Through the looking glass, and down the rabbit hole : the world of the watcher and the watched
Patrick Flanery’s third novel takes the reader almost immediately into a shifting sands world.
We are never quite sure, for example, where the narrator, a middle-aged History Professor, now teaching film studies, back in New York after 10 years in Oxford, is, in time. He appears to move between a something-has-happened future, a present where something-is-about-to-happen, and his earlier, settled Oxford past. Except that he begins to take the lid off that past, and there are further shifts, Not least of which is identity and origin. Jeremy O’ Keefe is not allowed to be American in America – influenced by his 10 years in England, his fellow Americans are convinced he is a Brit, but, despite his attempts to ‘acculturate’ himself in England, he was firmly not allowed to forget he was American.
At the start of this book, O’ Keefe’s voice is measured, precise, almost pedantic, a correct, dry, considered and intelligent academic voice. O’Keefe (in the voice which Flanery gives him) is very much the didact, donnish, instructing the reader at all times. It’s a little like sitting in on a lecture, with cultural references offered, and you, as reader, are expected to engage and get the references. But this voice begins, subtly, but inexorably to shift, becoming a little waspish, sharp, sarcastic, full of asides that indicate that all is not quite as we, the readers, might assume about Jeremy O’ Keefe. Is this a narrator to be trusted? Is he an unreliable narrator? Might he be disordered, even deranged?
I was very quickly floundering, anxious, confused – and Flanery was deliberately taking me to that place, because this uneasy, doubting world, so different below its surface, is the world the narrator inhabits. A world where nothing is quite as it seems. Jeremy O’ Keefe appears to be under surveillance. And may have been so, for quite some time.
This is the theme of the book : the increasingly ubiquitous surveillance society, particularly in democracies. Surveillance is not only something confined to totalitarian societies. Developed democracies, and advanced technology allowing advanced surveillance. coexist and feed each other. Watching, being watched.
Flanery is a wonderfully crafted writer who writes ‘about stuff – big stuff’, but, at least in his first two novels, without polemic. Character, place, narrative, relationship, authenticity in character, voice and action are the authentic containers for the philosophical ideas Flanery wishes to explore.
Unfortunately, with this, his third book, I began to feel, from about half way through the book, that the ‘about’ had become more central than the fictional framework.
Something Flanery has done brilliantly in his previous novels, is to offer complexity through having more than one narrator, more than one point of view, each of which is fully engaged in, so that a depth and range of arguments can be explored. In I Am No One, we really are only taken into Jeremy’s point of view. Initially, whilst O’ Keefe is unsure what it going on, and it seems as if he could be having some problems with his memory – at least, this is his initial, quite rational conclusion – the reader is satisfyingly presented with a few choices: Is Jeremy a reliable narrator? Are the things which are happening really happening? Is he suffering from paranoia? Does he have some neurological physiological or psychological trauma? Is he perhaps suffering from paranoia and yet right to be paranoid, because the things that are happening are real?
So far, so good. We learn, fairly early on, that Jeremy is writing the sequence of events which are happening, for some reason. There comes a point as he begins to reveal more of his past to the reader (and whoever, in the novel might be the recipient of his writing) where we see what the answers to all the above questions might be. And most importantly, some of the revelations the reader is given not only answer our questions about what is going on, but, surely (as Jeremy knows his own history) would have answered his own questions, too, at an earlier stage. Without plot spoilers, which I don’t want to indulge in, it is difficult to explain. But the result is the wonderful unsureness which the reader experienced before Jeremy comes clean about what is happening retrospectively, then has to seem authorial contrivance (Flanery’s). And as O’Keefe is a history professor with a particular interest in surveillance society – he specialised in the Stasi – he knows what might alarm States. I felt as if the ‘ambiguities’ about what was going on, as far as the reader is concerned, were being artificially maintained for us, by Flanery, and I couldn’t quite believe the narrator’s questioning of the ambiguity of what was going on, in terms of is-it-real-or-am-I-imagining-this?
A further example of where I think Flanery ended up fumbling and dropping the balls he was juggling, is the often resurfacing dark hints which Jeremy drops about how, at an earlier stage in his academic life, before Oxford, he failed to get tenure in his previous post in American academia. The narrator returns to that, time and again, and I kept waiting for the revelation of what had happened. But it never comes.
It’s been a real struggle to review this. Patrick Flanery is a wonderful writer, and I Am No One is still a good and important book. Unlike his earlier books, however, I think this one is more of a cerebral book, challenging to the intellect alone. One of Flanery’s strengths as a writer is to take the reader into the mind, heart, gut of his central characters, to come inside their idea of the world, to understand and believe their authenticity. It was accepting O’Keefe’s authenticity which I began to struggle with after the ’I-won’t-reveal-the-spoiler’.
Part of the problem is that Jeremy, being the man he is, rather stands outside his own emotional and visceral experience. There is a kind of aloofness in his voice. He observes himself, and doesn’t quite come close inside himself. He is more of a watcher, and we don’t have anyone else presented from their ‘inside’ – we only have Jeremy’s view of how they are viewing him.
I suspect, had I never read any Patrick Flanery before, I may have liked this more warmly and enthusiastically than I do. I don’t think I would have surrendered to it, I don’t think I would have loved it, but I would have liked it more decisively – because I would not have those two extraordinary novels to make comparisons with, and would not have seen what I am missing, with this. That I believe it is worth reading is given that, until about half way through, even this early in the year, I thought this was going to be one of my books of the year, which both previous novels had easily been
Do read it – even in my disappointment I can see how good a writer Flanery always is, and this is still a pertinent and thought provoking novel. And then, if you don’t know them already, do read Absolution, and do read Fallen Land.
I wait, eagerly, for Flanery’s next novel
I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Atlantic Books
Although the book is available in hardback and Kindle in the UK from February 4th, American readers will have to wait until July for a wood book copy, though the Kindle is available from 4th February