O’Hagan’s first book, The Missing, is a nonfiction reflection, part memoir and part investigation, on the terrible but mundane phenomenon of human disappearance, the frequency with which ordinary people simply vanish from their familiar lives, sometimes as the victims of undiscovered murders, more often simply as dropouts from a life they could not or would not sustain:
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. They wander there, unaccompanied and unknowable, like shadows of people…. The person missing cannot be brought into focus, their presence, their person, derived from their birth, can no longer be verified. They may be out there; they must be somewhere.3
Early on in Personality, Maria’s friend Kalpana asks her, “Have you gone missing?” Toward the end of the novel, Maria’s boyfriend Michael looks at her house and thinks of it as “the house of a missing person, not the kind people hear about on the news or see on posters, but another kind altogether, the sort who disappear into public view, who lose themselves in recognition and are never heard of again.” The novel, then, is essentially about the way Maria becomes a missing person. The ubiquity of the famous is simply the ether into which she vanishes. Lacking a childhood, she has no real self. And as she disappears ever further into fame, her evaporation takes a physical form. In the ever-tightening grip of anorexia, she tries to make her body shrink to nothing.
That line from The Missing—“The person missing cannot be brought into focus”—is also a statement about the form of Personality. Hovering as she does between the real and the unreal, the living and the dead, Maria cannot be evoked for most of the novel with the vibrancy of a conventional literary character. The qualities we usually look for in a fictional protagonist—the tangible feeling of reality—are, almost by definition, unavailable. The formidable technical challenge that O’Hagan faces, therefore, is making Maria not a mere absence but a vacuum into which large and immediately enthralling forces can be made to rush. This he achieves, and in doing so he both conjures and exorcises her ghostly presence.
O’Hagan makes Maria the quiet center of a storm of voices and styles. The book is a patchwork of third-person and first-person narratives, letters, internal monologue, dramatic dialogue, transcribed tapes, Italian folk tales, literary allusions, song lyrics, pastiches of tabloid journalism and TV chat shows, held together by the assurance and precision of O’Hagan’s prose. He compensates for Maria’s essential emptiness by giving us vivid and lucid portrayals of a remarkable range of characters: the grandmother Lucia, possessed by the spirit of another lost child; the mother Rosa, steeped in melancholy and rage; the sweet Uncle Alfredo; the good-hearted boyfriend Michael, drawn to broken people and convinced that he can save Maria; the childhood friend Kalpana, whose letters receive increasingly remote responses as Maria recedes into the netherworld of celebrity; Kalpana’s father, the kindly Dr. Jagannadham; the agent and manager Marion Gaskell, with her timid husband and her demanding dogs; the awful but oddly forceful Hughie Green. All of these are richly detailed portrayals. The only significant failure is the obses-sive fan and increasingly insistent stalker Kevin Goss, who is too obvious and one-dimensional a figure to carry the narrative burden that he is expected to bear as the novel reaches its climax.
Even this failure with the predictably mad and bad Kevin, though, points to O’Hagan’s overturning of the stock narrative of the rise and fall of the child star. For Personality is awash with sympathy and generosity. Instead of West’s gallery of grotesques, O’Hagan gives us people who are trying their best. He does not treat simple decency with condescension but dares to create three genuinely nice men in Alfredo, Dr. Jagannadham, and Michael. Nor does he create scapegoats for Maria’s lost childhood. Rosa is no Maybelle Loomis, but a woman who has inherited an ineffable sorrow from which she hopes Maria can escape. Mrs. Gaskell does not exploit and abuse Maria, but tries, sincerely if ineffectually, to be a surrogate mother. Even Hughie Green, an egregiously smarmy figure in real life, is treated with some respect, his creepy patter transformed by O’Hagan’s splendid prose into a kind of eloquence.
Nor does O’Hagan share West’s sense of sexual revulsion. For him, Maria’s loss of sexuality is at the heart of her loss of personality. This is wonderfully expressed in a series of letters between Kalpana, still on the Isle of Bute, and Maria in London. Kalpana is an adolescent dipping her toes into the steamy waters of sex: “Fergus sent me a Valentine’s card and so I said yes I would go out with him and it has now been six months and two days. He is a good kisser and we made kissing licenses where you fill in the name of the person and then you can show it to anyone and kiss them.” While Kalpana is growing into womanhood through experience, however, Maria is simply painting womanhood onto her adolescent features: “Lip pencil lasts longer than lipstick and you can get it right more times. Eye-shadow will stay on longer if you give your eyelids a dusting of powder first.”
Anorexia, of course, is Maria’s open revolt against adulthood, her way of keeping her body small and light. Food is a pervasive presence in the book and O’Hagan uses it to parallel Maria’s gradual disappearance. After a short prologue, the novel opens with two old men discussing fish and chips, the staple fast food of Britain, with the relish and discrimination of wine connoisseurs discussing a rare vintage. Much of the early action is set among the smells and tastes of the fish-and-chip shop that Rosa runs in Rothesay. The second chapter has Maria and Kalpana at an open-air feast to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee, tucking in to cakes, chocolate, and candy. In the sixth chapter, Maria rolls fabulous thoughts of the tastes and textures of different candies around her mind. Later, the two girls attend a lecture on the history and impact of the sugar industry by Kalpana’s father. As Maria’s fame grows, however, this abundance dwindles to the “tiny pieces of banana, inches of toast” that her doctors induce the self-starved Maria to take.
But O’Hagan seems to see sex as the only medicine that can really save her. It is her initiation into sexuality by Michael that creates the possibility that Maria’s body can become real to her and that she can finally come to life. In this Personality has more than a touch of fairy tale about it. Maria’s blank, empty, but glamorously alluring persona is that of a Sleeping Beauty, and Michael is the prince whose kiss could restore her to life, with the bleakly adult twist that this sleeping beauty is not at all sure that she wants to awake. To recall another, and more appropriately Italian, story—Carlo Lorenzetti’s The Adventures of Pinocchio—Maria is a painfully thin and rather wooden puppet who has the possibility of becoming a flesh-and-blood woman but no desire to do so.
This fairy-tale quality is one of the things that gives the book its somewhat hallucinatory texture. The other is the way O’Hagan gives concrete substance to the notions of reality and unreality through their earthly incarnations: history on the one hand and literature on the other. Maria’s story is set in a much wider historical perspective. In general, the characters are tied together by a very real historical experience of exile. Maria’s family are Italian immigrants. Kalpana’s are of Indian origin. Michael and Maria in London are away from their Scottish homes. Even Hughie Green talks like an American and turns out to have been born in Canada of Scottish parentage. In the world he has created, almost everyone has gone missing from the place where their roots lie. This sense of displacement, of people making complex journeys in a difficult landscape, gives substance to O’Hagan’s idea that a person can simply get lost.
Within this broad setting, Maria is given a very specific history that is deeply enmeshed in epic events. O’Hagan intertwines her story with that of her grandmother Lucia. Having established themselves as café owners in Scotland, Lucia and her husband are swept up in the excitements and disasters of fascism and wartime. Lucia becomes involved with a Scottish-Italian newspaper supportive of Mussolini, and, at the same time, begins an affair with a tenor, Enrico. When war comes, the café is attacked by an anti-Mussolini mob, and Lucia, her husband, and the tenor are interned as enemy aliens. Lucia’s attempt to escape to Canada with her lover and her young daughter turns to disaster when the ship is torpedoed and both the girl and Enrico are drowned. These traumatic events, however, are consigned to silence in the interests of postwar survival. Though Maria is unaware of them, O’Hagan gradually and subtly suggests that the ghosts of both the dead girl and the dead singer have combined in Maria, the fabulous singer who is drowned in fame.
If history is on one side of the story, however, literature is on the other. Personality is rich in allusions, both direct and implied, but one in particular is especially important to its intent. O’Hagan wants to make Maria’s nothingness not a mere absence but a force in itself, and he calls to his assistance the most powerful evocation of nothingness in all of literature—Shakespeare’s King Lear. There is, in the fourth act of Lear, an extraordinary scene in which the good Edgar leads his blinded father Gloucester, each man holding on to one end of a staff. To rescue his father from utter despair, Edgar pretends to lead him to the edge of a cliff. Gloucester throws himself harmlessly to the ground, thinking that he is plunging to his death. Edgar convinces him that his survival is miraculous proof of the benevolence of providence.
The effect of this scene is to make something that does not exist—the cliff—seem strongly present. O’Hagan replays the scene to the same purpose. Michael, who works for a charity that takes care of ex-soldiers blinded in war, leads some of his charges across the same landscape on an outing, getting them to hold a pole for guidance. He then tells them the story of Edgar and Gloucester and recites Edgar’s lines. O’Hagan brilliantly fuses a credible contemporary narrative with a dizzying evocation of an old epic in which, contrary to Lear’s belief, something comes of nothing:
The men were quiet. They said nothing for a minute and the sea at my back was calm and almost imaginary, but you could hear the waves coming to wash the chalk cliffs from under us. Each of the veterans stood up and lifted his face to the fresh air—England behind them, eyes closed, they listened to the lapping waves and the words.
There is boldness and beauty in this finely wrought merging of mythical epic, historical resonance, and contemporary detail, and it is emblematic of O’Hagan’s wider ambition. Personality is not a fictional version of the real-life tragedy of Lena Zavaroni, but an attempt to create a fictional world in which she might escape her sad end. Few young novelists would have the nerve to undertake such a potentially unwieldy and hubristic task and fewer still could accomplish it with such command, such grace, and such compassion.
Andrew O'Hagan, The Missing (New Press, 1995), p. 98.↩
Andrew O’Hagan, The Missing (New Press, 1995), p. 98.↩