A Top 10 Book of Essays & Literary Criticism for Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly | Books We Can’t Wait to Read in the Rest of 2017, Chicago Reader
The slippery online ecosystem is the perfect breeding ground for identities: true, false, and in between. The Internet shorthand IRL—“in real life”—now seems naïve. We no longer question the reality of online experiences but the reality of selfhood in the digital age.
In The Secret Life: Three True Stories, the essayist and novelist Andrew O’Hagan issues three bulletins from the porous border between cyberspace and IRL. “Ghosting” introduces us to the beguiling and divisive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose autobiography the author agrees to ghostwrite with unforeseen—and unforgettable—consequences. “The Invention of Ronnie Pinn” finds the author using the actual identity of a deceased young man to construct an entirely new one in cyberspace, leading him on a journey deep into the Web’s darkest realms. And “The Satoshi Affair” chronicles the strange case of Craig Wright, the Australian Web developer who may or may not be the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto—and who may or may not be willing, or even able, to reveal the truth.
O’Hagan’s searching pieces take us to the weirder fringes of life in a digital world while also casting light on our shared predicaments. What does it mean when your very sense of self becomes, to borrow a term from the tech world, “disrupted”? Perhaps it takes a novelist, an inventor of selves, armed with the tools of a trenchant reporter, to find an answer.
This splendid collection from novelist O'Hagan (The Illuminations) brings together three essays originally published in the London Review of Books that explore identity in the digital age through three figures: Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks; Craig Steven Wright, who may or may not be the creator of bitcoin; and Ronald "Ronnie" Pinn, who, despite a U.K. passport, mailing address, and gaggle of Facebook friends, is not real. The piece on Assange would be the standout in an ordinary essay collection, but this is not one of those, and O'Hagan's study of the Australian hacker, for whom he once ghostwrote the first draft of an autobiography, while absorbing, pales in comparison with the profile of Wright (who comes across as an eccentric but altogether more likable character than the narcissistic Assange). But it is Ronnie Pinn, a digital identity created by O'Hagan based on a name from a headstone, whose pseudoexistence says the most about who we are now. O'Hagan's grasp of storytelling is prodigious, and the ending of his essay on Pinn is a particularly inspired, even moving, piece of writing. Taken as a whole, this is an unmissable collection of up-to-the-moment insights about life in our digital era.