Don't Let Me Get Me

The Panopticon - Jenni Fagan


I’m just a girl with a shark’s heart.


I don’t necessarily know what that means (can anyone really trust urbandictionary nowadays?) or if I actually understood what Anais was talking about half the time but if there’s one thing I’m certain, my cuss vocabulary expanded a few pages more thanks to this book. And ming-fucking-mong is a new favorite.

Sometimes, you can just tell from the cover/title combo. Hard as we may try to not judge books by their covers, we do. And this book looks pretty intimidating. Any of The Panopticon’s edition appears to promise a lobotomy in the form of distressing accounts, evocative, visceral prose and hours of guessing and second guessing whether you’re understanding things right and what it says about you. 

And since I’m staring so intensely at my screen right now it would’ve called the authorities if it could, I think this delivered on those promises, maybe more. It varies for every reader of course, but Fagan managed to satisfy some latent fragments in my personality. Unfortunately it also left gaping holes of dissatisfaction from my end. Because this was not an easy adventure, structurally and thematically, to get into and the emotional payoff tepid, murky and this side of confusing. So overall...

At the beginning of the novel, The Panopticon welcomes its new resident Anais Hendricks, a fifteen year old orphan who has been in and out of the Scottish welfare system since birth. She’s a veteran of these units for the troubled youths and her latest offence, assaulting a policewoman to the point of coma, may make this her very last before she gets shipped to prison (I suppose) where she’ll be incarcerated until she turns 18. What’s interesting is, Anais doesn’t remember the events that led her to her current situation. You really don't know if she actually did it, what you do know is that her perspective is often drug-addled and schizophrenic, her vocabulary uncouth and filthy and she has a violent predisposition. But you draw conclusions and theories about her anyway.

As Anais grows closer to the residents of The Panopticon, her story also grows from sharp and witty remonstrations against a world punishing her for being abandoned to a harrowing portrait of a girl, neglected and devoid of history and identity, relentlessly pursued by demons that she may or may not have created in her desperation to matter and exist. In a manner so raw and visceral in its desperation it was quite heartbreaking. Even if a lot of the things she did scared me a lot A LOT.

But what's interesting about Anais is that in all her psychotic effort to validate her existence, she never gives herself a reason to be a victim. In her drug-soaked, genetically erratic mind she was never born. She was created in a test tube and as she grows more troubled and judged as dysfunctional, she sees faceless men constantly watch her, pushing her sanity as part of an experiment. It ceased to be interesting for me if this and the flying cat and the dancing sugar crystals are real or not, what becomes more impressive is how she chooses to stand for herself and for the rest of the "subjects", how she refuses to be the oppressed even in her psychosis. 

This is not a coming of age story with all the romantic trappings of love conquering insurmountable odds or long lost families swooping in to save the day. Nor are there are no alcoholic parents to vilify, no best friend with a long-standing crush. This was dirty fingernails, body odor, vomit and track marks.  I was expecting The Handmaid's Tale (the book not the movie) atmosphere-wise, instead the brutally frank and caustic humor was very Trainspotting (the movie, I've not read the book) with a dash of Louis CK and the bizarre and smelly kind of wit and charm Russell Brand throws around. 

Vagina sounds like a venereal disease. Or like the name for some snobby rich German countess' daughter; her entry into society would be announced in some glossy magazine, and underneath it would read... 'Vagina Schneider at the debutante ball, wearing an electric-blue Vera Wang - a true glory to behold.'
Vagina. It's a shit word, ask anyone.

Or maybe an Amy Winehouse. A vegan, squirrel-hugging one. 

She was tripping on acid half the time but her stream of consciousness and experiences cuts deeper than if she was sober. It’s so easy to fall in love with her, she practically says everything you never had the balls and tits to say out loud. Because without the overlong education and the pervading Catholic guilt, I can imagine myself hating the words “please” for making me feel cheap and “thank you” for emitting to everyone else that you need anything from them. Which secondarily makes me wonder if I’m a set of parents away from being Anais. 

And that brings a lot of guilt to be honest, being THAT emotional over something I have never and can never experienced. It feels a lot like pretentious cheating. I don't even want to try and understand my sympathy for Brian the dog rapist or the inexplicable effect Pat's version of affection and wisdom had on me. This book made me second guess the way I think and feel over and over. And since the more disturbing aspects to this story will be left to your imagination, I’ve now learned how truly scary my own brain can be. Please don’t leave me alone with it.

So if I were to judge this solely in making me think of all these things, this would have been an outright 5. But the vernacular really was very different and the accented dialogue will be the least of your worries. It was sometimes hard to tell if a rusty pole is A) a rusty pole or B) an old guy with an STD looking for a prozzie. There were a lot of loose threads left untied, character that were built up intricately only to be abandoned in the end. I figured characters like Angus were meant to create some impact in the grand scheme of things but only ended up coming across as tokens. What left me confused the most was the actual function of units like The Panopticon. I have no idea how the youth welfare system works in Scotland but here it was made out to be a most impotent and even dangerous concept. A middle house between foster homes and jail that allows its occupants to openly engage in whatever trade (be it drug or flesh), habits or addiction they used to have: did I miss something? Like a dystopic government operating to systematically trim out the miscreants and society’s wastes perhaps? 

There are books we read to fall in love, books we read to be entertained and books we choose to educate us. The Panopticon are none and all of those.You can fall in love, there were moments that were entertaining enough(when you’re not horrified), and in more ways that I can begin to describe, will tell you a lot about yourself than you care for. 

Bring your blankie. And maybe a flashlight. 

Review Copy courtesy of BloggingForBooks thru Edelweiss.