August 06, 2013

TURNING PAGES: The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

A little disclosure: One, I lived in Glasgow, Scotland, for five years. Two, I taught the State of California's young offenders for three years. I come to this book from a different direction than a lot of people might, because of that.

A note to readers: while this book has a fifteen year old narrator, it is not a YA book, anymore than A CHILD CALLED IT or GO ASK ALICE or any of those other fictionalized realism novels were strictly for young adults, but it might be read by a few. I admit that I picked it up not quite realizing that. So, again: NOT YA, okay? That said, I'll add: it's a tough book.

Once I made up my mind to read this novel, I made a point of avoiding reviews, especially once I heard the premise.

The author, Jenni Fagan, is a Scottish poet, and her novel is blurbed by the author of TRAINSPOTTING. Yeah, yeah, everyone remembers the movie, and trying to figure out if they could understand a person from Glasgow based on one particular scene. Well, that ...kind of gave me an idea of where this novel would be placed, in terms of literature. It'd be kind of the YA meets Breaking Bad. The character would be a skinny wee ned, in-your-face brash, foul-mouthed, wearing a manky tracksuit, dripping gold jewelry and slang, and thoroughly unlikeable.

It's always nice to be wrong.

That surveillance window in the watchtower glitters in the dim. Dinnae look up. There could be anyone behind that glass. Five men in suits with no faces. All watching. They can watch.

I dinna get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinna like look at them. And people they've never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are - and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then, even at home - they're going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check on who's watching them.

Is that no weird?

Reader Gut Reaction:You should know that a panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is a circle with the guard tower in the middle, with smoked windows... disallowing the inmates from knowing whether or not they're being observed, and creating an assumption of being observed all the time, thus creating better behavior. Or, so Bentham thought. It's a reflection on the surveillance society of the UK that this idea of a panopticon for young offenders would even be imagined; CCTV is EVERYWHERE in the UK, but do watchers make a difference? Is having someone watching you, all the time, actually making you seen and known? Or, just more blank, blind eyes who don't know what you're going through? Methink it is the latter...

When I finished this book, I had to have a lie down - and it gave me nightmares. I felt like having a good scream for reasons I couldn't quite put a finger on. It's disturbing. It's hopeless. It's INFURIATING. And yet, it has that kernel of hope we're taught to look for in YA lit. Is the hope real? Is the Panopticon real? Is The Experiment real?

Now, that... that, you'll have to decide for yourself.

Concerning Character: Her name was a number, at one point. She was born of a schizophrenic mother, in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, and no one knew what to do with her. Now her name - the one given to her by adoptive mum, Teresa, is Anais Hendricks. She had twenty-four different foster care placements before she was seven. She was adopted, from seven to eleven, and then, she's been moved an additional twenty-seven times in the ensuing four years. Her kind-of-boyfriend, Jay, is doing serious time. Her adoptive mother was stabbed to death, in their home, when Anais was only eleven... her life thus far has been an utter disaster. And now, because of her tendency to skip school, do drugs, and run minibuses into walls ...when they're on fire... she's come to the Panopticon, the penultimate stop. The Panopticon's a run-up to "real" jail, which is where Anais is going if the comatose policewoman, whom Anais is suspected of battering nearly to death, dies. There is indeed blood all over her school uniform - but not the policewoman's blood. So far, there's nothing linking her to the case, except everyone knows Anais hates her. As for Anais herself, she was so high, she doesn't remember what happened, but she knows she didn't batter that stupid woman. She's almost certain...

If she dies, Anais will be put away in secure lock-up until she's eighteen, and then, jail. For real. Possibly forever.

The voice in this novel seems spot on for a Scottish kid, the voice of kids on the street and on buses after school that I heard while living in Glasgow. However, what Anais says - profanity-laden and snarky, much of the time - isn't her charm as much as what she thinks. Inside, she's not really a mean girl, she's neither as bad nor as hard nor as skanky as she appears. She hates getting into fights - they make her shaky and scared. She has to look hard, though, put on a front, and make sure no one knows she's soft inside, or the life she lives, and the people she lives it with, will break her for good. She's afraid - terrified - that she really and truly is schizophrenic, like her birthmum, the sort of crazy that you can't come back from. She's afraid that the real Watchers, the faceless men who have made her life an Experiment - she's terrified that they're real, that, when she reaches the end of it all, her whole world will have been a joke, a farce, a let's-see-how-much-she-can-take exercise. She uses and is used and abused by sexuality, yet all she really wants to be is loved - truly loved, loved like Tash and Isla, two other girls in the Panopticon, love each other. She just wants a love that doesn't mean loss...

And, in a way, that's the crux of this book - despite the difference in slang, in geography, in criminology, maybe - that's the real story. Everyone wants to have a tiny bit of something real, real love, real hope, a real life that has moments of peace and beauty and excellence. Maybe they'd never be able to say so in those words, but what Anais wants is a common song in the human experience. Anais plays a game where she chooses alternate lives. Why couldn't she have been born in Paris - to loving parents? Well, maybe she was. Maybe she's going to be fabulous, and go there and be a painter. Maybe she's going to take her chances, and suck up every piece of learning the world has to teach her, and find her way to a garret and paint, and wear pillbox hats and fab star-shaped sunglasses.

After all, you never know, right? And that's the hope we all must live in, or die.

Recommended for Fans Of...: HOLES, by Louis Sachar; LOCKDOWN and MONSTER, by Walter Dean Meyers; G. Neri's YUMMY: THE LAST DAYS OF A SOUTHSIDE SHORTY; RASH, by Pete Hautman

Cover Chatter:: I'd imagine this would be a difficult book for any cover design team to tackle. "Yes, well, let's get a good, cheery cover for a novel about a girl in care who may, or may not be responsible for someone's death. Oh, and she's never met anyone related to her, is watched all the time, and is possibly in the grips of a borderline personality disorder. Ready... design!" Snark aside, the cover with the "flying cat" on is at least a sign that the design team read the book. A weird flying cat/lion thingy does indeed appear, and Anais likes to go and pretend she's flying whilst riding it. The girl with the red high tops and the sweater, however, doesn't really match Anais in apperance; she's much more apt to be wearing high-waist micro-mini shorts and a pillbox hat... However interesting looking the cat, however, I find that I prefer the simple black American cover - no faces, no inexplicable symbolism. The lines on the cover are evocative of bars; the single white keyhole of light, with the tiny female figure, gives a creepy, desperate feeling of one girl against the eyeless - but ever watching - universe. That same sense of suffocating, soulless detached observation is characteristic of the novel itself.

Authorial Asides: Author Jenni Fagan was herself in foster care, according to a April 2013 interview in The Scotsman. Thus, the voice and characterization are indeed spot-on, at least in small part due to her own experiences.

My copy of this book was received courtesy of the publisher, Random House. You can find THE PANOPTICON by Jenni Fagan as an ebook, or at an independent bookstore near you!


Ashley Hope PĂ©rez said...

This sounds fascinating, if difficult. Of course, I'm drawn to stories from the fringe, and the issue of developing a sympathetic character who is also deeply flawed (and may have done something terrible) is at the core of my own THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY. For other comparable/related reads, I'm thinking of THE MARBURY LENS, too. I will def. check out THE PANOPTICON.

tanita✿davis said...

@Ash: It's disturbing - and also so very, very haunting. You can't help but wish better for her..

Sarah Stevenson said...

Sounds really interesting, and also very scary. I'll look for it.