Hagen, George 1958-
Hagen, George 1958-
Writer, novelist, and screenwriter. Worked variously as a movie theater doorman, carpenter, newspaper hawker, lumberyard worker, farmhand, janitor, cartoonist, word processor, and executive secretary.
The Laments (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Tom Bedlam (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2007.
Also author of several unproduced screenplays. Contributor to magazines and periodicals.
After decades of trying to make it as a screenwriter, George Hagen finally found success as a novelist in 2004 with the publication of The Laments. For two decades prior to publishing this first novel, Hagen had struggled to find his path as a writer. After majoring in film at New York University, he worked as a screenwriter: "I spent twenty years writing screenplays that were never produced and rarely earned me any money," he recalled in an interview on the Barnes and Noble Web site. He became so frustrated by the need to raise money to make his own films that he attempted other genres, including magazine articles, essays, cartoons, and short stories. Eventually, he was inspired to write a novel based on his personal experience. As he explained in an interview for the National Public Radio program Weekend Edition, "I got to the stage where I thought, ‘God, I want to write something that I really care about, and I want to make it funny and I want it to be exciting, but I also want to be moved in a way that I haven't been so far by anything else I'd done.’"
"Write what you like to read" is an oft-quoted writer's motto, and as Hagen cites among his influences Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackery, John Irving—"All the authors I've loved have been amusing as well as serious," he told Publishers Weekly writer Robert Rosenberg—it is not surprising that he eventually tried his hand at satire. The prose style laced with humor evident in The Laments prompted several reviewers to liken Hagen's style to that of John Irving in his bestselling The World according to Garp. Yet while Irving did not use his own life experiences for the plot in Garp, Hagen admits to mining his family history. For example, an episode from the author's own childhood morphed into how the eldest son in The Laments serves as a surrogate baby for another mother. The continental travels of the Laments also are similar to Hagen's experiences in traveling from Zimbabwe to the Middle East and England, before he settled in the United States.
The Laments involves the ill-fated and itinerant Lament family, which is made up of a failed engineer father, an artistic homemaker-turned-breadwinner, an adopted eldest son, and younger twin sons. After a bizarre turn of events kills the Lament couple's real son and his kidnappers, the Laments accept a substitute: the son of their son's kidnapper. For the sake of Mr. Lament's career, the family moves from country to country, where they never quite become insiders in the new culture of the moment.
Critical reviews of the novel were mixed, with several commentators writing that the novel lacks seriousness, and others finding its overall optimistic flavor a tonic for the age. "Hagen has shaped an affectionate family portrait in which the characters come vividly to life," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. "Each of them sees new opportunity eternally on the horizon in ways that have the potential to make this a story of crushing disappointment. But Mr. Hagen somehow endows it with brightness and finds a universality here, too." The Weekend Edition interviewer described the novel as "an ambitious, amusing, and ultimately moving story in all senses," while People critic Rebecca Donner called it a "heartrending and surprisingly comic family saga." A Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed it "a funny, touching novel about the meaning of family."
Other reviewers qualified their praise. Library Journal contributor David A. Berona wished that Hagen had developed the characters more fully, and Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly found it difficult to connect emotionally with the Laments. "Hagen is an agreeable prose stylist with a nice, quiet sense of humor and a finely developed understanding of human frailty and eccentricity," wrote Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley, adding, "The Laments reads smoothly and pleasantly, perhaps because there's so little weight to it." Likewise, Maslin commented, "As a light, charming first novel [about] a memorably eccentric family it has obvious appeal…. But it has less substance than its scope and format suggest."
In spite of any perceived shortcomings, Wilson noted "an admirable and enviable range and ambition in The Laments, and something lucidly democratic in the novel's insistence that a wandering life grants perspectives and perceptions that stay-at-homes can't achieve." Summing up The Laments as "part travelogue, part melodrama, and part tall tale," Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Mark Rozzo added that it is "the playful and heartfelt story of a family—and a world—that can't sit still." The "appearance of George Hagen on the literary scene is a gain for readers everywhere," concluded Wilson.
Hagen's second novel, Tom Bedlam, is a "big Victorian saga—earnest, well-intentioned, thoroughly decent, the kind of book you'd like to marry, but not date," remarked Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book World. In a story that several critics felt displayed overtones of Charles Dickens, Hagen follows his titular protagonist through fifty years, from youth to adult, from Victorian-era London to South Africa in the years following World War I. Tom is a "bright lad in dreadful circumstances," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Abandoned by his father, Tom faces bleak poverty as his mother, Emily, ekes out a living painting pottery in a dismal London factory. His father proves to be even more villainous when he returns and steals Emily's savings, intended for Tom's education. However, his return also results in the startling revelation of an older brother Tom never knew he had. When Emily has a fatal mental and physical breakdown, her father, a wealthy brewer, arrives on the scene. He sends Tom off to be cultured and educated in medicine. Though his schooling is marred by witnessing the murder of his best friend, Tom perseveres to become both a doctor and a gentleman. His life is further complicated when he elopes to South Africa with the daughter of one of his professors and becomes a battlefield surgeon in the Boer War. In Johannesburg, he establishes his family, but soon the specter of the Great War draws him back to England on an urgent business mission. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked that "Hagen's prose is surefooted," and called Tom a "sturdy protagonist and a magnificent relic from a world far gone."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of The Laments, p. 1700; April 15, 2007, Margaret Flanagan, review of Tom Bedlam, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, June 18, 2004, Jennifer Reese, review of The Laments, p. 93.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2004, review of The Laments, p. 412; April 15, 2007, review of Tom Bedlam.
Library Journal, May 1, 2004, David A. Berona, review of The Laments, p. 140; April 15, 2007, Kevin Greczek, review of Tom Bedlam, p. 72.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 22, 2004, Mark Rozzo, review of The Laments.
New York Times, June 10, 2004, Janet Maslin, "A Family of Eccentrics, Constantly on the Move," p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, August 22, 2004, Jonathan Wilson, review of The Laments, p. 8.
People, July 5, 2004, Rebecca Donner, review of The Laments, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, January 26, 2004, Robert Rosenberg, "All Roads Lead to … First Fiction," p. 111; April 26, 2004, review of The Laments, p. 38; March 26, 2007, review of Tom Bedlam, p. 61.
Washington Post Book World, June 20, 2004, Jonathan Yardley, "A Son Tries to Find His Place in a Family of Globe-trotting Eccentrics," p. 2; June 3, 2007, Ron Charles, "Great Expectations," review of Tom Bedlam, p. 4.
Barnes and Noble Web site,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (October 14, 2004), interview with George Hagen.
George Hagen Home Page,http://www.georgehagen.com (January 1, 2008).
Stanford Report,http://www.stanford.edu/ (July 27, 2005), "Fiction, Nonfiction Writers Honored with Biennial Saroyan Prize."
Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, September 25, 2004, transcript of interview with George Hagen.