the United States over the past few decades, O’Hagan knows far less about us than he imagines but is not in the least hesitant to pontificate about us, using the likes of Warhol and Monroe to make claims about our national character and yearnings that are fashioned almost entirely out of thin air. “The psalm of America, with Marilyn as its tragic muse,” indeed. What unalloyed poppycock!

O’Hagan does not confine his heavy-duty thumbsucking to the rebellious colonies but can zero in on home ground as well. Thus we have the Beatles: “Looked at properly, the Beatles really were the sixties: they started out as one thing and ended as another, and that is the core of their story, how they changed from ultramelodic laughing boys to revolutionary art-heroes, making an entire generation imagine itself differently.” Yes, there is an element of truth to this, but there is also, as in the examples quoted above, a strong element of overreaching, of trying to manufacture something that is only partly there or isn’t there at all.

O’Hagan does a good deal better when he functions as straight interpretive reporter. His 40-page piece on the British farming may seem rather out of place among the Warhols and the Beatles, but it is a sober and informative account of the decline of something that “is at the center of who British people think they are.” Another long piece, “Brothers,” is a well-reported and affecting examination of the lives of a British soldier and an American airman, both of whose decent and essentially unselfish lives ended unhappily in the pointless Iraq war. As for the report on Hurricane Katrina, it is somewhat out of focus, but there is one moment when O’Hagan’s penchant for sweeping generalization strikes me as on target:

“Every inch of New Orleans was a warning from Faulkner or Carson McCullers. The old, bleached hotels, with rotten water seeping up through their boards and plasterwork, were a series of flashbacks from Tennessee Williams; the floating chandeliers tangled with Spanish moss were Truman Capote’s; and the white-haired survivors, seeking a way out of town with their plastic bags of photo albums, were a tribute to Eudora Welty. It was the week Southern Gothic became a form of social realism, the grotesque and the biblical stepping out to fulfill an old legacy.”

Okay, okay: In that last sentence O’Hagan spins a bit out of control, but the rest of it is nice. Too bad there isn’t more of that in these pieces and less of the almost perfervid over-reaching that O’Hagan apparently cannot resist.

yardleyj@washpost.com

THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

Reports From Britain and America

By Andrew O’Hagan

Mariner. 353 pp. Paperback, $15.95

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