The Secret Life by Andrew O’Hagan
In 2011, the novelist Andrew O’Hagan was signed up to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s memoirs, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. The famously egotistical WikiLeaks founder had “high hopes for the book”, predicting that it would become “one of the unifying documents of our generation”. Unsurprisingly, however, it “all ended in tears”. After recording some 50 hours of interviews, Assange (pictured) – at the time holed up in a country house in Norfolk, under virtual house arrest following rape allegations in Sweden – withdrew his cooperation, declaring all memoirs to be “prostitution”. His UK publisher, unable to claw back the £500,000 advance (which Assange claimed to have spent on legal bills), decided to publish O’Hagan’s draft anyway, “wittily” calling it The Unauthorised Autobiography. Several years later, O’Hagan has written a long and “delightfully beady” account of the episode, which forms the first (and by far the best) of the three essays in The Secret Life.
The Unauthorised Autobiography proved a “flop”, said David Sexton in the London Evening Standard, but “a fine piece of writing” has now emerged from all this. Without seeming in any way “vengeful”, O’Hagan, who had started out as a fan of WikiLeaks, builds a “devastating” portrait of the Australian computer geek. He comes across as a paranoid oaf with “terrible” table manners (he ate “jam pudding with his hands”), an “inability to recognise when he’s becoming boring” and a refusal to see any point of view but his own. In short, he has failed to grow up. As O’Hagan puts it: “I’ve never been with anybody who made me feel so like an adult. And I say that as the father of a 13-year-old.” His essay is a brilliantly coherent account of an “insufferable, incoherent man”, a man summed up by O’Hagan as “thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful and narcissistic”.
The volume’s other two pieces are also portraits of “outlaws” from “the Wild West of the internet”, said Andy Beckett in The Guardian. One is of Craig Wright, who claims to be the inventor of the mysterious online currency bitcoin – “another middle-aged man whose brain and sense of paranoia are much larger than his social skills”. The other is of Ronald Pinn, a long-dead Londoner whose “identity O’Hagan borrows to create a fictitious internet persona”. In the end, these essays are too fragmentary to be the revelatory “encounter with the internet” that they set out to be. But written with O’Hagan’s customary “wit and confidence”, they are an absorbing read.