Book review: The Panopticon
Stuart Kelly hails a novel that gets inside the soul of its troubled heroine
Jeremy Bentham might well be surprised if he learned how influential his ideal prison – the Panopticon – would be in terms of aesthetics. The circular prison, where the prisoners can be seen all the time (or rather, where they know that they might be seen at any time, and therefore internalise the surveillance to the extent that the prison controllers don’t need an actual person continually watching) plays a significant role in Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, and is central to both Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Hannu Rajamieni’s The Quantum Thief. It was discussed at length in Michel Foucault’s Discipline And Punish, his ground-breaking work on the transition from public, retributory execution to private, supposedly rehabilitating incarceration, where, as Foucault elegantly and paradoxically puts it, the soul becomes a prison for the body.
It is the title of Jenni Fagan’s novel, already selected as one of the “Waterstones 11” promotion of the best debut works of the year. It is the most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade, a book which is lithely and poetically written, politically and morally brave and simply unforgettable. To give some indication of the maturity of this novel, I should confess that initially I had one or two queries about certain decisions about style and plotting; which, on reflection, I increasingly saw as strengths – and very meaningful strengths – rather than weaknesses.
The Panopticon is narrated by a girl who calls herself Anais Hendricks. Abandoned at birth, she has been through 51 residential and fostering placements, and a brief period of adoption ended in tragedy. Aged 15, already boasting 147 charges of theft, possession, vandalism and breaches of the peace, she has been sent to the Panopticon after a WPC with whom she was pursuing a vendetta was battered into a coma. There was blood on Anais’s school uniform but she cannot remember the crime.
Anais’s voice is an intricate blend of the demotic and the hauntingly lyrical. This is the sound of children who have read Trainspotting: radge and chore and womble and umnay. Fagan makes Anais a baroque curser, who could out-swear Sick Boy, and the real sense comes across that such inventive profanity is the only power available to the powerless. It is not the paucity of vocabulary but an anguished frustration at wanting swearing to hurt again. This is offset by psychologically acute moments of transport. Anais plays her “birthday game”, inventing a glamorous childhood she never had. She develops her own arcane mythology of “the experiment”. Not having a mother means she was never really born at all, but cultured in a petri-dish. Men with broad-brimmed hats and no noses are using her to discover just how much a nobody can take before they break. There are moments which are genuinely distressing to read, which return the reader to a painful sense of how mindlessly and unspeakable cruel people can be. But it is marbled with cynical, smart comedy: Anais, for example, when she is told to participate in group events as a way of coping with her trauma, thinks “Okay then. I’ll bowl myself better. I’ll ice-skate tae f***ing happiness every Friday f***ing night”.
Fagan is exceptionally skilful with bathos, a notoriously difficult literary register; here, however, it manages to be funny and heart-breakingly tender at the same time. When Anais tries to recollects scraps she has heard about her birth mother, she thinks “if they fried my mother’s voices out, did she still know who she was afterwards? They found her naked outside a supermarket supposedly. In labour. Psychotic. They never did say which supermarket”. This both defuses and humanises, and frequently it grounds Anais’s fantasies in the all too human. Likewise there is an astonishing cadenza of all the questions which social workers don’t ask. “They dinnae ask about the terrible baldness of the moon, they dinnae ask about rooms without windows or doors … they didnae ask me about blood in an empty bath, and they didnae ask about what Theresa was gonnae do when she got out that bath – she was gonnae curl up with me and watch a movie. We were gonnae make microwave popcorn.” Bathos renders that innocuous, almost inconsequential, detail into a vivid means to express phenomenal loss.
I had some reservations that certain plot lines drop from prominence as the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophe. It seems, however, as if there is a deliberate strategy to avoid certain forms of narrative closure. It is in keeping with what the authorities might describe as Anais’s “chaotic” circumstances. People disappear. Things are permanently unresolved, or unresolvable. In contrast with the crime novel, where despite its claims to verisimilitude, there is always resolution, Fagan’s novel is both more naturalistic and pleasingly oblique. Life, as Stevenson said, is “infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant”. To render this novelistically is a rare achievement. There were moments when I felt a didacticism crept into the dialogue; and felt suitably chastened when I realised that critics never really complain when the middle-class characters in an Iris Murdoch novel pontificate about philosophy. Characters have a right to opinions even if they don’t have mortgages.
The Panopticon appeals to writers since in some ways the novelist is the prison’s arch-overseer, able to look into the minds of the characters. But that comes with a duty: to keep your eyes open even when you’d rather shut them. Fagan is gloriously open-eyed about immaturity, maturity, sexuality, crime, dispossession and more. Her ability to capture the cross-currents of language, the impersonations of consciousness, is admirable: “I am not that important”, Anais thinks, “and that is just fine by me. I propose a stiff upper lip and onward Christain soldiers, quick-bloody-march. This is Anais Hendricks, telling the nation: to be me is really quite spiff-f***ing-spoff, lashings of love, your devoted BBC broadcaster since 1938”. (I also adore the tmesis, that self-interruption of words).
As a debut, The Panopticon does everything it should. It announces a major new star in the firmament.