Out of the shadows
Non-fiction: The Secret Life, Andrew O'Hagan, Faber, hbk, 260 pages, €14.99
Jake Kerridge examines an intriguing book by Julian Assange's ghostwriter about three mysterious men who embraced the digital age.
The headline-grabber in this collection of three bits of journalism by the novelist Andrew O'Hagan is his account of working as a ghostwriter on the (ultimately abandoned) autobiography of Julian Assange. "The people I write about," says O'Hagan in his foreword, "tend to inhabit a reality that they make for themselves."
That seems a generously euphemistic way to describe Assange, who for a time forced O'Hagan to inhabit his invented reality with him, without benefit of map or compass.
O'Hagan's charming phrase seems more redolent of innocent fantasists such as the children in Swallows and Amazons pretending they are fighting pirates, and perhaps the best way to write about Assange's day-to-day life in his bijou fastness within the Ecuadorian embassy would be to adopt the deadpan narrative style of that book: "Captain Julian entered his sixth year secure in his cabin on HMS WikiLeaks, ready to repel any boarders who might want to ransom him to the Swedish authorities."
But we are all Assanges now, according to O'Hagan. Thanks to the internet, the process of improving on reality by creating alternative lives for ourselves, of living a secret existence, is not just easy but dangerously addictive.
The people best able to write about this phenomenon, he claims, are novelists, because they are used to living multiple existences, "always on the lookout for a second life".
But as I read his book, I started to feel that his novelistic impulse to examine the character nuances and inner lives of his subjects Julian Assange and Craig Wright, who may or may not have been behind the invention of Bitcoin, was battling with a journalistic instinct telling him they don't have any.
The first section of the book describes O'Hagan's dealings with Assange. They got on well, bonding over a shared taste for silly jokes. O'Hagan believes in the potential of the WikiLeaks project to be a force for good in a world ruled by malign, lying governments, and he has a point. But in a pained manner reminiscent of a mid-20th-century fellow-traveller realising that Stalin wasn't all he was cracked up to be, he comes to see that Assange is too capricious and narcissistic to be capable of administering the project responsibly. More pressingly, he eventually realises that Assange, who has accepted a fat cheque for the autobiography O'Hagan is supposed to be ghosting, has no intention of allowing the book to be written. Like many professional writers, O'Hagan has an inflated sense of how interesting publishing deals are for the reader: the element of suspense in this story comes not from the possibility that Assange may be assassinated by the CIA, but from the prospect of his making his publisher Jamie Byng so cross that he will have to pay back a bit of his advance.
O'Hagan thinks that Assange "made a massive tactical error in not going to Sweden to clear his name". At one point he recalls a chilling moment when he saw Assange checking out some passing 14-year-olds ("'No', he said, 'It was fine until I saw the teeth.' One of the girls was wearing a brace.")
"I record this not to show how predatory Julian is - I don't believe he is any more predatory than hundreds of men I've known," writes O'Hagan, "I tell it to suggest how self-delighted he can be."
If O'Hagan really knows hundreds of men who do worse things than assess pubescent girls on their physical desirability and not just for effect, perhaps he should be writing about them instead.
The third piece in the book describes O'Hagan's experiences on another doomed assignment; being hired as the official chronicler of the outing of Craig Wright, an Australian computer scientist in his forties, as the mysterious 'Satoshi Nakamoto,' the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin. Wright's attempt to prove in front of dozens of journalists that he is the real Nakamoto goes badly awry, and there is a striking sketch of him afterwards complaining that he was flustered by having to perform in front of people, and repeating, "I'm not personable. I'll never be personable." Larry David must play him in the movie.
These are fascinating stories well-told, but when O'Hagan starts with the psychological probing, one wonders if his subjects are worth the bother. Of course, his diagnoses are neatly phrased: "I believe that self-sabotage is in [Wright's] nature, as it is in Julian Assange's nature, exacerbated by an ego that would sooner die than admit to being wrong."
But too often he has to fall back on not very inspiring antitheses: "Julian... had both too much self and not enough"; Wright reflects "the internet's habit of self-dramatisation and self-concealment all at once".
The bridge between these two long profiles is a short piece of 30 pages in which O'Hagan, taking a tip from the working practices of undercover policemen, borrows from a gravestone the name of a man who died young and takes on his identity, securing him a passport and creating a social media presence for him, buying drugs and guns on the Dark Web in his name.
While pursuing this scheme for "testing the net's propensity to radicalise self-invention", he feels compelled to find out more about the life of this young man, Ronnie Pinn, who died of a heroin overdose in 1984, aged 20. This is the emotional core of the book.
It is heartbreaking to see how little remains of Ronnie in the memories of those who knew him after only 30 years, but eventually O'Hagan's gumshoeing leads him to create a plausible picture.
I can't help feeling that rather than spending time with famous nonentities, O'Hagan might have been happier doing something more along the lines of The Missing, the non-fiction book exploring the phenomenon of ordinary people who disappear, which made his name two decades ago.
Certainly a book that found out how average folk live their dual lives in the digital age would have provided a better context for his frequent but somewhat unanchored reflections on the topic. But for whatever reason, of his three subjects it is Ronnie Pinn, the one he never met, who lingers longest in the reader's mind.