Book review: The Secret Life, by Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O'Hagan PIC: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
Andrew O'Hagan PIC: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
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This triptych of non-fiction pieces is united by more than one concern. On the surface, however, it is simply about the way in which technology is reshaping our world. The first is a piece about Julian Assange, whom O’Hagan, one of our finest novelists, was commissioned to work with to produce his autobiography; auto- being slightly redundant in this instance. After wrangles over contracts, the book was published as the “unauthorised” life of Assange, but without O’Hagan’s name on the cover. The second essay involves Ronald Pinn, a name O’Hagan found on a gravestone – the young man was 20 when he died – and then utilised to create a virtual identity. Pinn took on a life of his own, in a manner farcical, fascinating and foul. Finally, we get “The Satoshi Affair”. Again, it is related to a significant project O’Hagan was invited to work on, and which worked out differently to everyone’s expectations: a book about the identity of the founder of bitcoin, the digital currency. Although, in the already post-truth world of the web, bitcoin was the invention of “Satoshi Nakamoto”, as O’Hagan writes, “Satoshi was loved by bitcoin fans for making a beautiful thing and then disappearing. They don’t want Satoshi to be wrong or contradictory, boastful or short-tempered, and they really don’t want him to be a 45-year-old Australian called Craig”.

The essays are elegantly tessellated. At the outset O’Hagan writes about the “high degree of artificiality” of each of his subjects; even more tellingly he says in the foreword “The people I write about tend to inhabit a reality that they make for themselves or that in other ways consorts with fiction, and one is required to enter their ether and dance with their shades in order to find their story”.

In the first and third essays, O’Hagan is involved with people who have strange egos. Assange wants information to be free, but is calculatingly paranoid about his own privacy. Craig Wright both wants to be acknowledged as the mysterious Satoshi – whose name, in one of the surreal twists only reality can give, comes from the hero of the Pokémon cartoons – and shies away from proving it. Pinn, a pure fiction and a dead human, is offered credit cards, friend requests from equally unreal Facebook users, can buy drugs and eventually cannot be expunged – might one say exorcised? – from the internet, just as the myth of Satoshi cannot be put to rest by the revelation of why it was a pseudonym.

O’Hagan is a quiet interviewer. He makes clear his moral lines in the sand in each case – movingly so with the Pinn story, where the narrative of a digital simulacrum is offset against O’Hagan’s own moral angst about the real dead young person. This quietness reaps dividends. O’Hagan notices things – Assange’s casual sexism, Wright’s habit of walking into a room already in mid-sentence – that are profoundly revealing. But as much as he is a psychological novelist as acute as Henry James, O’Hagan’s book is a ghost story as shuddery as MR James.

The book is ostensibly about technology. It’s actually a work of horror. It’s no coincidence that O’Hagan was to be the “ghost” to Assange and Wright, nor that Pinn was a digital revenant, an internet ghoul. There is a ghost in the machine, to put it bluntly. Even the use of the words “shade” and “ether” in the previous quote show how the book seeds at the outset this gothic sensibility. The phrase “sell you soul” comes up more than once. It is a book full of cyber wraiths and online eldritch things.

O’Hagan wrote a scintillating interview with the late Norman Mailer – and he, in Harlot’s Ghost, got the double meaning of “spook”. Espionage swirls round this book; the living poltergeist. It also reminded me of the neologism coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida – hauntology. In French, without the aspirant aitch, it is almost a synonym for ontology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being itself. In each case we have a study in fractious being: Assange is a man who is not who he thinks he is; Pinn is a nothing that interacts with the world, and Wright is a libertarian who wants to keep control. They are all also prisoners. Even before he decamped to a tiny bit of Ecuador on British soil, Assange was under a kind of house arrest. Pinn is perpetually trapped in his internet afterlife. Wright was cocooned in lavish offices, but was even more constrained by his own self-mythology. It’s noticeable that he only opens up to O’Hagan in anonymous chain coffee shops.

O’Hagan’s prose is always a delight. The cadence of his sentences, the way in which he balances extension and brevity, the unspooling and the reeling in, is a masterclass in the art of prose. This is not just a good book, but a necessary one. The jacket flap has a previous laudation – “Humanity shines through his prose” – but this book interrogates if that very humanity he has always displayed is somehow, eerily, changing.

*The Secret Life, by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber & Faber, £14.99