Book Review: The Secret Life

The ‘three true stories’ that make up Andrew O’Hagan’s new collection of essays The Secret Life is a vital look at the reality of self in the cyber age.

O’Hagan is an apt writer to chronicle the blurring of reality in these digital times. As an acclaimed fictional author (The Illuminations, Be Near Me), O’Hagan is a creator of rich characters as well as an essayist of note. In a bizarre turn of events, the Scottish writer was contacted to write about two of cyberspace’s most infamous and eccentric figures, who just happen to be Australian, Julian Assange and Craig Wright (the alleged Bitcoin founder known as the secretive Satoshi Nakamoto).

The first essay, ‘Ghosting’, chronicles O’Hagan’s attempt to ghost write Assange’s autobiography. Hired by Assange’s publisher, O’Hagan wanted to remain a ghost but ran into trouble almost immediately, as Assange craved the book be part manifesto and then was seemingly uninterested in an autobiography/manifesto. But O’Hagan couldn’t walk away from Assange at his base at Ellingham Hall (surrounded by young supporters) as he felt the story was too large and as an early supporter of Assange thought that “what Julian lacked in efficiency or professionalism he made up for in courage”. A compelling insider’s account of the day-to-day life of Assange before he fled to his current home at the Ecuadorian Embassy, this is an unglamorous look at one of the world’s most infamous and complicated men, a man who craves fame but wants the world to believe otherwise and who would rather fight with former allies than focus on the task at hand.

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O’Hagan finds a similarly complicated figure in Wright, a former academic who is alleged to be the mastermind behind Bitcoin (a digital payment system) and the mythical Satoshi Nakomoto. Wright was to be unveiled as Nakomoto by a corporation (nTrust) and O’Hagan was there to document it warts and all. Intriguingly, he didn’t want the scoop but instead the real inside story, as nTrust hired a PR firm to reveal Nakomoto’s identity to the world via selected media. Like Assange, Wright is a difficult man. And things were complicated; Wright could have potentially faced prosecution if he was revealed to be Nakomoto due to people using Bitcoin for nefarious purposes. But did he want to be revealed? Is he really Nakomoto?

Like Assange, Wright seemingly wants to destruct what he has achieved. “His online existence had stripped him bare and he was no longer sure if he was anybody at all,” writes O’Hagan. “I believe that self-sabotage is in his nature, as it is in Julian’s Assange’s nature, exacerbated by an ego that would sooner die than admit to being wrong.”

All three stories (the other sees O’Hagan create a fake identity like a spy or a police investigator) are like real-world geek John Le Carre thrillers, as O’Hagan jumps down the rabbit hole with figures who occupy “the wild west of the internet” with no ethics or code of decency. The Secret Life is a must-read collection of essays for this new world of double lives. As O’Hagan, notes: “Moreover I find that literature, formerly the main area of double lives, now takes second place to the web, where nobody today can be simply one thing.”

Author: Andrew O’Hagan
Publisher: Faber & Faber

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