Jeremy O’Keefe is a middle-aged historian, his academic specialty the techniques of mass state surveillance as practised by the Stasi in the former East Germany. Unable to secure tenure at Columbia, Jeremy lands himself a fellowship at "one of the smaller and older Oxford colleges," where he then spends a decade in what he seems to regard as the parochial isolation of the British university system. His triumphal return to New York—and to the tenured post he has so long coveted—is marred only by the fact that he feels rather lonely. With a failed marriage behind him, and having been out of the loop so long he has few friends to call on, he feels his emotional dependency on his daughter Meredith is becoming too entrenched. What is more, a misunderstanding over a meeting with one of his postgraduate students—a misunderstanding compounded by an email in his "sent" folder he has no memory of writing—leads Jeremy to believe he may be experiencing the first stages of dementia. An appointment with a neurologist allays his fears—until his doorman takes delivery of a mysterious package, a package that contains printouts of Jeremy’s entire internet activity for the past ten years.
A specialist in the art of spying, Jeremy appears to have become the victim of his own life’s work. But who is watching him, and why? Who is the young man who keeps approaching him, and what secrets is he hiding about Jeremy’s past? When our every action and transaction can be observed, analysed, possibly used as blackmail, can any of us be sure of anyone? And what is the meaning of freedom within a society that has sacrificed the notion of privacy?
Oh dear. Would someone please remind me not to waste any more time on novels that purport to deconstruct the workings of the Evil Internet? I haven’t read a good one yet, at least not within the context of the literary mainstream. In fact, one could argue that Flanery’s third novel, whilst being ostensibly mimetic rather than fantastic, showcases many of the problems of so-called literary SF within a modest span of three hundred pages. Like many novels of its ilk, it is well written and readable. In spite of my spluttering dislike for it, I galloped through I Am No One with guilty enjoyment, as if it had been a particularly stylish airport thriller. But being readable doesn’t stop it, alas, from being retrograde, almost laughably clueless in the matter of its cultural commentary (hilariously, this novel’s protagonist seems to believe he is a socialist) and all without saying anything that any seventeen-year-old picked randomly off the street understands as part of the societal ambience they inhabit daily.
Where do we start? Seeing as he’s the narrator, let’s begin with Jeremy. My main problem—among many—with Jeremy O’Keefe was that I couldn’t work out (and still can’t) whether the author meant us to like him, to identify with him even, as the innocent, intelligent everyman caught up in stereotypical but nonetheless sinister Events Beyond His Control, or whether Flanery had created Jeremy with the idea of caricaturing a particular kind of white liberal American: clawing desperately for professional advancement while pretending it’s culture he cares about, constantly flashing his cosmopolitan credentials whilst cultivating a view of the world that would not seem entirely out of place on the Republican campaign trail.
By way of illustrating this dilemma, let’s hear what Jeremy has to say about the purpose of women’s education (oh, and I also forgot to mention that everyone in this book is almost laughably rich):
It broke my heart a little to hear my daughter sound so jaded and I wondered if marrying into money was responsible for that, not that her mother and I were poor, her mother especially, and one has to acknowledge that Meredith went to one of those colleges and one of those private schools and it was because of that educational access, not to mention her distinctive, slightly old-fashioned beauty, the face of a Vermeer, the creamy pale skin of a Manet, all those random genetic inheritances, in combination with her fine mind and exceptional taste, that made her so attractive to a certain population of wealthy young men who had an eye for beauty but also for intelligence, who could see that my daughter, not spoiled from birth but well looked after, nurtured and kept level-headed, would be a stable partner at least for the first decade of their professional lives. (p. 16)
On the multicultural society:
I had more or less inoculated myself against seeing threat in a brown face during my years in Oxford, particularly after buying the house on Divinity Road, which required, for the fastest possible commute to my college, walking along the Cowley Road where so many Pakistanis and people from elsewhere in the Muslim world have shops and make their homes, as well as go to worship. From my back garden I could see the dome and white spire of the Central Oxford Mosque, and on more than one occasion had to listen to the music of a party in some neighbouring garden, melodies and rhythms such that I fancied I might as well have been in Lahore or Istanbul. No, living in Oxford in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington was like having immersion therapy to the thing one fears most. (p. 29)
Here he is on needing a gay friend to increase his social capital:
I thought of Stephen Jahn as merely one more colorful barnacle on the boat of my Oxford life, which is to say I was amused by him, by his pomposity and the ways in which he had embraced a European life and lifestyle, how he had affected habits that most Americans would find distasteful if not immoral, but believed that our acquaintance would never become more intimate, since he was, first of all, patently a homosexual and I had, at the time, no close gay friends (in retrospect this now seems like a failing on my part, a failure of my own ostensibly liberal credentials, than anything else). (p. 134)
And finally, here’s one of Jeremy’s many (very many) obsessive rants about the unquestioned desirability of being an American:
The encounter with Rachael unsettled me, mostly because since returning to New York from Oxford there had been a number of such exchanges with strangers who assumed on first introductions that I was British, and on a few occasions some of the less astute strangers persisted, even after I had explained the situation and my personal history, convinced that I myself was somehow confused about my own nationality, that I was in fact not American, or that my parents must be British. Sometimes these exchanges would turn into confrontations, I would begin to lose my temper at a party or other social event, alcohol perhaps muddying the argument while also prolonging it, until I was finally forced to say something to the effect of, "Listen, I was born in the state of New York to parents who were born in the state of New York to grandparents who were born somewhere between Maine and Pennsylvania." (p. 56)
Steady on, Jeremy, we get it—you’re a New Yorker. Just to be clear, these are not isolated tongue-slippages. In between his archly knowing commentaries on the cinema of surveillance—Blow Up, The Conversation, and The Lives of Others are all signposted in metaphorical block capitals—Jeremy O’Keefe can’t seem to go more than half a page before coming out with sociopolitical faux pas so embarrassing that all us unfortunate Britishers can do is cough, turn away, and pretend we’re looking for the toilet. All of which might be amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that the success of the book is so largely dependent on us feeling some sympathy for Jeremy and his situation. Our hero is in peril here, after all—surely we’re supposed to care about that? It’s impossible to care though, because our hero is such a jerk. Neither is there a sufficiently developed literary irony for us to suppose that Jeremy’s general dickheadedness serves a higher purpose. There is little indication anywhere in the text that Jeremy is not to be taken entirely on trust.
