Applause, applause – ‘Personality’ by Andrew O’Hagan

March 29, 2003

There are good novelists who pay the bills with bad journalism and, more commonly, good journalists who churn out mediocre novels, but a must-read journalist whose fictional debut makes the Booker shortlist is a rare creature indeed. Andrew O’Hagan has made the combination work for him, bringing a novelist’s depth of field to his reportage and a deadline man’s taste for actuality to his fiction.

His second novel features an anorexic Scottish child star of the 1970s bearing unignorable similarities to Lena Zavaroni. At first glance she’s an unlikely subject. In an article for the London Review of Books in January, O’Hagan put his hyper-articulate boot into the celebrity memoir genre with its “hummable, weepable, narcissistic self-pity.” But Zavaroni’s journey through famousness was an entirely different order of drama, he insisted: “a properly personal disaster that involved a notion of community and a post-war idea of domestic life, leisure and the good society.”

O’Hagan has a fondness for the big themes: the failures of municipal socialism, the rural crisis, the decline of community, Scottish victimology. His trademark approach as both journalist and novelist is to move from the personal to a panoramic sweep of landscape, history, culture and national character. Without pushing the analogy with Zavaroni too far, there was a touch of the child prodigy about his widely-acclaimed first book, The Missing (1995), and much of the journalism which followed: a precocious assurance which called to mind those tweed-jacketed teenagers who win standing ovations at Tory conference. He was 25 when The Missing came out and already a high stylist and phrase-maker, moving effortlessly between muscular certainty and poetic lament. But this verbal brilliance was a mixed blessing. The words took flight and his argument followed, leaving the thorny, muddied ground far behind; his sentences rang, but did not always ring true.

His debut novel Our Fathers (1999) was, to quote the paperback blurb, “a story of love and landscape, of nationality and strong drink, of Catholic faith and the end of the old left,” which touched all the bases in a way that must have felt more ground-breaking to the Booker judging panel than to a Scottish readership. In many ways it was a classic first novel: clogged with evocation; desperate to say everything there was to be said in the world; too self-referential to fully engage the reader’s emotions, despite its sentimental lyricism. But for all its immaturities, it was a big book with the courage to look beyond the neurotically narrow ambitions of too much British fiction.

If Personality sets its sights a little lower, it is a more reader-friendly novel, more attentive to the nuts and bolts of narrative structure. The virtuoso passages, with their swirling, dizzying accumulations of words, are used more sparingly and to correspondingly greater effect. The story opens in Rothesay in 1977. Maria Tambini, groomed for stardom since infancy, leads the Jubilee pageant, guised as Mary Queen of Scots. Children conjure 1,000 years of history in crepe paper, glitter and glue. Doting mothers hover with tissues and cameras. O’Hagan encourages us to smile at the scene, but his Rothesay (like his Scotland) is a community unhealthily in thrall to the past. Old men reminisce about the superior quality of chips in the 1940s, Rosa Tambini schools her 13-year-old daughter in the songs of Deanna Durbin and Doris Day, and an unacknowledged wartime tragedy casts its corrosive shadow over three generations of Tambini women.

O’Hagan brings a deft touch to the melodrama of Maria’s home life with its mixed messages and double binds. Rosa Tambini spends her life cleaning and crying, stuffing sweets into her daughter and reminding her that no-one likes a pudgy wee lassie, insisting “I only want the best for you” and then accusing the child of selfishness. Personality can be read as a Laingian parable of dysfunctional families and the divided self, or a feminist case history in the school of Susie Orbach, or a saga tracing the interplay of history and personal destiny, but it is most strikingly a meditation on the Scottish immigrant experience.

