I Am No One by Patrick Flanery, review by Bruce Jacobs
Hardly the first novel to tackle the paranoia of a regular guy caught in the snares of an omnipresent, prying state, Patrick Flanery's I Am No One is the most up-to-date. Like it or not, the world of I Am No One is the one we have today--Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the Panama Papers, ubiquitous drone and CCTV surveillance, cyber-warfare and court injunctions to unlock private mobile phones. Jeremy O'Keefe is a white, upper middle-class everyman: a divorced New York University history professor in his 50s with a daughter, Meredith, who owns a successful Chelsea gallery and is married to a wealthy media executive. After failing to get tenure at Columbia, and just days after 9/11, Jeremy left to spend 10 years teaching at Oxford and acquired dual British/U.S. citizenship. Now returned to New York to be near Meredith and closer to his mother in Rhinebeck, he has a university apartment and lives a quiet life of take-out, teaching and old movies.
But Jeremy soon becomes increasingly paranoid when a series of unmarked boxes are left with his doorman. They contain detailed transcripts of a decade of his e-mail, web searches, phone calls, bank records, credit card statements and tax returns, and surveillance-like photos of his travels and gatherings with family, Oxford students and colleagues, and lovers. He is convinced that he is being tracked, that a stranger is following him, that the law is after him. When he finally reveals his fears to his daughter, he pleads: "But I'm no one." She replies: "We are all no one until we do something to turn ourselves into someone... you can blink and end up in jail."
Flanery is an American writer living in London; his first novel, Absolution, was shortlisted for numerous U.K. awards. Similarly, I Am No One is narrated by a protagonist with a hidden past and a present bent by ruminative self-analysis. As Jeremy searches memories of his Oxford years, he gradually reveals a relationship with a Franco-Egyptian student who may or may not have been involved in her family's ties to Egyptian atrocities and terrorism. Did this put him on somebody's watch list? Or was it something he e-mailed in an unguarded moment? He naively didn't see this world where our governments "are watching us on our own behalf," and we happily "look at satellite images of our neighbors' own backyards and roof terraces." Through Jeremy's blend of the real with the paranoid, I Am No One leads us into the labyrinth of surveillance we have come to accept. An ordinary man with no particular national, institutional or personal axes to grind, Jeremy tells his story with the frank innocence of someone who just wants "to be left alone, to be forgotten, to be a nonentity." Flanery's finely crafted novel suggests that this kind of privacy is from a time now gone. It's hard to be "no one" today.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.