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‘What kind of books you write?’
This obviously baffled him. He suspected mockery, but wasn’t quite sure. ‘Autobiographies, huh? Don’t you have to be famous to do that?’
‘Not any more.’
I have been waiting for the excuse to review this book for some time. Robert Harris’ thinly disguised poison letter directed at Tony Blair’s regime has already been made into a film, powered by the still vibrant anger felt by many Britons towards the Teflon Prime Minister. I was interested in reading the book, but decided to wait until the two men who defined the War on Terror released their own biographies. Tony Blair’s A Journey was a best-seller that inspired an unusual campaign by protesters to move the book to the ‘Crime’, section. Last week George Bush published his memoirs following the American mid-term elections. Apparently the most distressing event in his two terms of office was having Kanye West complain about his reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
I wanted to know if Harris had sketched out a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts years before these two former heads of state returned to the media scrum to defend their actions.
Each chapter of this book opens with a quote from Andrew Crofts’ Ghostwriting, introducing us to the life of a professional ghost writer. British Prime Minister Adam Lang has retreated to Martha’s Vineyard to ‘write his memoirs’. Unfortunately his last ghost writer has been found dead. That man’s replacement has arrived from London with dollar signs in his eyes, eager to please and having won the commission due to his intention to write an autobiography’that has more in common with a celebrity tome than a political memoir. He wants to tell a story with heart, which appeals to both Adam and his wife Ruth. They are eager to regain the love of the British people, as since his stepping down he has become the most hated man in Britain.
Our nameless ghost simply wants to clean up the material his predecessor McAra wrote, take his cheque and maybe get a mention on the acknowledgements page. He finds Adam Lang to be a very willing subject, charming and happy to engage his ghost-writer with personal reflections not common to most political biographies.
The atmosphere at the retreat itself is close and it becomes clear that the marriage of the Langs is under enormous strain. Adam Lang himself seems more like an actor than a statesman, faking sincerity where genuine emotion is needed. Then a rival politican announces that charges are to be brought before International Criminal Court accusing Lang of war crimes. What’s more the ghost-writer begins to suspect that there was more to McAra’s death than suicide due to work strain. He discovers that he is being watched, with electronically saved documents vanishing from his computer and strangers accosting him in public. Could he soon share the same fate as McAra?
What impresses most about this book is the tangible sense of anger. The arguments for and against the invasion of Iraq will continue to be debated, but what remains unusual is the refusal of Tony Blair in particular to acknowledge any responsibility for the colossal tragedy that followed his decision to go to war. Adam Lang’s need to be loved echoes that of Blair’s, the sole consistent aspect of his Prime Ministership being his love of associating with rock stars, whether it was the Gallagher Brothers during the Cool Britannia era, or Bono in the run-up to the G8 summit in Scotland. Therefore if Lang/Blair is to be loved, he cannot be the war criminal the British public see him as.
Harris wraps a gripping thriller plot around the hook of his Blair pastiche. The conspiracy uncovered by the ghost is convincingly established with chilling insight. I also liked the numerous references to ghostly presences in the book, from the phantom presence of McAra to the ambiguously unreal Adam Lang himself. The fame-chasing ghost-writer is also a condemnation of the lax complicity of the public in the actions of our leaders.
Harris’ book is an impressive political thriller, as well as a momentous broadside against the ‘Special Relationship’, between the United States and the United Kingdom. Angry, defiant (there was a possibility Harris would have faced libel charges from the Blairs) and gripping, a very entertaining yarn.
For many years now the more refined literary fictions have relied on the techniques of omission. The authors tastefully leave out of their narratives all the emotion and most of the drama. In the manner of Samuel Beckett or Ann Beattie, they supply 10, 000 lines of oblique irony with which the reader is expected to construct his or her own story on a blank page.
After the damp squib of DeLillo, I decided I needed some satire and bite. Which is why I turned to Lewis Lapham. 30 Satires is a collection of essays published between 1986 and 2002. Like all good satirists while some of the material is dated (the Reagan presidency, Steven Seagal comes in for a bit of a drubbing) the incisive wit is still fresh and vibrant. True satire does not fade away. Read H. L. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Monkey trial for example. The anger and passion on display is still very much alive.
Lapham’s collection features essays on American politics and culture for the most part. He adopts either the discursive style, or in the form of a letter that represents an imaginary dialogue with a personage representing the target of choice. Jefferson on Toast has Lapham posing as a screen writer brainstorming ideas for a right-wing Hollywood producer on a historical film that rehabilitates the rule of Britain over the colonies. After all, their values were indistinguishable from the values of the Republican right who support Big Business. Then there’s the chilling missive from a talent agent to a mother looking to launch her six-year old daughter into an acting career. Natural Selection has Lapham suggest to the mother that she have her child take lessons in live fire-arms, in the event of her school being besieged Columbine-style. She can take out the violent teens and then give tearful witness to Barbara Walters, capturing the news cycle. Fame must come at all cost.
There are also attacks on the media for their coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Junior. The very same media outlets that bought paparazzo photos of a hounded Princess of Wales, were all of a sudden calling for the blood of the same photographers they employed. Barbara Walters appears again whispering to her co-hosts during coverage of the media frenzy ‘They take money’. John F. Kennedy Junior’s heritage as a member of American ‘royalty’, seemingly was not made of equally sturdy stuff. Lapham reports that days after the initial wave of condolences, the coverage focusing on intimate encounters with the dead son of a dead President, a backlash suddenly flourished. The reason being a form of inverted ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The Kennedys as a political clan were seen to be less deserving of the character of royals, than the millionaire bankers and corporate leaders who rule America in all but name. The public’s capacity for belief in fairy tales could only stretch so far.
Philosopher Kings has Lapham addressing the frustrating search for ‘public intellectuals’. Look to the celebrities, he suggests. They command the attention of the people. Plato’s ideal is long out of fashion. If you want to find today’s thinkers, do not search the study halls of Harvard, or Yale (I am reminded of the Wachowski Brothers casting Cornel West in their Matrix sequels), send Madonna’s manager an email, asking who she thinks should run the country. Sky Writing is a similarly disillusioning take on the publishing industry, were a writer’s media profile far outstrips their literary talent in terms of importance. The goal for writers is to be successful, not to be writers and so they should really investigate more productive means of becoming famous. Committing a crime for example.
Lapham’s political essays address the rise of Pat Buchanan, the 1999 primaries featuring George W. Bush’s folksy stump speeches and the ill-fated campaign of Elizabeth Dole, but he reserves especial ire for President Bill Clinton. A liar and a hypocrite, Lapham expresses open disgust with Clinton for not stepping down, but also aims at the Starr investigation for its self-serving publicity. Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against the Saatchi exhibition also features, with broadsides launched against both sides of the dispute.
Satirists and cynics are often dismissed for cutting off their nose to spite their face, but in truth they often serve a moral agenda that holds society accountable to a higher standard. Lapham is undoubtedly a moralist, though one with a grim sense of humour. Recommended reading.