July 2013

Sarah Blackman


The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The opening scene of Jennie Fagan's debut novel, The Panopticon, promises a page-turner. Here is Anais, fifteen years old, a life-long veteran of the foster care system, handcuffed in the back of a police car with blood on her skirt. She is being delivered to a sinisterly named institution for troubled youth, The Panopticon, while across town a policewoman lies in a coma. The police believe Anais is responsible and want revenge in the form of a locked ward and then adult prison. The shifting cavalcade of social workers ensconced in her life believe Anais is probably responsible and want to rehabilitate or punish or study or wash their hands clean of her. Anais herself thinks she is innocent, though due to heavy ketamine use, she can't quite remember the events of that day. The self she believes herself to be -- a staunch, though incorrigibly criminal, moralist who stands up for the underdog, who is protective of and tender to her friends, who only fights to guard her reputation and only causes harm to those who deserve it under the irregular, anarchic ethos of her world-view -- feels that she is innocent. In a book where all symbols of institution or authority are uncaring at best and often far more maliciously corrupt, the suggestion is that feeling trumps factual knowledge any day.

For the reader, however, the question is not so self-contained. How does one trust such a systemically untrustworthy narrator; one whose perspective is undermined by near constant drug use, trauma so deeply embedded it alters her physical perception, and a self-confessed fear that she might actually be psychotic? Yet, how does one trust the police, or the social workers, or the institutions that have done such a fundamentally poor job of protecting Anais and her friends, a system whose apathy is so deeply-seated that the local paper absolves society's responsibility to its most vulnerable members by stating, "NOBODY COULD PREVENT CHILD'S MURDER"?

So: Did she or didn't she? Will she be locked away or break free from the cycle of violence and abuse that has marked her extraordinary life? And what of Anais's origins, cloaked in mystery, or her current belief that she is the product of an ongoing experiment in which faceless men in broad-brimmed hats are monitoring her every move? So many questions rendered so adroitly through the compelling bravado of Anais's obscenity-laden voice! And yet, though the book is indeed a page-turner, Fagan, in a stylistic move I am still deeply ambivalent about, refuses to draw conclusions of any sort. Instead, the reader, like Anais, remains in the fog of the now -- a place where events of terrible violence happen without causality or redress, where privacy (and thus selfhood) is so compromised it nearly ceases to exist and where the future is as much a self-created myth as the past.

To say this is a voice-driven novel is a bit of an understatement. It is a novel of voice, to the exclusion of much else, both created and given life by Anais's particular blend of dialect, obscenity, blunt reportage, and disarming moments of penetrating, yet very teenagery, philosophy. In her blurb for the back cover, novelist Ali Smith described The Panopticon as, in part, "post-Dickensian moral realism." But while I would argue that Dickens's brand of social realism -- using plot to herd the audience toward an issue-driven agenda -- is certainly present; what is missing is Dickens's devotion to the kind of memorable secondary characters that populate his world and allow his books to both replicate and transcend their time. Perhaps as a result of the solipsistic, first-person perspective she has chosen, Fagan's novel lacks the delight and, frankly, relief the reader might find in a Mr. Venus with his tea and taxidermy, or in Miss Havisham and her moldering wedding gown. Rather, the fellow urchins who are Anais's closest and most detailed consorts sport individuating characteristics that often seem reduced to little more than a list of symptoms. Among others, we meet Isla, the self-mutilating, HIV-positive teen mother; Tash, her gender-ambivalent lover who also works as a prostitute; Brian who smells bad, has yellow teeth, and is ostracized and beaten by the other children for raping a dog; and John, the beautifully androgynous teen boy whose most memorable moment is jumping naked out one of The Panopticon's windows while on speed and returning days later wearing a dress he filched from a clothesline to smoke a joint with Anais on a child's roundabout under the light of the clandestine moon. It's kind of a rebellious teen fantasy -- or, in the case of the last scene, a '90s music video -- with the bathos pushed to ever-greater heights by Anais's inability to recognize that there is a world outside her own perceptions and experiences; one that may not care for her, but also does not wish her harm.

However, Fagan's skill with the tricky register of teen consciousness is undeniable. Anais is both tough and vulnerable, often in the same breath. Her mishmash of cultural knowledge, everything from '50s fashion to fine art, and her sense that somehow she is the first to ever come by this knowledge is spot on. She leans toward irritatingly smug self-regard -- in the institution she is "the total nut," capable of doing more drugs, instigating more violence, and commanding more respect than anyone else -- and a sense of self so heavily devalued by the adult system that she can narrate from a position of almost pure observation. She is an outsider who is so far outside only she can gain enough perspective to see within. In this, and in her ability to spot and skewer a phony at 100 yards, Anais owes much to Holden Caulfield. Yet poor Holden is hapless where Anais is honed, a weapon Fagan uses to indict the society that made her possible and which, frighteningly, vouches for her existence as more than just a character.

