Some novels take us where we had rather not go. The strength of the narrative voice beckons onwards despite a sense that there will be moments of selective page-skipping, a blanking out of what is too unpleasant for the inner ear or eye. Yet we read on to take ourselves to places and experiences that we can never have. How often do our notions of aberrant states, criminal worlds, political tyranny or the stark shock of alien customs derive from fictional accounts? We rely on the author, make an unspoken contract with her or him, to represent honestly what we do not know. There is a complicity of acceptance – unless we feel misled through lack of authenticity or the poverty of style or the falsity of emotion.
I almost put down The Panopticon by the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan. The language was rife with Scottish dialect slang, and the more familiar Anglo-Saxon expletives; the setting was dark, and the young people represented formed a nightmare group of adolescents. I shuddered, imagining them as students in a class I had to teach. The novel presents a first person narrator, a Scottish orphan who has been the ward of the state for her entire fifteen years. Her language matches the abuse she suffers, driven by her drug use, and she records her deepest conviction and fear: that she is the subject of some “experiment” designed by the authorities to control her – hence the Panopticon of the title. Ms. Fagan writes from her own experience; she was an orphan in the care of institutions all her early life and, as she asserts in interviews, is determined not to cheapen or sensationalize the difficulties of such a life. The author’s success in transcending what might have maimed or even killed her, tempers the telling but certainly does not slacken the tension. Life for Anais Hendricks is constant dissembling, a defensive tactic she has to adopt if she is to retain her self-esteem and her freedom. The story opens with the threat of a criminal charge pending against her: assault and battery of a policewoman. Anais remembers nothing of the incident (her drugged state displaced her consciousness) but she is too aware of the consequences of conviction: incarceration in a “secure unit.” For the time being she is housed with other teenagers in the Panopticon, a circular prison with its central tower lodging guards who can inspect her at their choosing.
Anais is not simply a victim of the system, but also of the pimps, pushers and so-say lovers whose worlds she negotiates only by bearing continual violation. Yet she has her moments of clear understanding: of beauty, friendship and her own strength. These moments get factored out of hallucinatory scenes of drug-distorted stream of consciousness and dialogues in which Anais prevaricates continually. Her central dream is to go to Paris, which in her mind is the beautiful “other,” the place of reformed identity and new origins. The conclusion of the novel points to such a future, but only after Anais has approached understanding of her own origins: she visits in a mental institution an old man, “the monk,” who claims to have known her mother when she gave birth to Anais. In what is perhaps the most affecting passage in the novel, the aged patient assures Anais that her mother was the “Outcast Queen” and that Anais’ birth was witnessed by the entire ward: “We all heard your first cry, you sounded so fierce!” With her birth came her mother’s death; she leapt from a window into the snow-covered earth: “And she was gone.” With this exemplar in mind the Monk tells Anais, “They dinnae own you.” And Anais: “All the way down the drive I watch him recede. Still standing. Still barefoot, standing in his pajamas.” The daughter of the “Outcast Queen” has inherited a proud Outsider legacy and the impetus to act on it.
In the aftermath of this understanding, Anais wins her independence by defining herself against the system and through the bonds she forms with her fellow inmates. Their connections give them all they know of self-affirmation. The tragic loss of one of their number precipitates the literal final conflagration. From those ashes Anais appears able to rise and begin again, but only after an unsettling outburst of violence.
I pushed through to the end of the novel, sometimes surprised that I enjoyed whole sections. Anais’ precocious understanding of modern art, her awareness of her beauty and her intelligence, find their way into stylistic expression. We have far more than angry, brutal outbursts. Jenni Fagan asserts in an interview that she considers herself a “literary novelist,” by which she appears to mean that she is heir to the art novel of the great modernists. Certainly her Anais leaves us with the unique individuality of one who is written-off as incorrigible or anti-social. The techniques she develops to convey that uniqueness don’t ring false even as they relate the brutality of the world Anais navigates. Willy-nilly she took me with her.