Andrew O’Hagan, The Illuminations – TLS
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations is the third in a loose trilogy of state-of-the-nation novels. Rather like David Hare who in a trio of plays in the early 1990s, examined labour politics, the Church and the law, O’Hagan has explored the decline of the Left in Our Fathers (1999); religion, sexuality and nationality in Be Near Me (2006); and now in The Illuminations, the military, specifically Britain’s involvement in the so-called “humanitarian wars”. Unlike Hare, however, O’Hagan is not a polemical writer, and he shares the viewpoint of the those on the ground rather than the top brass. Each novel in this trilogy depicts inter-generational relationships, allowing him to scrutinize the present not simply on its own terms but in the often indicting light of the past. His fiction hovers between then and now, between lives understood through class and community, and the atomized selves we currently inhabit – but the animating morality of his work derives from a time before anyone suggested society might not exist. Older people inhabit his novels in their own right, but their presence also directs attention to lives routinely discounted or abandoned, pricking the conscience of the reader and making us reflect on our complicity in Britain’s “new-style social anomie”, in the “vast carelessness” O’Hagan once identified, which facilitated Fred and Rosemary West.
If the backward-looking portion of O’Hagan’s work is fuelled by his Scottish, working class origins, his reading of the present seems influenced by his second writing life, as a journalist. Joining the London Review of Books at a young age, (he was a protegé of Karl Miller, to whom The Illuminations is dedicated), and perhaps wishing to offset the sway of the past, he has specialized in exemplary subjects of the technology and celebrity age, writing about video games, fake internet personas, child Jihadis, surveillance and paedophillia. This fascination with the contemporary and voguish is also evident in his remaining books: The Missing (1995), written in the wake of the West murders; Personality (2003), about an anorexic child star, and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and his Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010), a sidelong view of America’s most famous woman, narrated by the pet Frank Sinatra once gave her.
Now, in The Illuminations, O’Hagan examines the bond between an old woman struggling with the mysteries of her past, and a young man, harrowed by war in the fracturing present. Despite their different predicaments they recognize themselves in one another, and this recognition between them is a sustaining secret.
Living in sheltered accommodation in Scotland, Anne Quirk is declining into dementia even as the memories of her carefully guarded life flood back. Her grandson, Luke, is on the other side of the world in Afghanistan, leading a platoon of video-gaming, drug-fuelled young soldiers in a delivery of equipment to an electricity plant – a symbol of the war’s ostensibly civilizing purpose. At first their stories are held apart, told in chapters so different in character they seem not to have come from the same novel. But when Luke’s troupe is ambushed and in the mayhem a village decimated – “young boys lay in heaps”, women wailing – he returns home to Scotland. Here he finds consolation in the grandmother who taught him as a boy that the world’s chaos might be captured and illuminated through “artistic ordering”.
Anne was once a photographer, though her work has long since fallen from notice. Her way of lighting up ordinary moments taught Luke about the transcendent possibilities of art and offered him escape from a humdrum existence: “Anne had given him the world not as it was but as it might be.” That he gets to university only to choose an army life rather than an artist’s, seems perverse, but enlisting is his way of emulating a soldier father, killed in Northern Ireland, and the books he’s read have filled him with ideas of honourable service. Moreover, there is something of Anne’s creative instinct in his desire to “order the future”. Once in Afghanistan, though, this is revealed as a deformation of the artistic impulse, and Luke merely an “agent of fantasy”, ordering the world by policing it.
