“Andrew O’Hagan has produced a novel of divergent quality; the first half is uninspired, the second half is profound, even triumphant.”
I’m in two minds about Andrew O’Hagan’s latest work. The accomplished writer and editor of the London Review of Books has produced a novel of divergent quality; the first half is uninspired, the second half is profound, even triumphant.
The novel bridges two periods. The first part is dedicated to the protagonist James’ late teenage years, growing up in Ayrshire in the south-west of Scotland. The majority of the early narrative leads up to and encompasses a trip to Manchester in 1986, where British post-punk icons like The Fall and The Smiths are playing a show at the G-Mex exhibition centre. James, who goes by ‘Noodles’ after the character in Once Upon A Time In America, is accompanied by a small crew of local misfits that share his taste in films, humour and anti-establishment feeling.
Leader of the gang is Tully Dawson. Though told from James’ perspective, Tully is the central subject of the novel; he is the heart and soul of the party and the most significant relationship of James’ young life, a nurturing presence in a largely sterile, abandoned adolescence.
In 2017, as the novel transitions into the second part, we find that the pair have remained steadfast friends. James is a successful writer and Tully is an English teacher. The remainder of the text is occupied by Tully’s diagnosis of cancer, which is inoperable and terminal. He is fifty-one and he has less than a year to live.
O’Hagan’s style is very enjoyable. His prose is fluid and economical. Two words aren’t used if one will do, and he often employs a striking analogy or visual metaphor in the flow of his lucid reminiscences. My ambivalence about the novel is born from my indifference, if not my distaste, for the nostalgia that permeates O’Hagan’s writing about his teenage years.
A patina of unreality glosses the entire first half. The perpetrator of this unreality is largely what passes for dialogue between the group of young men, James’ friends, aged eighteen to twenty-years-old. To bastardise Spock: “It’s banter Jim, but not as we know it.” It’s not just that the literary references flow too easily, but it’s the slipperiness of their interlocution, the way they smoothly and rapidly glide from one choice phrase or acerbic bon mot to the next. The exchanges are too studied, too clever, and their unnecessary flair erodes your sense of the characters’ integrity. The gang become empty things, evacuated, and any connection you feel for them is lost.
This problem all but disappears in the second half of the text. The author divests the narrative of its sentimental intangibility, and the characters speak like humans. Over the span of 140 pages, O’Hagan methodically constructs a powerful meditation on the obligations of friendship, of romantic fidelity, and the emotional labour of assisted suicide. The last two dozen pages are fatiguing, but in the best way. Their toll is a sign of how deeply affecting the narrative has become.
Words: Tom Lordan