Monday 16 June 2008

A swill of inane weather and riverbank mud

Let me be frank: I must have been either asleep or drunk when I performed the page 40 test on Andrew O'Hagan's novel Our Fathers. I did that fatal page 40 test and was enthralled enough to keep reading for 4 more pages - a rare reaction - and so of course I bought it and squeezed it to the front of the queue, thinking I'd found something amazing. I actually imagined a lifelong relationship with the young O'Hagan approaching the brilliant and dazzling love affair I'm having with David Mitchell.

Like I said, I must not have been in my right mind. This book, beginning to end, must be one of the most pretentious things I've ever read. I should have known to be pessimistic when all of the reviewers kept using phrases like "elegiac", "deeply moving meditation", "poignant and powerful", and "lyrical and poetic" to describe it.

What that reviewer-speak mush all comes down to is this: his writing style defies the laws of grammar and instead of saying it's choppy and non-sensical, it must be said to be poetic; instead of noting that less occurs in this novel than in a good short story by Frank O'Connor, it must be said that the novel is an elegy to losses both personal and historical.

The writing wasn't good and I rushed through it to try to focus on the story, but of course, there was almost no story. The lack of story was irritating and I was too often brought up short by how embarrassingly bad the writing is - for example, when O'Hagan describes tea: "Its piping brown neutrality made me sick as a boy and it makes me sick still. A swill of inane weather and riverbank mud." These lines may be embarrassingly bad but they also made me laugh and laugh, if only because even at this early point in the book (p. 79), I saw O'Hagan as inadvertently admitting how Earnest and Young and designed to be nominated for the Booker his writing was.

O'Hagan really does his countrymen proud later in the book when he inadvertently imagines the most hilarious and impossible form of self-cannibalization conceivable while creating a "portrait" of some poor drunk chowing down in a pub: "A puddle of peas. And a gammon steak that looked sore. It looked red and sore, like one of their faces, a half pine-apple-ring set in the middle, a yellow-toothed grin. The plate was a mirror: the man was eating his own Scots face" (p. 168).

One phrase (because no, it was not, of course, a sentence) revealed what I think O'Hagan was really doing here, and the phrase is this: "His eyes of druid glass" (p. 82). O'Hagan is trying to start a fight with Cormac McCarthy - a sentence fragment-off with Cormac McCarthy!!! Dude, no one can beat McCarthy at that game. Sentence fragments are his lifeblood.

He'll beat you to death with 48 sentence fragments in a row that don't make any more sense than "eyes of druid glass" and then he'll bury you in 192 more concurrent sentence fragments, and then he'll deliver a 4-hour eulogy for you comprising only sentence fragments! You can't win this one, O'Hagan. I think it's best if you reviewed some other writers' plainer style and try again - not that I'll be checking up on your later stuff to see if your writing has improved, but I think the advice is nonetheless good.

I have to go read something by someone reliable now to try to blow the stink of O'Hagan's lyrical prose off of me.

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