The problem with Jeremy-as-satire is that those at the sharp end of this caricature will stride blithely past it, leaving the rest of us to laugh Jeremy out of court as a ludicrous exaggeration. (He cannot be serious. Can he?) The problem with a Jeremy taken on trust is that he is unbearably smug, self-absorbed to the point of neurosis, sexist, casually racist, not to mention an almighty snob. To say he’s not easy to like would be putting it mildly. Indeed I would venture that the most likely reader reaction to Jeremy being spied upon, followed, swept up in dodgy government activity, or even transported to Guantanamo would be: bring it on. I am not, of course, insisting that a protagonist has to be—that appalling descriptor—likable in order for us to become invested or at least interested in their narrative. It is simply that Flanery’s whole enterprise seems to be at crossed purposes. I cannot imagine that Flanery wanted us to be on the side of the surveillance society, but after spending time with Jeremy O’Keefe, I would defy any reader not to feel at least a twinge of Schadenfreude at his predicament. And all this before we even begin to untangle the facts and falsities of what has actually created it.
For in spite of Flanery’s seeming efforts to distract us with his walking disaster of a protagonist, there is at least the potential for an interesting story here. During the course of his time at Oxford, Jeremy has allowed himself to be persuaded/bribed/intimidated (whatever) into granting preferential consideration to an entrance applicant, a young Egyptian woman who (he is told) "has" to come to Oxford, whether that be for her own safety or for other reasons. Jeremy’s action does not appear to have any immediate consequences: Fadia is a more than competent student, no one’s suspicions are aroused, and neither is Jeremy called upon to do anyone any more compromising favours. But as time moves on, Jeremy finds himself drawn first into friendship and then into a physical relationship with the young woman, now also his student. When he learns that Fadia’s brother might have terrorist connections, Jeremy is finally able to form some conclusions about why he is being spied upon. Such sinister connotations for personal privacy are highlighted almost hourly by interested journalists, and a more extended examination of their implications in novel form would make a worthwhile project for any writer. Flanery though seems singularly incapable of penetrating to the heart of the matter. Just occasionally he lets Jeremy come out with something totally on point:
For each of us, the freedom of not being reached, of wandering untracked through the city, browsing in bookstores and libraries, living life in a way that the mind did not feel hunted or followed or simply distracted by the silliness of unwanted messages . . . must have meant that as recently as a decade ago we were thinking more and reacting less. Is it any wonder we have entered a more reactionary age? (p. 294)
It is a shame then that these more searching insights are undermined almost in the same instant by dully conventional utterances about privacy or internet outrage, and, in the person of Jeremy’s mother, by trotting out the usual liberal defence of mass surveillance:
"Don’t be so paranoid, Jeremy! This is still a free country. We still have due process and the Bill of Rights and the best democracy in the world. Why should a law-abiding citizen worry? Even if they’re watching us, they’re doing it for our protection. Frankly I’m all for it." (p. 124)
Which might have presented a nice touch of irony, if only Flanery had made more attempt to examine such attitudes and the climate of division they encourage. It is Jeremy’s ex-wife Susan who holds out the most tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Coinciding in a fascinating way with what Jeremy’s former student Michael Ramsey has been hinting at, Susan offers us an all-too-brief hint that Jeremy O’Keefe may not, after all, be the innocent nobody he claims to be:
"It’s true. Jeremy’s too chaotic to be OC," Susan laughed, though there was no delight in it. "But he always was a very good liar. Why do you think he had to leave Columbia? Flexibility with the truth. Hazardous for a historian." (p. 297)
Jeremy as unreliable narrator? Jeremy as equally culpable in his own fate? Jeremy knowing far more than he pretends? Now that might have been interesting. Sadly it is way too little, far too late, and these wispy threads of intrigue—potentially the most compelling aspects of the novel—are left unexamined and unfulfilled. For reasons best known to himself, Flanery never allows the story he could have been telling to take flight or even to taxi out onto the runway. In terms of characterisation, exploration of an urgent premise, or even expounding the author’s personal concerns, I Am No One is almost bewilderingly unsatisfying. As post-Ballardian science fiction—which I had hoped from the jacket blurb this book might be—it is an embarrassing failure. The definitive novel about mass surveillance in the digital age, it seems, is still waiting to be written.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.