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Missing Person


by Andrew O’Hagan
Harcourt, 311 pp., $25.00

In the first chapter of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator encounters the child who will become notorious to those with no sweet tooth for sentimentality as Little Nell. He helps her to find her way home to her grandfather. Once there, the child begins the task of preparing supper, and the narrator is disturbed to realize that she has full charge of the household. Like the decent Victorian gentleman that he is, he raises his concerns with the grandfather:

It always grieves me,” I observed, roused by what I took to be his selfishness, “it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity—two of the best qualities that Heaven gives them—and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable of entering into our enjoyments.”

It will never check hers,” said the old man looking steadily at me, “the springs are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but few pleasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and paid for.”

This encounter encapsulates one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century Western culture and one of the great sources of tension in our own time: the invention and preservation of the protected realm of childhood. When Dickens was writing, the pragmatic notion that the children of the poor should pay for their cheap delights had been received wisdom for a very long time. In his time, and thanks in no small measure to his influence, the belief that children should not be initiated too soon into the ways of life gradually took hold as the new received wisdom of developed societies. Yet today, the special status of childhood is again a source of deep anxiety. The sexual exploitation of children has become a subject for headlines in the domestic and foreign news. The pervasiveness of mass media imagery has challenged the ability of parents to filter out from their children’s consciousness the complications and disturbances of the adult world.

In Andrew O’Hagan’s luminous new novel, Personality, one of the characters, Hughie Green, recalls how, when he was a child with showbiz ambitions, his father copied out the first part of this quotation from The Old Curiosity Shop for him. The second part—the old man’s assurance that the springs of Little Nell’s confidence and simplicity run too deep to be polluted by early exposure to the adult world—is not quoted, but it hangs like a question mark over the entire novel. The novel’s main character, Maria Tambini, is a child star, a Scottish-Italian girl from the holiday island of Bute, whose marvelous singing voice and sparkling performances win her fame on Green’s television talent show, Opportunity Knocks, when she is just thirteen years old. Personality tests the springs of her confidence and finds them tainted with pain and loss.

In writing about a child star, O’Hagan is occupying a strategic site in the battle between different notions of childhood. A deep ambivalence surrounds the showbiz kid. On the one hand, we are drawn to Shirley Temple or Macauley Culkin by the allure of innocence, the charming absence of apparent artifice. On the other, we ourselves are not innocent. We know that the demands of performance and the pressures of success are stealing away the very qualities of childhood that attract us. The chaotic afterlives of burnt-out star children litter the pages of tabloid newspapers and scandal magazines. The price paid for lost youth is too often apparent in the transition from fame to infamy, as the prodigious child becomes the profligate adult.

It is not for nothing that the prototype of the child star in twentieth-century literature, Adore Loomis in Nathanael West’s 1939 novella The Day of the Locust, is the hideous offspring of a horrible mother, Maybelle, and is explicitly compared to Frankenstein’s monster. Adore’s monstrosity consists essentially in the precociously sexual explicitness of his act. West presents the eight year-old Adore as a nightmarish chimera, with the body and mind of a child but the soul and voice of a louche nightclub entertainer. He is dressed like a man but trails a toy sailboat behind him. He makes obscene gestures while singing a suggestive blues number:

He seemed to know what the words meant, or at least his body and his voice seemed to know. When he came to the final chorus, his buttocks writhed and his voice carried a top-heavy load of sexual pain.1

Andrew O’Hagan is well aware of this prehistory and indeed it is embedded in Personality. Early in the novel, when Maria is about to perform before a TV talent scout, her mother, Rosa, tells her, “You’ve done it all before, but just sparkle, that’s all. Lift your head up and sparkle.” The allusion to Mrs. Temple’s famous injunction to her daughter—“Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle”—is obvious. When Maria at the height of her renown sings in Las Vegas, she visits the Walkway of Fame—golden foot- and handprints made by famous performers—and puts her hands into the marks of Shirley Temple, Baby Leroy, Jackie Coogan, and Deanna Durbin. When Rosa urges Maria to “try to keep yourself nice for the cameras, baby,” she is every pushy mother addressing every would-be child star. Later, Hughie Green recalls his appearance in a Lassie film alongside a former child star called Baby Sunshine, whose fall from grace means that he has to shine shoes between takes and who subsequently disappears into oblivion.

