Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Panopticon

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (2012)

A panopticon, as I learned from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is a type of prison designed so that one watchman can see the all the inmates, who can't tell whether or not they are being watched. Consequently, they always feel - and act - like they're being watched. It is into this sort of institution that Anais Hendricks finds herself.

Anais has been in and out of foster homes and group homes for most of her life. She was adopted once, but her mother died and back into care she went. This is a messed-up kid. Only fifteen, she is already deeply into drugs and all sorts of other trouble. Most recently she has been accused of putting a cop into a coma, and she's been sent to the Panopticon to await the outcome of the situation.

I couldn't help but feel for this screwed-up kid, whose attempts at survival just put her further along on a path of destruction. She has a fairly narrow view of her options, as many people her age do, but she seems to have an inkling of how much better things could be. Anais dreams of living in Paris and having a better life, but she considers this not so much a goal to strive for, but an alternative universe that could have been.

What makes this book so unique and heart-wrenching is our heroine's voice. This is Scotland, and her language is peppered with "dinnae" and "cannae" and other regional linguistic touches that make it a little difficult at first until you get the rhythm. But beyond the dialect, her voice comes through as a very touching combination of jaded and naive. She has suffered abuse, and more pain than anyone her age should experience, yet describes a very sweet relationship with her girlfriend. Because Anais's reality is so often altered by drugs, Fagan alters the narration as well. When taking speed, what Anais experiences becomes choppy and stream-of-consciousness: "Everything accelerates. There is a bicycle ride. A coffee cup. A bus. A boat. A train...Chug chug chug chug. Train station, ooh, be quiet, breathe quiet." Anais is also quite paranoid, convinced her whole life has been the subject of an experiment, and that they are always watching her and manipulating her.

Anais and her friends are sexually fluid and pretty non-judgmental. It's as though they've been stripped of so much they have come to realize, at an unusually young age, what is really important and they appreciate real affection wherever they can get it. Anais refers to her most recent foster mother as "beardy weirdy" but goes on to say, "She doesnae shave her beard; it's a totally obvious one, but she isnae bothered how it looks. Me neither, it's kind of debonair on her. Why should women have to shave?" Anais does, however, set pretty high fashion standards for herself. Her outfits are carefully put together, and she spends most of her limited income on clothes. She appears very put-together for someone who is so torn apart on the inside.

From an adult perspective, it's easy to see when Anais is only making things worse for herself. But because Fagan has done such an exquisite job of crafting her into someone real and expressive, we can see how and why it happens and how easy it is to muck things up and how hard to fix them.

I'm so glad we read this unique book for our book group because I might not have read it otherwise. I had heard of it through The Readers podcast, on which it has been mentioned it again and again, but it took this nudge from a friend to actually get me to read it. If you enjoy a truly unique narrative voice and painful story (and don't mind a lot of rough language) I urge you to give The Panopticon a chance too.

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