Rothesay is a burgh of couthy racism; it’s nice to be nice, but it’s not so very long since the night in 1940 when the townsfolk ran amok, smashing the Italian cafes. The Tambinis get by on repression and the relentless drive to better themselves. Two phrases echo through these early chapters: “holding your head up”, and its terrible other, “letting yourself down”. It’s a sort of emotional anorexia, this concern with appearances at the expense of feeling, and in Maria the metaphor becomes flesh – or rather, the lack of it. Every room is a stage for her. Even alone, she has learned to “create a look on her face”. She has Personality, but no spontaneous self. All the significant characters in the book have chapters written as internal monologues. Not Maria. She has no voice, except the voice that sings other people’s songs. We see her, as she sees herself, from the outside. Meanwhile the chorus of brooding, resentful, self-obsessed voices around her takes on a nightmarish dissonance.

When Maria moves to London to make it in show business, this dissonance is amplified. We meet Hughie Green, a dressing-room philosopher just intelligent enough to hear the hollow echo in his own sincerity, and Les Dawson, a backstage performer trapped in a loop of facetiously lugubrious monologue. O’Hagan is good on this cheesily ersatz world of crooners, hoofers and gag men, and if the reader can’t quite believe that these characters live and breathe, well, that’s pretty much the point.

We see Maria learning to tilt her head and bite her bottom lip as she laughs at remarks she doesn’t understand, practising her smile until she’s crying with exhaustion. The gulf between the face in the mirror and whatever lurks within becomes full-blown dissociation. Weakened by anorexia, she is overwhelmed by a feeling she thinks of as “static” or “greyness” or, in a metaphor borrowed from the television, the medium of her fame, “interference”. It’s her inner life.

Eating disorder is a daunting subject for a male novelist, territory the girls (Janice Galloway, Lucy Ellmann, Candia McWilliam et al) have long since claimed as their own. Wisely, O’Hagan rations his descriptions of the subjective experience, preferring to record Maria’s behaviour. There are diet pills and laxatives and sick bags and drawers full of sweet wrappers and crumpled paper tissues. She cooks banquets of superfluous food but eats nothing; tears a strip off the skin of a peach and licks the exposed flesh, then cleanses herself with glass after glass of water.

Two-thirds of the way through the novel, its inspired premise, that the protagonist is the one character who lacks an inner self, becomes a burden. There’s only so much dissociation a reader – or for that matter, a writer – can take. After a chapter revealing the source of the Tambini family’s misery, a tragedy at once personal and world historical, the novel’s centre of gravity shifts. Henceforth the dominant point of view is that of Michael Aigas: a bookish native of Rothesay living in London, such an all-round good egg it’s difficult to understand his attraction to Maria’s damaged goods. (His first job after leaving university, working on a magazine for blind ex-servicemen, just happens to have been O’Hagan’s first step on the journalistic ladder too.) Eventually Michael will redeem Maria, putting her back in touch with her own physicality and taking her to Rome, where her various splits (mind/body, Scots/Italian, child/woman, person/impersonator) can be healed.

Personality is not a flawless book. Occasionally O’Hagan shows his old tendency to over-egg the pudding. The stalker subplot would have been better excised, and a few scenes – like the one where Maria mashes pages torn from celebrity magazines in the blender and eats the tasteless pulp – creak under the weight of their own symbolism. Vividly painted as the Rothesay GP Dr Jagannadham and his gloriously foul-mouthed daughter Kalpana are, there’s an abiding suspicion that they have been created as a politically correct counterpoint to the dysfunctional Italians. Nevertheless, this is a resonant, queasily-compelling work of fiction; a complex, intelligent study of personal disintegration.

Where the novel disappoints is in the final few pages: a relatively minor failing, but necessarily one that casts a shadow over the rest of the book. My first reaction to the happy ending was a consternated second reading to see whether these events could possibly represent the hallucinations of a starving mind. They can’t. But having rendered Maria’s psychopathology so convincingly, O’Hagan makes it very difficult to believe in a cure. In the concluding lines of the novel – Maria’s only internal monologue – O’Hagan slips into lyrical mode. “There will always be the words to other people’s songs, but Michael is here now, and I am here… our mouths open to catch the air and to say what we want to say, to speak now, to speak out loud…”

The words ring, but it is a mark of how O’Hagan has matured as a writer that musicality is no longer enough.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications