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.
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.
September 25, 2003