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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The Inaccuracies And Inadequacies Of Memory – The Sense Of An Ending

In 1984, Julian Barnes was first shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  He did not win that year.  Nor did he win in 1998, or 2005.  However, after more than thirty years writing various styles of fiction, Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.

The Man Booker Prize is an award given yearly to the best English Language book written by an author from the British Commonwealth (former winners that I’ve read and enjoyed include Midnight’s Children, Disgrace (by Coetzee), and Life of Pi).  Out of these (and now Barnes’ latest), I would give the edge to Barnes.  Why?  Well, let’s discuss it below!

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
Alfred A Knopf
August 4, 2011
163 pages 

One of the first things Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending tells us, through the character of Adrian Finn, that history is, “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” and this is a theme throughout the novel.

How much can we rely on memory?  If memory is to be trusted, it must be accurate.  The crux of this novel is that memory, and for that matter history, is what we make of it.  Whether the victor, or the defeated, we all twist the resulting information in our own ways, towards our own advantages.

The first third of the novel (Part I) deals with the two lead characters, Tony Webster (our narrator) and Adrian Finn.  Though Tony is friends with two other boys at his school, when Adrian arrives, he becomes a fourth… but a more serious, thoughtful member of the group.

Throughout the first part, Tony refers to this part or that part not actually being contained within the story he is telling.  Humorously (or humourlously, since we’re dealing with a British author), Tony continually refers to how characters, most especially Adrian, would act and react if they were within a novel.

An example: “What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?”  The funniest part about this line (ah, irony!) is that Tony clearly doesn’t see himself as the protagonist of his own story.  Funnier still is that, despite the majority of the focus being on Tony, Adrian is the driving force behind the rest of the novel.

In second half of Part I (confused yet?  Fuck it, I’m not changing my language now…), Tony and his friends part and head off to school.  Tony speaks to us about his experiences dating a girl named Veronica… and mostly, it seems terrible.  They never quite seem to get along quite well enough and, naturally break up.

At this point, Adrian re-enters the picture and tragedy strikes.  For whom?  I won’t ruin it for you, but Part I comes to a close and Part II begins nearly forty years later.

From age sixty (I’m approximating because I can’t find my note of the page that may or may not mention Tony’s age), we find Tony looking back at his life.  Divorced, though pleasantly, with a child and grandchildren, Tony is now retired and has much time to sift through memories of his earlier life and he does so.  Until his memories catch up with him and he is forced to see the truth about how he acted when he was younger.

The final two thirds of the book (that is, Part II) is sad… and a bit off putting throughout.  Therefore, the best part of the book.  Tony struggles to adjust to a world with Facebook and e-mail while simultaneously struggling to come to grips with the inaccuracies and inadequacies of his memory and attempting to bridge the gaps in his relationships (or at the very least, understanding why he’s having trouble).

The book, much like Travels in the Scriptorium, is quick and lends itself to being read in a single sitting (or two, if you want to read each part separately).  Like other short books I’ve read this recently (Travels in the Scriptorium, The Longer I Walk The Smaller I Am) The Sense of an Ending gets its literary strength from brevity.

The novel doesn’t traipse around like a squashed cockroach.  It ends when it needs to and doesn’t provide many answers, giving the reader ample opportunity to fill in the blanks.  A large story in a small book and well worth reading (and brief enough to re-read as well!).