A close friend has started up her own book group. Because I think it would help my writing by getting back in the habit of reading more, I figured it would do me some good to sign up. Plus I figured it would get me exposure to writers and literature outside of my usual repasts. Which when I was reading more seemed to be limited to Dennis Coupland, Chuck Palahniuk and the odd poker strategy guide.

As if to justify that interest in going outside my regular fare, we started with Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon.  Which at times felt like it shared Palahniuk’s nihilism but without his joie de vivre. And believe it or not, I mean that in a good way.

Panopticon centers on a Scottish teen named Anais Hendricks. Anais is being transported to an “alternative” facility for troubled youth, her holding place while an investigation is conducted over her role in putting a policewoman into a coma. Anais’ involvement is a mystery to everyone including Anais herself.

Anais has spent most of her young life bouncing from foster home to foster home, having been abandoned at birth by a mother who fled the asylum in which she gave birth. Having nothing in her life she feels like she can hold onto or trust save herself, Anais spends much of her childhood raising hell and doing enough drugs to make Keith Richards take pause. Combined with the knowledge of her mother’s mental illness, Anais doesn’t even have confidence she can trust reality as she experiences it.

That sense of unreality is one of the things I enjoyed most about the story. It plays on the edges enough to make me question whether everything Anais is experiencing is grounded in reality or if a varying amount of it is some hallucination I experience through her as the narrator. As a movie person, I tend to associate certain literary experiences with films I’ve seen. In this case, Anais’ world made me think of moments in Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter.

There the main character grapples with a very fragile understanding of his reality. He has moments that absolutely broke my heart and made me experience the same helplessness he feels. I felt the same way with the way Fagan wrote Anais. I know the book will grate on some people with the heavy use of dialect (it certainly didn’t play well for everyone in the group). For myself because I tend to hear dialogue when I read it as conversations in my head, the Scottish “read” naturally to me.

Granted, I hate the person who put the idea in my head that made me hear it as Merida from Brave, but I digress.

Everything about Anais not only felt real to me, but I felt sympathy for a character that by her actions should be inherently unlikeable. Never mind the drugs (or the bollocks), she has exactly zero fucks to give about just about anything. But she gets enough moments of redemption to make me invested in what happens to her over the course of the story.

And that proves to be a severe emotional gut punch, because there are some twists that are about as bleak as anything I’ve read. As one friend commented, “Isnay a happy book.” I think I found myself a little more annoyed at what felt like obvious emotional manipulation with some of the supporting characters (specifically Tash & Isla, two girls in the Panopticon with Anais). I didn’t feel the same way with Anais, and it’s what ultimately pulled me through to see what happened to her in the end.

Definitely would recommend, with the caveat that given the style and subject matter it’s not gonna be for everyone.

1 Comment for this post you say something?

  • 3 October 20139:17 pm Derek K.

    Eh, I’m sure they’ll make a movie out of it eventually.

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