Jul 19, 2013

REVIEW: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“The novel takes it’s title from the imposing rehab facility, located deep in a forest, that waits for Anais at the end of that car ride: four floors high, in shape of a C, and in the centre a hidden core that looks out, through one-way glass, onto every cell, every landing, every bathroom. Students of 18th century English penology will instantly recognize reformer Jeremy Bentham’s infamous plans for an omniscient prison, never built but later turned by French philosopher Michel Foucault into a metaphor for the oppressive gaze of late capitalism. Students of 21st century reality television will, on the other hand, instantly recognize the layout from TV program Big Brother, in which a bunch of undesirables argue, in closes quarters, over who redecorated the living room lamp-shade   with their underpants. Where does Fagan’s structure come to rest on that scale? Somewhere in the middle. The inmates are locked up at night, but during the day are free to roam a lounge area, dining space, and games room, all painted magnolia by well-meaning staff who say things like “we practice a holistic approach to client care at the Panopticon.” Winston Smith never had it so good. Anais is there for allegedly putting a policewoman in a coma, a crime for which she is hauled into the interrogation room at regular intervals, but she cannot remember anything, having been on the tail-end of a four-day Ketamine bender at the time. “I didnae tell the polis that. I didnae tell them I was so fucked up I couldnae even mind my own name.” She is soon bonding with her fellow inmates — swapping stories and swinging joints attached to shoelaces between the cells after lights out.  There’s the girl who burnt down the disabled school where her foster mother taught, the sicko who raped a dog, the guy who battered his own grannie. “We end email, start legends —— create myths. It's the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect.” What we have here is a fine example of Caledonian grunge, wherein writers North of the river Tweed grab the English language by the lapels, dunk it in the gutter and kick it into filthy, idiomatic life, thus leaving terrified book reviewers with no option but to find them “gritty” or “authentic.”     
I have no way of knowing if the acid trip described here — starting on the walk to school, then lurching sideways to a tower block, another run for drugs, and finally a police bust — is authentic or not having spent most of my school years protecting my privates from oncoming soccer balls, but there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats keeps beat behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins:  “Born in the bushes by a motorway. Born in a VW with its doors open by the sea. Born in Harvey Nichols between the fur coats and the perfume…. Born in an igloo. Born in a castle. Born in a teepee while the moon rises and a midsummer powwow pounds the ground outside.” Solving this mystery — cracking Anais open — soon supplants the cop-in-a-coma as the book’s main narrative focus, as is only right: The Panopticon is primarily, and triumphantly, a voice novel. The rhythm and use of demotic may owe something to Irvine Welsh, but there is a poet’s precision to some of Anais’s more plumed excursions. I, for one, was as grateful for the fur coats and perfume as I was for the acid trips and dog rapes, the school of Welsh having long ago seized up, sclerotically, with its own druggy braggadocio. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” said Updike. Reading Welsh’s most recent work, you sense a writer trying, but unable, to break out of the rough bark in which early success has encased him."  
—from my review for the NYTBR

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