This novel's flaws lie in its inability to decide which Anais is its primary concern: Anais the character who inhabits a world which closely resembles ours but which remains her (and Fagan's) own, or Anais the witness who reports on ills that occur in real time to real people, who alerts us to a nightmarish and fractured portion of our shared experience that is, ultimately, more real than the story that winds through it. This is not to say that a novel cannot contain both modes, or to dismiss social realism as a valid contemporary model, or to negate the power of the first-person narrative to transcend its speaker. Rather, this particular book delights in its carefully drawn, compelling, strangely sympathetic, real narrator, but simultaneously suffers from an inability to know any more than she knows. This is an automatic pitfall of the first person perspective and yet it is not an inescapable one. To return to Holden in his victimizing yet still much kinder and gentler New York, I would argue that while Caulfield himself is clearly capable of moments of startling insight, his overall knowledge of the world (to an adult reader) has the same blind-spots and hubris we all remember from our own teenage years, if we think about them honestly. He is an unreliable narrator; sometimes a liar; often someone who is simply too inexperienced to see the complexity of the social landscape spread out before him. And yet, despite Holden's control over the narration, the book as a whole does know far more than its narrator. The story contains within it all the subtle complexity, all the doubt, all the censor and exposure that Holden may intuit, but cannot yet express. By rooting Holden's perspective in that bed of adult thought, Salinger creates the opportunity for the reader to see Holden in a rounded, multifaceted fashion which, while neither demeaning the intensity of his emotion, nor dismissing the authenticity of his experience, affords him an out: a way to grow through his teenage years and into a possible manhood.

Fagan's Anais has no such out. Though the book implies a similar kind of adult cultural and philosophical grounding through its title, Fagan does little more with the concept of the Panopticon than replicate it. Physically, Anais lives with a panoptical architecture after Jeremy Bentham's original design. Morally and spiritually, she internalizes the metaphor of panopticism as Foucault proposes it and suffers from both the lack of identity and the lack of moral relativism that such a restrictively observant society can't help but produce. Anais feels erased because she is so exposed. She dwindles, sometimes physically, because within the Panopticon there is no difference between being watched and being seen. And yet, there is nothing particularly revelatory about either those thoughts or Anais's experience of them. They seem almost like philosophical asides, secondary in both interest and revelatory clout to Fagan's powerfully written events (rapes, murders, fugue-like drug interludes), that read in the spirit of exposť.

In the final chapters of the novel, Fagan abandons the questions she has so provocatively asked in its opening pages. The policewoman's fate is left unknown, as is the identity of her attacker. Various characters that have been disappeared remain so, and Anais herself is saved from what seems an inescapable punishment by the rather heavy-handed deus ex machina of a hidden passport, a riot, and a train ride to Paris. In a way, this very unraveling could form the premise for the self-knowledge the book seems to lack. Violence in Anais's life cannot be redressed, and so what does it matter whether the policewoman lives or dies? Anais's own morality -- in spite of the system's best efforts to normalize her -- remains chaotic and case-specific to the point that her relative guilt or innocence seems moot. The world is unstable and fundamentally unsafe. Society itself is culpable in the creation of this instability and thus we have no right to demand answers of its victims or call for the resurrection of the children who fall through the cracks -- not in real life and certainly not in the service of narrative arc. Finally, Anais's own understanding of her situation is so heavily compromised by the fantasies she has had to create to keep herself sane that it is somehow fitting her perceived future reality -- a new start in Paris on a quiet side street with a little balcony and some privacy in which to think -- is so wildly unlikely we don't know whether to accept it as a happy ending or mourn it as yet another delusion into which Anais is rushing headlong.

And yet, that is not quite how the end of this book reads. Anais's skewed perception of the world -- to which we are treated in such intimate detail that it becomes the reality of the book -- creates the impression of delusion, not transformation. Therefore, it is difficult to read the Anais who is heading toward Paris with nothing but her dreams and a tube of stolen red lipstick as either a symbol of regeneration and hope, or an anti-symbol exposing through her naivety the inescapable trap of the system that surrounds her. Instead, the final chapters of the novel feel like Jenni Fagan herself stepping in to rescue a character who is, or should be, essentially incapable of being rescued. The symbolism denies the horror and outrage the book has spent the preceding two-hundred-and-some pages building, and yet one cannot discard those feelings. For all the unanswered questions, for all the dynamism in voice and character, for all the nights I stayed up late flipping pages and then getting up to check on my daughter sleeping, thank God, so peacefully in the other room, the feeling I had on finishing this novel was neither relief nor exactly provocation. It was something more akin to disbelief. She's not really on that train at all, I thought to myself. But then I couldn't answer where in all the small rooms of her world Anais might actually be. She was gone, as both a character and a symbol. She was not resurrected but disappeared. And perhaps that is a fitting ending after all. Perhaps that is the only ending that would, however unconvincingly, fit.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
ISBN: 978-0385347860
304 pages