A Groupie’s Revenge. Book review by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 12, July 2008.
A Groupie’s Revenge, by Tom Jennings
The Ghost, by Robert Harris
This bestselling novelist’s latest interrupts his blockbusting broad-brush historical revisionism, from Fatherland (1993; what if Germany had won WWII?) through Imperium (2006; ancient Roman skullduggery). The Ghost is contemporary; considerably less ‘thrilling’; and narrower in scope, following a worldweary ghostwriter for recently-retired UK Prime Minister Adam Lang to a posh New England resort to hack together hagiographic memoirs. Harris does, however, persist in fictionalising pivotal periods in terms of corruption, conspiracy and complicity among the Great and Good hitherto hidden from mainstream accounts meekly swallowing their platitudinous rationalisations. Here there’s also the obvious hook of Blair’s ‘legacy’ and a spate of superficial political autobiographies trading on present difficulties – although, of course, any resemblance to this novel’s characters is purely coincidental …
The portrayal of the vapid narcissism of power is decidedly deliberate, nonetheless, as is the murderous conjuncture of corporate unaccountability, elite greed, institutional arrogance and cynical media dishonesty. So the protagonist appropriately proposes to “put some heart” into his spin; whereupon he’s hard-pressed to find any. Skeletons and closets, conversely, proliferate. Not only did the ghost’s predecessor expire in suspicious circumstances, but government support for Bush involved a whole swathe of betrayals – personal, ideological, national – stretching back decades. Maintaining their secrecy threatens our hero too, and the enjoyably daft romp accelerates after he gets a shag with Cherie (sorry, Ruth Lang) and support from a dashing, charismatic ex-Foreign Secretary (who could that be?) clamouring to nobble his former boss as International War Criminal. Finally the dastardly CIA plot is revealed (and covered up) – New Labour was a dirty trick all along.
… Or, if not that, an exceedingly big bad apple infecting an otherwise noble enterprise. But wait! Wasn’t the writer cheerleader-in-chief embedded in the Third Way offensive? The Sunday Times political journo by Blair’s side during that heady 1997 election night? Who got in a strop when his chum Mandelson sunk (oh yes, and over the Iraq invasion)? Methinks something’s rotten in the isle of Harris, too – strong whiffs of bad faith permeating this extraordinary rendition of chattering-class tabloid malice; its solipsistic tone of action unravelling inside spiteful fantasies; the vanity of self-justifying hindsight paralleling the delusions of paranoia, where the world really is out to get you but not for the reasons your hubris assumes. Beneath the manifest content, the real conspiracy is neoliberal capitalism’s continuity since Thatcher, nurtured and hawked by lickspittle think-tanks and academics pimping economic sophistry to highest bidders both sides of the pond. Labour ‘modernisers’ partook of this poisoned font from the get-go,* learning the codependence of business prosperity on authoritarian states and the art of selling voters out – whereas evil spooks absolve both professional suckers and the entire discursive architecture which insists ‘there is no alternative’.
* see meticulous research by Lobster editor Robin Ramsay published, for example, in Variant magazine and books including Prawn Cocktail Party (Vision, 1998), The Rise of New Labour (Pocket Essentials, 2002), and new collection Politics and Paranoia (Picnic, 2008).
The Ghost, published by Hutchinson, is out now in paperback.