Book review: I Am No One is a chilling tale of surveillance and paranoia
I Am No One
Patrick Flanery’s Absolution (2012) was a remarkably accomplished first novel which explored South Africa’s brutal past through conversations between a writer and her biographer. His follow-up, Fallen Land (2013), was a tale of possession and obsession in contemporary America. In his latest novel, I Am No One, Flanery deals with the equally weighty issues of identity, memory and the fragile privacy of the individual in a modern world of blanket surveillance. And once again, Flanery ably demonstrates that fiction can be simultaneously electrifying and thought-provoking.
Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor of history, has returned to New York after a decade teaching at Oxford. Despite losing himself in work and attending the lavish parties thrown by his daughter – an art gallery owner – and her media tycoon husband, O’Keefe feels lonely and alienated, unable to fit in and settle down in his native city.
His period of readjustment is made all the more difficult by a growing sense of unease, which starts when he is stood up by a student, and worsens when he learns that it was he who cancelled the meeting – an act of which he has no recollection.
Two boxes turn up at his door containing thousands of pages of all his online activity over the last 10 years. He bumps into the same young man in unlikely places three times in one week.
After several sightings of a shadowy figure in a ski mask looking up at his apartment, and the all-clear from a neurologist dispelling fears that he is imagining everything, O’Keefe’s initial self-doubt – “Am I losing it?” – hardens into unshakeable belief: “I was being watched.”
To find out why and by whom, O’Keefe casts back, searching for evidence of his own wrongdoing that may have turned a former friend into a stalker with a grievance.
He replays his Oxford years, centring on his romance with an Egyptian student, his discovery that her brother was involved in terrorism, and his intimidation and ensnarement at the hands of a wily spook.
But as O’Keefe plunders his past, he continues to pay for previous mistakes in the present. More boxes appear, this time full of his phone records and CCTV images of him going about his business. Anonymous calls and sinister messages instil further panic.
Soon this expert on East Germany’s secret police is left wondering if he is being monitored by a slighted individual bent on revenge, or spied on by the all-seeing, all-powerful intelligence agencies for being an unwitting enemy of the state.
O’Keefe tells us we are reading an “account of my innocence”. However, thanks to his many digressions and circumlocutions, it is also so much more.
As well as charting the “strange changes pressing against the trajectory of my life”, O’Keefe dilates on marriage, film plots, the trials of acculturation and the erosion of personal freedoms. He is a garrulous narrator, prone to long, elegant sentences which loop and expand, but which also veer off and retreat from an original point. We must sift five frustrating pages of padding before we find out what is in O’Keefe’s first box.
“Paranoid I might have been,” he explains, “but delusional I was not.” And yet the reader is never completely sure how reliable a narrator O’Keefe is.
Like Clare Wald, the reclusive writer in Absolution who has penned a volume of “fictionalised memoirs”, O’Keefe constantly keeps us on our toes, prompting us to sift his testimony, query why he doesn’t report his persecution to the police, and guess what monstrous truth lurks beneath the mere iceberg-tip on show.
American-born Flanery lives in London, and, perhaps as a result of this, O’Keefe’s cultural dislocation rings true. In all his years at Oxford, O’Keefe is perceived as an American abroad, despite his best efforts to assimilate, while back home he is regarded as an Englishman in New York.
Flanery’s riffs on madness have bite and wit (sanity is an enclave within the larger realm of insanity, “a Vatican or San Marino of the mind”), and his meditations on observation, data collection and protection contribute new insight and convey fresh chills.
In places, the novel’s twisting tangents resemble less breathless feats than long-winded assaults. Also, the periodic asides on Anglo-American differences – “tidbit (or as the British say, titbit)” – quickly grate.
Otherwise, this account, whether of innocence or not, makes richly compelling reading.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.