As leaves turn and the English air grows crisp, authors wither and decline; even those who haven’t a novel entered for the Booker Prize feel quite ill when its season comes around. It’s expectations and effects devastate UK publishing each fall. Rumors of judges’ feuds and unofficial long-lists seep like poisoned water through the books pages. This year J.M. Coetzee carried off the prize, for Disgrace. It was his second win, leaving Andrew O’Hagan, a first novelist, one of the disappointed shortlist.
The final moments of the drama are televised each year. There is a clatter of cutlery from the Guildhall dinner, a glimpse of the judges in evening dress: a scanning shot of a table of dry-mouthed, fish-eyed authors, and a close-up of the chairman of the judges as he dallies over many a platitude and finally lets slip the name of the winner. It is an old British folk custom to intensify the hysteria by convening a guest panel of authors in the TV studio, to trash and mangle the shortlisted entries. But this year, Channel Four decided to replace them with a “People’s Panel,” a gaggle of amateurs who would trash and mangle in a less practiced, less articulate way. “Bleak” was the word the People’s Panel used of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Our Fathers: “bleak,” and “bleak” again. “It’s not a story,” one woman objected.
What is a story, then? Is it an effortful twisting of reality, into surprising shapes? Is it a fixing, a manipulation, a trick played on the imagination? One panelist held up a copy of a modish gang-wars novel which begins with a red-hot poker held to a man’s face. That was what she liked, she said. “It takes you right there.”
The reader who treads the road with O’Hagan will take a less direct path, away from the memory of pain and toward the promise of it. “Our fathers were made for grief…,” his narrator says. “And all our lives we waited for sadness to happen.” His first book, The Missing, was an imaginative work of nonfiction, in which he explored a theme which has haunted him since his own Scottish childhood.
There are all sorts of missing. The world is full of missing persons, and their numbers increase all the time. The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead.
How can it be that our society, so subject to surveillance, is yet so lacking in cohesion that individuals, both adults and children, can come unstuck, go adrift, vanish without trace? Are they dead, or have they remade themselves? And what does personal identity mean, if it can be shrugged off in this way? What is family, what is society, if our bonds can be slipped so easily?
Our Fathers has much in common with the earlier book. There is an air of …