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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