... slyly brilliant ... searching and elegantly argued. O’Toole isn’t unsympathetic to those who voted in favor of Brexit, but makes abundantly clear that he believes they were suckered into a raw deal ... His tone is charmingly wry but never gleeful. He reserves his most withering indictments for elite politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson — the 'Brexit ultras' who successfully deployed the language of autonomy and wounded pride to cast Brexit 'simultaneously as a reconstitution of Empire and as an anti-imperial national liberation movement' ... This toggling between grandiosity and self-pity is a neat trick, and O’Toole says the absurd rhetoric has been so successful because England has never grappled properly with its experience of winning a world war while also losing an empire.
The English sense of humour, once allegedly admired all over the world, has been turned back against us and in recent years, instead of making the joke, we find that we are its butt ... And now, to add final insult to bitter injury, we have to endure Fintan O’Toole forensically exploring the psychopathology of Brexit in this wounding book-length essay, in which he excludes the Scottish and the Welsh from discussion almost entirely on the grounds that 'Brexit is essentially an English phenomenon' ... O’Toole of course is well known (even in England) as both a political and a cultural commentator, and what gives this book its distinction is the fact that, as a critic of drama and literature, he is as adept at analysing character (as revealed by language) as he is at marshalling statistics ... Besides our campy, irresponsible love of eccentricity - and our bathetic mythologizing of the second World War – the English have also been laid low, in O’Toole’s analysis, by our peculiar sexual pathologies ... it’s the contemporary English imagination which is the real subject of this book. O’Toole uncovers and dissects it with the deliberate, affectless skill of a virtuoso surgeon. The result, for me, is a wildly entertaining but uncomfortable read. In short, he has nailed us. He has nailed us to the floor with a nine-inch nail. It’s certainly not easy bein’ English these days, and O’Toole, with this pitilessly brilliant book, has just made it at least fifty shades harder.
There are minor flaws in this irresistible firecracker of a book. It was Madame Defarge, not Madame Lafarge, who sat by the guillotine, and Churchill, not Lloyd George, who decided to send the Black and Tans into Ireland. Nor was Enoch Powell opposed to the welfare state ... But O’Toole’s most luckless misstep has been his premature exultation in the failure of Boris Johnson to become prime minister. He wrote in the British edition of the book, published in November last year and appearing again in this American edition, that Johnson 'could not actually make himself leader of a country that had just effectively voted for him,' since he came from 'a decadent and dilettante political elite.' Well, as it turned out, in the end he could. The joke had gone so far that it overwhelmed all the sobersides who couldn’t see the joke. Marx was right about that at least: When history repeats itself, tragedy pops up again as farce.
The psychopathology of Brexit is at the heart of Fintan O’Toole’s compact counterblast ... it would be a hardy ego – whether national or individual – that would unequivocally welcome O’Toole’s devastating analysis ... If Brexit, according to O’Toole, is 'a radical operation on the wrong part of the body', then the task is to diagnose what really ails us and, in the process, to untangle myth from reality, nationhood from nationalism, neurosis from health.
Any book that delves deeply into the psyche of a country—or even presumes that countries have psyches—is bound to occasionally skirt the edges of absurdity. O’Toole, alas, can’t resist seeing political significance in the publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey, imagining an audience for whom Christian Grey was the E.U. and Anastasia Steele innocent England. But his summation of the paradox at the heart of Brexit is succinct and shrewd: 'There is an imperial nationalism and an anti-imperial nationalism; one sets out to dominate the world, the other to throw off such dominance. The incoherence of the new English nationalism that lies behind Brexit is that it wants to be both simultaneously.'
There will not be much political writing in this or any other year that is carried off with such style. Some of O’Toole’s set pieces and conceits are column-writing of the highest order ... The book teems with telling metaphors and images ... O’Toole, a columnist and critic for The Irish Times, is a sharp thinker as well as a prose stylist and the book is teeming with good points ... There is also a lot to learn from O’Toole’s incidental arguments. This is a literary book ... Not all of O’Toole’s arguments land. His claim that opposition to the EU replaced the racist impulse in British politics is a bit hard to swallow ... There are also intriguing questions that are left hanging ... The strongest reservation about Heroic Failure is that it is a comforting and luxurious read for people who already agree. O’Toole tells you what you think already better than you could say it yourself. Unless, of course, you don’t think it already, in which case he is unlikely to persuade you. Indeed, he is not even trying to. He’s having too much fun although that is a strangely limited ambition. He doesn’t want to win converts. There are times when the vitality of the writing spills over into insult ... The tone of intellectual certainty, decked out with literary allusion, is not the only reason it is hard to avoid the feeling that this is a London Review of Books essay unnaturally elongated.
Whatever happens with Brexit,” writes O’Toole in this deft assessment, 'this toxic sludge will be in England’s political groundwater for a long time.' A solid combination of candor, clever turns of phrase, and clear insight into the English psyche.