“Holds a mirror up to ourselves” – The Secret Life by Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan’s third work of nonfiction (following The Missing in 1995 and The Atlantic Ocean, Essays in 2008) collects three essays he has written on Julian Assange (the man behind WikiLeaks), a person he essentially made up and Craig Wright (the alleged inventor of Bitcoin). Their publication together underlines the eye O’Hagan has for a story – in that, in the last couple of days alone – the time between finishing the book and starting to write this review – both Assange and Bitcoin have been in the news again (Assange because, unsurprisingly, he objects to the documentary CitizenFour director Laura Poitras has made about him; Bitcoin via a piece in the Guardian asking whether cryptocurrencies are about to go mainstream). This is one of the purposes of good nonfiction, and the value of writers such as O’Hagan: the world can speed by you but a book can offer you a thoughtful response. We need thoughtful responses now more than ever.

The first essay in the book, ‘Ghosting’, begins in 2011 when O’Hagan was asked by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng to ghostwrite the autobiography of Julian Assange. Over the course of the last decade there have been a number of books about Assange – including Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh (both of which are mentioned in O’Hagan’s article) – but O’Hagan’s take feels more measured. What we have here feels, on balance, to be a piece that shows the good and the bad of Assange, the flightiness and the intensity. Assange agrees to an autobiography and then wriggles like a fish on a hook. He wants one thing and then he wants another. He can’t allow the time required and O’Hagan (and his research assistant) do their best to wrestle what’s required out of him, with it should be said the minimum of effort on Assange’s part. We are given a glimpse into the humdrum banalities of Assange’s life (from the fact the only 40+ year olds in the room tend to Assange and O’Hagan, Assange liking to surround himself with talented 20-soomethings who look up to him, to the odd hours they keep, faces perennially bathed in the glow of laptop screens). Of course the book never comes to fruition as all parties would like and acrimony and mudslinging becomes the order of the day (although not for O’Hagan himself). O’Hagan and Assange remain friends, or at least in contact for a while thereafter and, we sense, like Peter Ackroyd with Dickens, O’Hagan gradually becomes more disenchanted with Assange.

His time with Assange does seem to give rise to the short middle section of the book, ‘The Invention of Ronald Pinn’, in which having learned that undercover police sometimes take on the personas of the dead (wandering cemeteries, selecting the names usually of dead children to resurrect in the form of undercover personalities), O’Hagan sees how hard it is himself to raise Ronald Pinn from the dead (short answer: not hard) whilst at the same time trying to tell the story of Pinn himself. It is here, almost in the dead centre of the book when a palpable sense of what O’Haggan is trying t accomplish comes to the fore:

“Is it the spirit of the present age, that in the miasma of social media everyone’s ‘truth’ is exploitable, especially by themselves? Is the line between the real and the fictional fixed…?”

Ronald Pinn, O’Hagan’s resurrected Pinn at any rate, comes into being at a time when,

“Facebook had 864 million daily users of whom at least 67 million are believed by the company to be fake. There are more social media ghosts, more people being second people, or living an invented life as doppelgangers, than there are citizens of the UK.”

The third piece, roughly of an equal length to the first two pieces, feels the driest in the main because in addition to attempting to discover whether Craig Wright is the creator of Bitcoin O’Hagan assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader – or doesn’t always make completely clear how the cryptocurrency works (one imagines John Lancaster would fare slightly better here). And yet, even here, there are sections where O’Hagan excels at getting to the heart of the modern malaise. Wright’s predicament – to  give substantive proof of who he is and risk prosecution or be declaimed a fraud leaves him eventually bereft:

“His online existence had stripped him bare and he was no longer sure if he was anybody at all.”

In telling the stories of these men of rags and patches O’Hagan covertly holds a mirror up to ourselves, to get us all thinking about just how much of our essential selves are composed of various shards of glass and silver paint. It also performs that admirable trick of making us want to catch up on the O’Hagan books we’ve missed out on over the years…

Any Cop?: We’d heartily recommend this to anyone interested in either Assange or Bitcoin – but the main recommendation is to fans of O’Hagan or people who should be fans of O’Hagan.

 

 

 

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