Observer review: Personality by Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O'Hagan follows the rise and fall of a 70s celebrity in his rags-to-riches tale, Personality

by Andrew O'Hagan
Faber £16.99, pp327

Celebrity - its lures and trials - is the subject of Andrew O'Hagan's multifaceted second novel, Personality, which tells a rags-to-riches-to-rags-tale of a child star. Its heroine cum noble savage, thrown into the fetid world of fame, is Maria Tambini, a 13-year-old from the Isle of Bute. Maria is enjoying an average Seventies childhood, dressing up for Jubilee parties and styling the synthetic locks of her Girl's World, but these varieties of kitsch are transformed when she sings her way to stardom on Opportunity Knocks.

Uprooted to a vast house on Primrose Hill, London, commandeered by her plummy, fast-talking agent, Maria finds herself in the bizarre land of childhood fantasy, rubbing shoulders with Les Dawson, 'good old Little and Large' and Ken Dodd. While her former best friend chases boys, Maria lives life in a relentless series of greasy dressing-rooms and appearances in end-of-pier-shows. She leaves her picaresque Italian family behind, though they re-emerge in the book to deliver mournful soliloquies. O'Hagan favours a fragmented polyconsciousness and Maria's story is constantly interrupted by other voices - her family, her friends, her obsessive fan.

Described by a pundit as a 'product of the Seventies light-entertainment world', Maria later finds herself a commodity going out of fashion. She develops anorexia nervosa, apparently induced by the judgmental stare of the media and the demands of the market for thin and beautiful women.

O'Hagan introduces the stark image of the hunger artist, taken from a painting by German expressionist, Otto Dix, of a woman starving in a glass case in a Twenties restaurant, surrounded by diners gorging themselves. Dix's subject is a spectacle for a decadent crowd, a victim of a society bored with everything except the grotesque and sensational.

This sense of surfeit permeates the book. There's too much talk, too many 'fashionable madmen' releasing their 'boring cry', as Auden had it.

At one stage, Maria buys dozens of magazines, each plastered with pictures of celebrities, and dumps them into a blender. Whipping them up into a thick paste, she lifts it to her mouth and cries with disappointment when 'she found it tasted of nothing'.

The conflict between 'high culture' and 'entertainment' rages. There's a nostalgic affection for Seventies entertainers, with their flared brown suits, one-liners and catchphrases, chanted back by the audiences. Hughie Green, the presenter of Opportunity Knocks , a meister of the middlebrow, reveals a childhood spent reading 'philosophy, poetry... Plato... Walt Whitman'. He chose, he confesses, a career with the masses, because, 'talent and entertainment are out there, making the world fit to live in, changing the lives of billions of people. You don't find that in books.'

At one stage, Maria confesses that she has never read a book in her life; her later recuperation involves reading for pleasure. Yet the intellectuals who apply theoretical jargon to mass-market fodder come in for a bashing: 'Clever long-haired Oxbridge men... who write unpublishable articles about the aesthetics of the leisure industry'; the 'mysteries of Abba'; the 'semiotics of Tupperware'.

O'Hagan opens with a quotation from Judy Garland: 'We need applause. That's how we live. When you don't have a lot of noise around you, the noise inside you becomes overwhelming.' Though Dix's hunger artist gives the audience what they want, the image of Kafka's hunger artist also lurks in the book - a polite, demoralised man, continuing to starve even when his audience has grown bored of his act, confessing that he cannot eat because he has never found the food that he liked. His is a silent distaste for what he finds around him, more the sad resistance of hunger strike than market-responsive self-denial.

When 'culture' is formed by the competing expressions of internal noise, and women are seen or heard only for their bodies or personal traumas, then it is time to retreat, O'Hagan suggests, and Maria does. Whether this is passive resistance or total defeat is left tantalisingly unresolved.


Joanna Griffiths

The GuardianTramp

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