December 4, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 49

Arts & Entertainment

Young and: A debut novel portrays what it means to be 15, dangerous and out of control

Book Review: The Panopticon - By Jenni Fagan

Illustration by Angela Boyle

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Is it just me, or is there a grand parade of younger women who have written brilliant first books? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Monica Ali, Yiyun Li, Ayana Mathis, Helen Oyeyemi, Hannah Pittard, Zadie Smith, Taiye Selasi: That’s not a comprehensive survey, that’s just what I can see from my chair without getting up.

Add Jenni Fagan. Fagan has nailed one particular version of a first-novel high wire act: an indelible first-person narrative that makes you realize how long it’s been since you’ve read one this good.

Anais Hendricks is dangerous, out of control and almost 16. We first meet her in the back of a police patrol car in Midlothian, Scotland, en route to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. And chronic young offender pretty much sums Anais up as she breaks and burns, fights and curses, drugs and drinks herself senseless.

But she is capable of observation: “There is birdsong. The smell of wet grass filters in the window – barks swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of wood fire.” With cleverness, wit and lyricism, Fagan slips us right inside Anais Hendricks so we ride with her instead of watch her through the window. She does it by making Anais fascinating and funny:

“My social worker said they were gonnae make all the nuthouses and prisons like this, once. The thought of it pleased her, I could tell. Helen reckons she’s a liberal, but really – she’s just a cu**.”

Fagan gives Anais the gift of Sinatra-like phrasings such as:

“I have an aversion to being called a common thief. It’s only worth stealing if you’re in the big league. Diamonds. Rare artworks. Nuclear weapons. That kind of shit.”

The limitation of first-person narrative is simply this: It’s all about the voice. Not just the hypnotic sound of the voice but the promise the voice holds of a story worth sitting and listening to. Oddly enough, there’s not much of a story here. “Panopticon” makes “The Catcher in the Rye” read like a detective novel. There is a shattering climax, but no dramatic buildup. There are losses, but no investments. The novel stays true to its narrator — like Anais herself, the story drifts from one drugged-out night to the next.

Ah, but that voice: “If I ever grow up I want tae be a vampire with a two-headed baby. As if. I’ll never grow up.”

But in spite of herself, she does.

“We live, we die, we do shit in between, the world is fucked up with murder, and hate, and stupidity; and all the time this infinite universe surrounds us, and everyone pretends it’s not there.”

With “The Panopticon,” it’s not a question of “liking” Anais — even though for all her flaws and faults she is intensely likeable. Rather, it’s your willingness to pass the wee hours in her company, even though you’d rather be safe in your bed.

You think you want to meet her, but really you probably don’t. Too much trouble. Anais lashes out, she causes injury, maybe hits you in the head with a broken brick. She’d have her reasons, too, good ones maybe, but the point is it’s a brick, and she whacked your head with it.

“That’s real love. That look, right there, that’s what everyone wishes she had. Even me.”

No, better to spend time with Anais on the page, to tag along on her confused, chaotic journey till the moment when, like the end of “Catch 22” (another comic nightmare), she leaps into the unknown and leaves you gasping in mid-air.

P.S. Can’t pass up the chance to give a shout-out to Alice Munro for winning this year’s Nobel in Literature. Everybody seems to love Munro and why not? She’s Canadian with white curls, polite, diffident, and she writes about tiny towns in Ontario, the same tiny town half the time. … So it needs pointing out that Munro is nasty, her ballpoint pen cuts like a razor and her hand moves so fast she’d be sitting beside you on the bus, get off at her stop and three blocks later you notice you’re dripping life’s red miracle from your ribs.

Hats off to Alice Munro!

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