The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The PanopticonTitle: The Panopticon
Author: Jenni Fagan
Published: 23 July 2013
Publisher: Hogarth
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: contemporary, YA
Rating: 8/10

The Panopticon is the kind of novel that can start one of those debates about the boundaries of YA. It would certainly have the YA moralists up in arms. It’s not often that I read a book – any book – where a 15-year-old girl mentions fighting, fucking, and wanking on the first page.

But, nevertheless, Anais is only 15. She frequently narrates experiences from the past few years, too. There are also several other major characters around her age. And the experiences they have are strongly influenced by the fact that they are teenagers. Based on this you would assume that it’s a YA novel.

What complicates matters is that all of them have lived the kinds lives that more privileged teenagers would be sheltered from, and perhaps not even allowed to read about. Anais was born in a mental institution, and has been in 58 different placements since then. She was once adopted by a prostitute, but the woman was murdered. Eleven-year-old Anais found the body.

Following countless run-ins with the cops, she’s been accused of putting a policewoman in a coma. While she awaits trial she’s been placed at the Panopticon, an institution built according to Foucault’s famous design – a circular prison built around a central observation tower that allows inmates to be observed at all times. The twist is that inmates can’t see when they’re being observed, which means they have to assume that they’re always being observed.

The tower at this Panopticon is empty, but the institution operates on the rule that the ‘clients’ aren’t allowed to close their bedroom doors during the day, “to create a more trusting environment”. This fits rather neatly with Anais’s belief that she is the subject of “the experiment” – an ongoing study in which she is constantly observed and cannot escape. The goal of the experiment is to break Anais, which will happen if that cop doesn’t wake up. There is little Anais can say in her defence because she had a antagonistic relationship with the policewoman, she was caught wearing a shirt covered in blood, and she was so high on drugs that she can’t remember what happened that day. She’s currently in the kind of care where she gets an allowance and is allowed to go out and do her own thing, but if she’s found guilty, she’ll be transferred to a secure unit and locked up 24/7. Anais would rather be dead than locked up for good.

It already sounds like a hard story to face, but those are just the bones of the plot; I haven’t even gotten into all the details that hit you in the gut. Like the fact that Anais has been doing hard drugs for years, and now complains that she’s “getting old” because she didn’t get come-downs and hangovers before she was a teenager. She’s been charged with dealing drugs and fighting, among a hundred other offences. Sexually she’s extremely active, but not always with her consent. At 15 she’s already had sex with boys, girls and older men, and taken part in a threesome. Sex can be loving and fun for her, but it’s also a form of escapism, and on several occasions it was rape. She has an older boyfriend, of sorts, who is currently in jail. She plays this game where she imagines knowing who her mother is. She’s been failed by everyone – her parents, the social care system, the law, the police, her social worker. Even the one decent care worker at the Panopticon is too powerless to give her the help she needs.

It’s little different for the other ‘clients’ at the Panopticon. Like the young lesbian couple – Tash and Isla. Isla is mother to twins, who she unknowingly infected with HIV. She cuts herself, as if trying to cut the infection out. Tash turns tricks in the hope of raising enough money for all four of them to move into an apartment together. Cute guy John prostitutes himself too. Brian, the only person on the ward who actually seems insane, is loathed by everyone and often beaten, so you can only imagine him getting worse. Not that a rosy future seems likely for anyone else, Anais least of all.

The police hate her. Her social worker buggered off to India to save elephants and has a very low opinion of her anyway. She’ll never get a fair trial, and she’ll probably spend the rest of her life locked up for something she doesn’t think she did. The experiment, she thinks, is on the verge of defeating her.

I thought the novel would have a spec fic element because of the way the experiment is described in the blurb, but early on it becomes clear that the experiment is a delusion. The term “psychotic schizophrenia” comes up, which would no surprise considering Anais’s ongoing drug use. The experiment is an interesting comment on Anais’s experiences, however, and a twisted version of a teenager’s narcissism and identity crisis. Her life is so fucked up, and has always been so fucked up, that it seems like there must be some malevolent force trying to see how far she can be pushed before she breaks. Surely it can’t all be random?

In addition, the experiment helps Anais cope with the circumstances of her birth – she’s never known anything about either of her parents (her mother supposedly ran away after giving birth), and doesn’t know anyone she’s related to.

Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem—I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next. (It’s a Scottish novel, in case you’re wondering about the spelling.)

She feels like nobody has ever wanted her and nobody cares about her, or at least not anyone who can help her. With the experiment, however, she can replace the idea that her mother abandoned her with the idea that she never had parents but was grown in a lab. The scientists running the experiment care about her a great deal, even if it’s just because she’s their test subject. In a sick way, the experiment gives her life some purpose, albeit a purpose imposed on her by invisible observers. When she considers the possibility that the experiment is just a delusion, it’s even more heartbreaking that if it were real:

What if there was no experiment? What if my life was so worthless that it was of absolutely no importance to anyone?

It’s painfully easy to see how Anais has come to feel this way, but on the other hand she’s created her own identity, and her fate became important to me as the reader. I don’t easily identify or even empathise with delusional drug addicts facing prison sentences, but I really liked Anais. Aside from the swearing and belligerent attitude, she’s not what what you’d assume a juvenile delinquent to be, with her taste for vintage clothing, her soft heart, and her strong moral code. Anais is a good person, but most people would never notice that, and she knows it. There’s a scene where she’s interrogated by a woman who has already decided that Anais is a criminal who needs to spend the rest of her life in jail. Anais knows there’s no point trying to prove otherwise, even as she rages against the way she’s been perceived:

“[…]Do you have anything to say?”
Aye. Aye, I do. It’s this: here is what you don’t know—I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

Anais does have class and guts and soul, and you see it in the intimate first-person narrative, and in the relationships she forms with the other teenagers at the Panopticon. They become a little family of sorts, supporting each other through the miseries of their lives. The sad reality is that none of that goodness is guaranteed to save them from further suffering, and this book is full of the horror and tragedy of abandoned teenagers in the real world. Mercifully, Fagan avoids graphic descriptions of the most difficult scenes – Anais often seems too disturbed or traumatised to describe something in detail, or she’s so high that it’s hallucinogenic. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being shocking or heartbreaking, and you should be warned that this book contains self-mutilation, rape, and death. Caring about the characters makes it more hurtful and as the reader (or at least as an adult reader) you know exactly what’s going on even if Anais doesn’t state it outright.

The narrative can also be difficult for some, but for different reasons. There isn’t much of a plot and very little is resolved. There’s almost nothing Anais can do about her situation except wait and see if the cop wakes up. The ending leaves us unsure as to what will happen to her. It suits the story though – Anais does not live in a world of certainties or structure, so it makes more sense for questions to remain unanswered. The best thing about the book is simply meeting Anais and witnessing what becomes her climactic struggle against the experiment, which matters to her whether or not it’s real.

As to the YA question – I think it’s a grim but incredible book for a reader of any age, including teenagers who think they’re up to the challenge. I never liked having my reading censored, but besides that Anais is a great character partly because she’s a teenager. I’ve read quite a few YA novels with characters who happen to be teens but could easily be 10 or 20 years older. Fagan however, does a great job of making this book about being a teenager, specifically a teenager in a particularly tragic set of circumstances. For that, and lots of other reasons, I highly recommend it.

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