Yet the novel is far more than just another diatribe against pushy mothers or a new take on the old story of kids who grow up and lose their sparkle. It is a complex, ambitious, and highly resonant meditation on the double meaning of the word “personality”: the fully achieved self and the ghost inside the machine of public performance.

Scottish fiction is fed by two ample and extraordinarily persistent streams. One is rooted in the collapse of a culture—the defeat and dismantling of the Gaelic-speaking society of the Highlands in the eighteenth century. From it Walter Scott forged a peculiar kind of realism: the evocation of an absence. In his great historical novels, he meticulously recreated a world that was safely gone, marking at the same time its former vibrancy and its extinction. This approach, memorably described as “valedictory realism” by the Scottish intellectual Tom Nairn, recurs even in recent novels like Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing! O’Hagan’s own first novel, Our Fathers, centered on the life and afterlife of a planner who demolishes Glasgow’s slums and replaces them with high-rise housing projects that are in turn swept away by his grandson, is a striking example of the form.

The other side of Scottish fiction is the Gothic tradition best represented in the nineteenth century by James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Rooted in the extreme religious self-consciousness of Calvinism, this strain of writing is concerned at heart with the fragility of the self. It, too, has been remarkably persistent. From the highly wrought prose of James Kelman’s How late it was, how late to the more populist dark comedy of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a taste for the macabre and an interest in psychological disturbance have remained in force.

What makes Personality such an ambitious novel is that it brings these two streams together. At one level, O’Hagan, a superb journalist when he is not writing fiction, is recreating a vanished episode in the recent Scottish past. At another, he is exploring the boundaries of the individual persona and contemplating such basic yet evasive ideas as presence and absence. For Maria Tambini both is and is not a “real” character. She hovers like a ghost between life and death.

Most readers in the United Kingdom, and many beyond, will recognize Maria Tambini as a version of the singer Lena Zavaroni, who died from the effects of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa in 1999. Both are born into Scottish-Italian families in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, off the coast of Argyll in the west of Scotland. Both are children blessed or cursed with the powerful singing voice of a Broadway diva and a precocious stage presence. Like Lena, Maria creates a sensation by winning Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and goes on to achieve a period of worldwide success. Like Maria, Lena fell foul of anorexia and depression. Since O’Hagan emphasizes the parallels by using real people like Green, the chat show host Terry Wogan, and the comedian Les Dawson as characters, it is not surprising that the novel created some uneasiness on its publication in the UK.

For all that the book carries a disclaimer from O’Hagan acknowledging merely that “it was inspired to some extent by the lives of several dead performers,” the use of the Isle of Bute would alone bring Lena Zavaroni to mind. This is a place so small and uneventful that its tourist Web site highlights two celebrity connections. The great classical actor Edmund Kean rented a house there in 1824. Its next brush with fame was Lena Zavaroni. Bute is not New York or Los Angeles, but a small and geographically bounded community. Not only is there no other child star in its recent history, there is no other trace of fame. In setting his novel there, O’Hagan must have known that he was making the parallel unavoidable.

Even when publishing a long extract from Personality in Granta last fall, its editor, Ian Jack, raised questions about this potential blurring of fact and fiction. He reported on an exchange of e-mails with the author which “though we are friends, at times became tetchy.” Jack worried that “Lena Zavaroni…was on British television for years, her story in every British tabloid. Many millions of people think they know about her life—she was that thing called a star. Now [O’Hagan’s] book might have people tapping their noses all over Britain, not just in Rothesay, saying: ‘This is a book about Lena.’” He expressed concerns about “the damage…to the increasingly fudged and fuzzy boundary between fiction and non-fiction.”2

These are valid and important questions and O’Hagan answered them eloquently. The novel itself, however, is an even better answer. It is not just that it does what art sometimes aspires to do by providing a more tender, merciful, and consoling ending to a sad story than life managed to supply. It is also that O’Hagan is engaged in something rather more subtle than writing a fictional version of a factual episode. He is exploring precisely that dangerous terrain between the real and unreal, the actual and the imaginary. The ambivalent relationship of the fictional character Maria Tambini to the flesh-and-blood star Lena Zavaroni is not an accidental result of exploitation or carelessness. It is a feature of O’Hagan’s chosen ground. It arises from a deep and serious concern with the evanescence of human reality itself. He has a consistent vision of a social world haunted by an underlying awareness of what is not there.

  1. 1

    Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (Penguin, 2000), p. 110.

  2. 2

    See the introduction to Granta 79: Celebrity.

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