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Andrew O'Hagan observes and partakes of 'The Atlantic Ocean'

Moving between personal experiences and broader issues, the British writer reflects on identity in 'Reports from Britain and America.'

January 25, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Author Andrew O'Hagan and the cover of "The Atlantic Ocean".
Author Andrew O'Hagan and the cover of "The Atlantic Ocean". (Jerry Bauer / Houghton Mifflin…)

The Atlantic Ocean
Reports from Britain and America

Andrew O'Hagan
Mariner: 354 pp., $15.95 paper

The British writer Andrew O'Hagan is probably best known in the United States for his fiction; his novels include "Our Fathers," "Personality" and "Be Near Me," which was long-listed for the Man Booker and won a 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. And yet his first book, "The Missing" (1996), is one of those great, unheralded works of nonfiction, blending reportage with a point of view so personal, so idiosyncratic, that it blurs the lines of genre in an unanticipated way. A meditation on what it means it be "missing," it is less about the criminal, or legal, ramifications of its subject than an inquiry into disappearance in both the physical and philosophical sense.

Beginning with the author's grandfather Michael, who was lost at sea during World War II, and finishing with the strange case of a British couple who in 1994 were charged with killing 12 young women, O'Hagan moves back and forth between his own experience and broader social considerations, including the homeless and those "who go missing within their own community, without ever leaving it," the pensioners and loners who live among us but not with us and are seldom missed when they are gone.

What O'Hagan is really writing about is identity, or even more, community, which also marks "The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America," a collection of 21 essays spanning his career that were originally published in journals such as the New York Review of Books, Granta and the London Review of Books. Community, though, is not always what we expect — a point the author makes explicit from the opening piece: an account, originally published in 1993, of the death of James Bulger, a Liverpool toddler kidnapped and killed by two 10-year-olds.

For O'Hagan, the Bulger story is intimately connected to the issues he addresses in "The Missing": the way children too are often unseen by the adults around them (another form of going missing), perpetuating uneasy cruelties on one another — "destructive boredom and stupid imagining." As he does in "The Missing," O'Hagan recalls his childhood experiences "in the last of Scotland's new-town developments," a landscape of "lots of dogs and lots of building sites," where he and a friend used to punish a younger boy by beating his legs with rubber belts.

"It's not that any of us were evil," he recalls, just that "[n]ow and then it got out of hand." The implications are unavoidable: How can we think about those 10-year-olds and what they did without acknowledging that there's at least a bit of them in us?

This edge of complicity marks the pieces in "The Atlantic Ocean," much as it did "The Missing." Throughout the book, O'Hagan appears as observer-participant — a role that lets him function at some points as a first-person reporter and at others as a reportorial essayist. In "7/7," he writes about the 2005 terrorist bombings in London through the filter of his experience on staff at the London Review of Books, whose former offices overlooked the site of one attack.

"Saint Marilyn," meanwhile, uses a window display at "the Ferragamo shoe shop on Fifth Avenue" to ponder Marilyn Monroe (also the subject of his 2010 novel, "The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe") and her status as secular saint. Although the occasion for the piece is a book, Adam Victor's "The Marilyn Encyclopedia," he dispenses with that in a few paragraphs, preferring instead to follow the line of his own thinking, which leads him to reflect on our fetishistic, celebrity-driven era.

"Pop culture became its opposite number," he writes, discussing a Christie's auction of Marilyn's "relics": "the ordinary minutiae of the extraordinary life came to seem as formally expressive as Guernica. The designer Tommy Hilfiger pays a fortune for two pairs of jeans Marilyn wore in 'The Misfits.' He frames them and hangs them in his apartment. He gets the pleasure of Charles I pacing a banquet hall replete with Van Dycks. Hilfiger gets to feel he has captured the thing that is truly seen to capture his time. The spirit of the age is a bundle of famous rags."

On the one hand, this may seem like making a lot out of a little. But the sneaky thrill of the collection is that it finds its weight in unexpected places: a Glasgow sludge boat dressed up for Sunday river cruises, the decline of the British flower industry.

Perhaps the best example of that is "On Lad Magazines," a 2004 piece about the rise of men's magazines such as Nuts or Stag & Groom (their real names, I swear); it uses "their grisly combinations of sensitivity and debasement — 'How to Bathe Your new Baby' vs. 'Win the Chance to Pole-Dance with Pamela!'" not just for easy amusement but also to get at more trenchant concerns.

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