The revelation that art can be a passport out of a poor life recurs in O’Hagan’s work. Of the Scottish filmmaker, Bill Douglas’s journey from penury to artistry, he once wrote, “He must have realised that self-enlargement and self-invention were everything a boy from Newcraighall could hope for,” and his founding act as a novelist, in the first few pages of Our Fathers, was to pay tribute to a woman who marks out a boy, giving him books to help expand his life, rather than succumb to the mean one he is allotted: “My books kept me living, I was in love with what they knew.” In The Illuminations Luke is similarly anointed by Anne (“she made him unusual”), the distinction of art separating them from others, making them, as Anne’s surname suggests, quirky. As if to emphasize this difference, both characters have relationships with people trapped by the conformity grandmother and grandson evade. Anne’s next door neighbour, Maureen, is all bitter complaint at being left behind by her family, at having lived only a confined woman’s life; while Luke’s commander, Scullion, who, like him, has romantic ideas about the heroism of soldiering, cracks under the hypocrisy of too many wars which despite their humanitarian label, belie any notion of the good.
Some of The Illuminations’s strongest effects are achieved with the simple use of contrast. O’Hagan deploys it – as Anne does photographic contrast – to “not only…get at life, but to enhance it”. So Anne and Maureen, living in sheltered accommodation, talk in an equally sheltering language, in homely phrases (“a scarf’s like a friend, isn’t it?”) and familiar sayings (“everybody has their problems”, “you give them the best years of your life”); while the soldiers, actors on a global stage, “had their own language and said whatever they wanted” (“cocknoshers”, “drill-pig”, “fuck-o-nometry”). But this inventive talk is all diversion and bluff, the freedom it implies, an illusion. Their lives, too, are horribly inevitable: in both places people are stricken and die, the only difference is the suddenness with which it happens.
These contrasts also reveal some of the novel’s weaknesses. While Anne’s life is illustrative of the way in which women are often hidden from history – there is the clandestine affair with a married man, the interrupted and forgotten career – it is also plausibly idiosyncratic. Anne’s secret past sheds light on her guardedness, her feeling for mystery in art and for the special knowledge of “how to read a person” which she passes on to her grandson. By contrast, Luke’s familiar story of disillusionment with war and the difficulty of returning home, strains to achieve broader resonance. There are several voices in the novel lambasting the soldiers’ insularity (“You want to burn away the enemy and scorch their minds, without knowing what their mind is”), but O’Hagan is equally unilluminating about the Afghans, presenting only the blinkered view of Luke and his men. As a consequence, many passages fall into cliché: the single Afghan portrayed is a caricature ‘baddie’, one-eyed, “unadult” and treacherous, and the violence of the ambush scene aestheticized, as it might be in one of the video games the soldiers are continually hooked up to (“shattered pomegranates”, almonds “that seem to explode”, “rose petals on the road, “blood running into dust”).
Once home, now believing the war to be predicated on a senseless idea (to “obliterate ignorance with firepower”), Luke argues with those Scots advocating independence, judging them also to be “agents of fantasy”, caught up in a regressive nationalism. Life is now technological and global, he proclaims, everyone has their dreams and no one has a monopoly on decency: “There’s no nation, Mum. There’s only people surfing the Net.” This new Google globalism, though, is as valueless to Luke as the flags and drums of the old nationalism. In the war he has suffered “a loss of make-believe” and once again it is to Anne that he turns to try and recover this, taking her on a journey back into history, to Blackpool where she had her affair, and to see the town’s illuminations.
Luke’s creative power revives as he makes believe Anne’s dementia is not a tragic decline, but a new journey they are embarking on together. In this way, he keeps faith with her and the transporting imagination she revealed to him as a boy. Yet there is something cramping in the way O’Hagan’s story turns back and in upon itself, looking for its resources in the already known (“A feeling of optimism fell from the deep past”); a limitation, too, in Luke’s private code of art which fails when confronted by the other or the new. It’s as if the larger questions are beyond the novel’s purview, and against a war, “dirty as fuck”, or a nation dismantling itself, art can only offer the reinstatement of humane behavior, of small, good, but quite intangible things, and of “artistic ordering”. That scarf – the reassuring friend – mentioned at the beginning of The Illuminations, reappears at the end. Luke takes Anne and a friend down to the beach, Anne’s scarf blows up into the air, “the girls laughing as it stretched up and a hand reached out for the sun.”
This review appeared in the TLS on 27.3.2015, titled ‘Order and Light’.