Teenage Wasteland – Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon

The Panopticon
Jenni Fagan
Hogarth Publishing
July 23, 2013
306 Pages

At first blush, this book is odd.  For me, even getting the title correct was difficult.  Panopticon.  I kept wanting to insert an extra syllable or two in there.  I don’t know why.  I’m familiar with the idea of a panopticon… mainly because of Grant Morrison’s supremely weird take on an alternate-reality Justice League in JLA: Earth-2 (lavishly illustrated by the interminably fantastic Frank Quitely), where the Earth-2 version of the Justice League, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, live in a lunar fortress known as The Panopticon.

The comic led me to dig a little bit into what a panopticon was… mainly because I feel that a certain amount of research is necessary for a fuller enjoyment of Morrison’s work.  And having read a big chunk of Grant Morrison’s work had adequately prepared me for the other difficult part of this novel: the use of Scottish dialect throughout.

Be warned going in, every page (and almost every character) speaks in a thick Scottish dialect.  This makes sense as the novel takes place in the UK, but some people may be turned easily by the numerous instances of cannaes, dinnaes, and umnays that appear throughout the novel.

While I’m on the subject, the dialect and language within the novel work very well to create the full character of Anais Hendricks.  Anais herself is a fantastic, well written character.  I’d compare her to Dora, from the novel Dora: A Headcasebut a lot more tolerable… and much sadder.

The preface for the book is a brief passage directly from Anais wherein she states that she is part of a great experiment that is always watching, “They watch me, I know it, and I can’t find anywhere, anymore, where they can’t see.”  And this paranoia over being watched is a major theme of the novel… and the paranoia seems more and more justified as the novel goes on.

A Panopticon

The Panopticon of the book’s title is a sort of halfway house where Anais is sent after an unknown incident with a police officer named PC Dawn Craig.  The police believe, however, that Anais attacked PC Craig and put her into a coma.

The shape of the center (an example is pictured to the left… thanks Wikipedia!) allows a guard, or security person to be centered in the building and look out on all the people they have locked up, without ever having been seen themselves.  Anais is never certain when someone is actually watching her, but she’s her paranoia leads her to believe that someone is watching with regularity.

On top of this, there are constant references to CCTV… and Britain is well-known to be under heavy CCTV monitoring, so once again… Anais’s paranoia is actually quite justified.

As the story goes on, we get more of Anais’s background and the chapters skip around quite a bit… in one, she’s still in the panopticon, in the next she’s flashing back to being arrested, in another, she flashes back to the moments immediately before she Even so, Fagan is a deft author and able to juggle these changes in time with ease.

At first, Anais is a bit of a cipher and it is difficult to feel much pity for her.  But as Fagan tells us more of her backstory, she becomes more empathetic and real.  One of Anais’s favorite things to do is to imagine her real family.  She constantly comes back around to the dream that her real mother lives in Paris and one day, they’ll be reunited in the City of Light.  Anais’s dreams of a quiet life, dashing in and out of art galleries and snacking at French Cafes is heart-rendingly sad…

My final word on The Panopticon is that this is the best book of the year, bar none.  The writing is superb, especially because Fagan keeps the reader guessing at what is real and what is paranoid delusion on Anais’s part.  In fact, there’s no definite resolution on most of it… which is the true purpose of a panopticon.  They could be watching you… or maybe not… But is it worth the risk if they are?

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A Twenty-First Century Holden Caulfield – Dora: A Headcase

I’m going to preface this by saying that I have an absolute minimum of knowledge in regards to Freudian psychology.  Similarly, all I know about Freud’s own “Dora” case is the very, very brief piece that Wikipedia has on it.

That said, there’s plenty to be enjoyed in Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel Dora: A Headcase even without knowledge of the subtle (and not so subtle) Freudian slips. In fact, I’m going to come right out and say it… best book I’ve read all year!  Big apologies to Alif The Unseen, A Hologram For The Kingand Redshirts!

Dora: A Headcase
Lidia Yuknavitch
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
234 Pages
August 7, 2012

I’ll be honest… a lot of what drew me to this book was the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.  Though I haven’t enjoyed every book of his, I’ve found his writing to be consistently interesting even if I can’t get into the plots themselves.  Plus Fight Club and Survivor were a blast!

But I actually haven’t read it yet, even though I’ve finished the novel.  I skipped it because introductions are excellent ways to spoil a novel’s plot.  For instance, I know everything about Anna Karenina and War & Peace thanks to overzealous introductions.

I feel a bit disingenuous playing the Holden Caulfield card in the title.  It almost feels too easy. And it also seems a bit unfair to Yuknavitch to compare her creation to Holden Caulfield, mostly because Ida is only similar in how both novels resonate with me.

I simultaneously love and loathe Holden (and by extension Catcher In The Rye), and I feel the same about Ida in Dora.  The book is very well written, with an electric wit and an  originality of voice that I haven’t felt since I read Broken Glass Park a couple of years ago.  And the main character, Ida\Dora, is endearing… to a point.

For the first few chapters, I wanted to choke Ida with a spoon.  I think a lot of it comes from seeing too much of teen-aged myself in the character (which is why Holden irritates me so much too).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dora tells the story of Ida, a 17-year old filmmaker living in Seattle who is on the receiving end of some truly questionable therapy (the name of her therapist, of course, is Sigmund Freud).  Like his namesake “Siggy” (as Ida refers to him) sees dicks everywhere.  Everything is sexual in some manner, or another.

While dealing with an overbearing therapist, Ida also has to endure her father’s affair (with a woman she finds strangely attractive), her very eclectic friends (general hoodlums constantly in pursuit of art… or at least “art”), and a constantly unpredictable mind which seems to want to rebel against anything life throws at her.

Ida’s “posse” includes Ave Maria (a rich teen getting high and drunk on her parents’ dime), Little Teena (a cross-dresser who is also a trained concert pianist), and Obsidian (a Native American who has gone off reservation after being attacked and raped by her step-dad).

Oh and another of Ida’s best friends is another pre-op transsexual named Marlene (formerly Hakizamana Ojo of Rwanda) who gives Ida explicit sex books written in foreign languages.  Marlene is by far my favorite character in the book.

Through the first few chapters Ida is somewhat insufferable, what with her constant need to rebel against everything (coughing over her father’s attempts to communicate seriously with her, flashing her bits to her therapist, drunkenly stripping naked in a Nordstrom’s), but eventually… she starts to become endearing.  Her love and respect for her friends shines through and what once was annoying comes across as oddly refreshing.

There’s a certain point in the novel when tragedy strikes Ida and she transitions from an angry, angsty teenager, to a near-adult enduring a great deal of suffering and sorrow… deep-laid pain that is only beginning to bubble to the surface.

This sadness and pain transitions to the second half of the novel, whereupon we learn that Ida has lost the ability to speak.  I can’t get into much plot after this without delving too deeply into spoilers, but there’s a Viagra overdose, emergency surgery, pushy and violent reality TV producers, and a massive breakout from a juvie detention facility.

The only real flaw in the second half of the novel is the epilogue.  It takes a strong, emotional ending… and ties up all the loose ends in a very frustrating way.  In fact, I’m going to tell you right now just to skip it.

You know those movies that end with a song and a text box for each member of the cast, telling what happened after the movie’s story ends?  That’s this epilogue.  The whole thing is clunky, unnecessary, and rather annoying.

But definitely, definitely read this book.  Lidia Yuknavitch is now one of my favorite authors and I can’t wait to recommend her at every opportunity at work.

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