Sunday 21 July 2019

Fiction: I Am No One by Patrick Flanery - The need to watch and be watched

Fiction: I Am No One, Patrick Flanery, Atlantic Books, tpbk, 336 pages, €17

Patrick Flannery: an exploration on the erosion of privacy.
Patrick Flannery: an exploration on the erosion of privacy.
I Am No One
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

I Am No One, a superb novel from Patrick Flanery, on the surface tackles a major concern of modern life: state surveillance. (And, perhaps more worryingly, that undertaken by extra-state actors - rogue intelligence services or corporations).

On a deeper reading, I felt the book was also an exploration, and expression, of certain existential themes: alienation, identity, the nature of consciousness and the self. Ultimately, it left me pondering the search for meaning in an indifferent universe; the almost-terrifying randomness, even pointlessness, of existence.

Jeremy O'Keefe is a middle-aged history lecturer, recently returned to New York from a decade teaching in Oxford. He finds it difficult to settle back into his homeland, mending bridges with the daughter he more-or-less abandoned in her teens, his ex-wife, his mother. He doesn't really have any friends in America now; his days are somewhat lonely and dull. And Jeremy must readjust to living in the US, almost as though he's an immigrant instead of a returning ex-pat.

Flanery is excellent at capturing the essence of culture shock and deracination; how the quirks and tics of nationality mark you out as different in foreign climes, make people wary, make you feel you're walking slightly out-of-step, no matter how hard you try to keep the collective metre. And how that can change a person, making them question who they essentially are. (I'm assuming much of this is drawn from real-life; Flanery is American-born, did a doctorate at Oxford and now lives in London.)

One day Jeremy receives a large box, unmarked, delivered by courier to his apartment. It contains 2,500 pages of website addresses which, he belatedly realises, to his horror, is a comprehensive history of his life online for the past several years.

The dread increases when a second box arrives, listing every email he's sent for years. A third, cataloguing every phone call, will subsequently be delivered, as will photographs of him, collated by facial-recognition software.

Meanwhile, a strange young man called Michael Ramsey keeps meeting Jeremy - so much that it can't be coincidence - while another man, wearing a balaclava, stands outside his window at night, staring in, holding Jeremy's stare in return. As panic and anxiety escalate, his memories intrude more and more: of a weird, unsettling guy he knew in Oxford, and a female student who assumed a critical role in his life.

Who is watching him, and why? These are the basic narrative puzzles of I Am No One. But, as mentioned, the book delves deeper than merely interrogating the role of surveillance in modern democracies, the abuse of power by the powerful, the erosion of privacy, how we happily sign it away on social media (though it certainly does all that too).

Early on, Jeremy muses that, in one sense, to be human means to be observed, at least if you're part of a society. This is how we control ourselves and others, and learn to live in some imperfect harmony, enough to function as a group.

It suggests some profound psychological need: we not only allow ourselves to be watched, we want it so. And we watch the watchers too, and they us in return, and on and on it goes, like an unending hall of mirrors, or the notorious Panopticon prison in pre-Revolutionary France, where everything could be seen at every moment.

I Am No One is a tremendous work of fiction. Its long, elegant sentences and intellectual inquisitiveness are reminiscent at times of Philip Roth, at others of European masters like Alberto Moravia or Arthur Koestler.

Tonally it reminded me most sharply of Paul Auster's New York trilogy, especially in that trilogy's chilly sense of illogic and empty chaos, threatening to tip over into madness. There are shades of classic spy-stories, too: think Le Carré's gloomy contemplations more than Bond-esque glamour and adventure. If this was a film, it'd be shot in browns and greys.

But it stands alone too, a brilliant novel that works equally as espionage thriller, cautionary warning, socio-political j'accuse and - most rewardingly for me - existential meditation.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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