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