‘The Illuminations’, by Andrew O’Hagan

There is an odd stylistic tic employed by Andrew O’Hagan in The Illuminations, in which the F-word regularly used by certain of his characters is spelt with an “-en” ending rather than “-ing”. No other word is similarly misspelt. Readers of war novels may detect a nod to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), in which the word “fug” famously appeared as a proxy for the other F-word — the one whose present participle O’Hagan insists on spelling as “fucken”.

O’Hagan, in his other role as a literary journalist and essayist, once interviewed Mailer, for the Paris Review in 2007. In this, his fifth novel, he moves into Mailer-esque territory, focusing on the British Army’s campaign in Afghanistan at the start of the 2010s, a military folly that O’Hagan characterised recently as “our Vietnam”.

The story centres on the character of Luke Campbell, a 29-year-old Scottish captain in the 1st Royal Western Fusiliers. A disillusioned idealist, Luke goes on Apocalypse Now-style jaunts with his squaddie underlings and deranged commander, getting stoned on local marijuana, listening to heavy metal and watching tracer bullets illuminate the night.

Meanwhile back in Scotland, in a seaside town on the west coast, Luke’s beloved 82-year-old grandmother Anne is living in sheltered housing and suffering dementia. She was previously a photographer affiliated to the (real-life) “Young Meteors” group of photojournalists who revolutionised British photography in the 1950s. “Documentary work is the future,” Anne’s dead lover, a fictive “Young Meteor” once told her. “It’s the truth, darling, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Movements between fact and fiction recur in O’Hagan’s writing. Born in 1968 in Scotland, he published his first book, The Missing, in 1995, a mix of memoir and reportage about people who go missing in Britain. His first novel, Our Fathers, followed in 1999, a Booker Prize-shortlisted family drama centring on the rise of Glasgow’s tower blocks in the 1960s. In 2003, Personality dramatised the downfall of a 1970s Scottish pop singer partly inspired by the real-life case of anorexic former child-star Lena Zavaroni.

“The contemporary novel can play with the imagination,” O’Hagan told an interviewer who expressed concern at the use of Zavaroni’s sad story. The point is amplified in The Illuminations. “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books,” opines Luke’s unstable but erudite commander. “You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Unfortunately The Illuminations fails its reality test. It is an implausible novel, undone by stilted dialogue, half-realised characters and a contrived assembly of affinities and oppositions, a process optimistically likened to the darkroom where photographers “work with contrast not only to get at life but to enhance it”.

Writers of Norman Mailer’s generation were much exercised by the question of how the novelist should operate in a culture dominated by film and photography. “One of my basic notions . . . is that there is this mysterious mountain out there called reality,” Mailer told O’Hagan in the Paris Review interview. “We novelists are always trying to climb it.” The ascent calls for different writing styles depending on the approach: “The point is that style is an attack on the nature of reality.”

O’Hagan takes two stylistic approaches in The Illuminations. The prose is simple, a self-consciously unliterary register for the novel’s working-class characters. At the same time he deploys the novelist’s aristocratic right to go wherever he wants, a kind of droit de seigneur allowing access to his characters’ innermost thoughts, even ones they are unaware of themselves.

The aim is to show, in Luke’s words, that there is “an art to telling the truth”. This made-up truth-telling is contrasted with the video games he and the other soldiers are addicted to, leaving them unable to differentiate between the pixelated visions on the screens and the glowing desert-world. “It was all too real,” he tells Anne on his return, “though we struggled to know it.”

The sententious phrasing is typical. O’Hagan brandishes his access-all-areas novelistic pass over-insistently. Almost every sentence quivers with meaning; a dissatisfying air of unreality takes hold, reinforced by patronising dialogue and awful squaddie banter (“Is that an AK47 in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”). People are unpacked like suitcases, over-explicated by a prim interiority: it is perhaps telling that one of them likens the subconscious to mice, a pest to be eradicated.

Anne’s dementia is cast in a rosy glow, as though she were an idiot savant, not the victim of a paranoia-inducing mental disease. Inexplicable discrepancies seem to replicate her forgetfulness within the texture of the novel, so that Luke, telling his mother of his involvement in a newspaper-reported atrocity in Afghanistan, finds himself asked by her 110 pages later: “Did something happen to you in the army, Luke?” Somewhere in the background looms the mysterious mountain called reality. It is not scaled on this occasion.

The Illuminations, by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber, RRP£17.99, 304 pages

Illustration by Luke Waller

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