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”.