Patrick Fanery’s new book, I Am No One (Tim Duggan Books, 2016) is a firsthand account of professor Jeremy O’Keefe’s return to the United States after a decade of self-exile in England. O’Keefe has returned to New York City, presumably to conclude his academic career, and to make amends with the relationships he left behind years ago. But New York is a different place. It’s a city transformed by the Twin Tower attacks, and a city immersed in the fears and anxieties of modern political realities. Homecomings are never trouble-free, and Jeremy O’Keefe’s is no exception.
Not long after O’Keefe settles into his new routine, peculiar events begin to take place. Packages start showing up at his apartment. One box contains meticulous paper records of years of his Internet use. Days later, another box left with O’Keefe’s doorman contains records of his phone calls going back years. Another box, soon after, contains similar data…evidence, and perhaps a warning, that he is being watched.
O’Keefe keeps these developments to himself. He informs neither his daughter, a successful gallery owner who lives nearby with her husband, nor his mother, whom he sees often and who lives only a short distance from the city. Accordingly, O’Keefe begins to reflect upon his mental condition. Was it possible that he’d sent these boxes to himself? Was it possible that he’d forgotten his motivations for sending these documents, and that his current circumstances were a product of his own cognitive shortcomings?
Contributing to his unease, O’Keefe becomes certain that he is being followed. One of his recent acquaintances, Michael Ramsey, turns up at the oddest of times, whether while O’Keefe is sitting alone at a café, or whether he’s taking a train out of the city. Ramsey is provided a predatory description: “The young man kept smiling, showing his long white canines, teeth that had either grown naturally straight or had the benefit of expensive orthodonture.” As O’Keefe’s paranoia increases, one begins to wonder if his field of academic study, the history of the East German security apparatus (the Stasi), might be contributing to his mental decline?
But rather than relinquish his creation to madness, Flanery allows O’Keefe the constructive ability to start looking into his past, so he can make sense of the present. O’Keefe begins to peel back the layers, and we learn more about his stay at Oxford and the events that took place during this period of his life. We come to understand that an affair with a student might be at the root of his mysterious harassment. This student (Fadia was her name) was a relative of a known Islamist and potential terrorist, and their relationship might have drawn the attention of international concerns, not the least of which may be his own government. During these revelations, a complexity emerges. O’Keefe has committed no crime, but his associations clearly may have raised suspicions.
Did O’Keefe flee England for the same reasons he fled New York? Has he been, in essence, a runner…someone unable to live with the consequences of his actions? O’Keefe is sustained by the benefits of privilege – academia is notorious for keeping reality at bay – but reality has curious ways of sneaking into the lives of those who avoid it. As the specters of Oxford past start rattling their chains, O’Keefe looks on as the walls of his security crumble, and he does something surprising: he lets the walls fall, and in so doing he allows himself the chance to rise from the rubble.
Flanery is an exceptional writer. He is and intellectual writer. His plots are tightly knit stories that move with a metronome of lucid prose, toward insight and revelation. I have read two of his three novels and I’m surprised that his talent has gone relatively unnoticed. His first novel, Absolution, was an intricate work involving a South African author (imagine a Nadine Gordimer-type character here…) and her interviewer. Through a peeling away of the onion the painful past takes a shape, and one that informs the present. Memory and the past are prominent devices in the Flanery toolbox. Here, professor O’Keefe says as much: “Through the trees I could see the forward march of memory, an army worn down by long battle, forgotten by its generals, creeping forward to deliver their report.”
Some reviews of this book mention security and the modern surveillance state as the main themes, but I Am No One seems to be something different. It’s a story about regret, penance, and redemption. It is a modern parable in our age of information. No matter how closely Big Brother encroaches on our lives, our biggest antagonist will remain our unconsciousness. This is the much older theme, and the much older story.
Looking out of the windows of the Milwaukee Art Museum
Yay! The long awaited conclusion to Book One is now complete. You can get it on Amazon here:
I’ll be giving it away for free for a few days after Christmas, so hold off till then if you can. Now off I go getting Book Two finished and published.
A castle and the town under its shadow is the setting for Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, Undermajordomo Minor (Ecco, 2015). It is in this alpine landscape where Lucien Minor (Lucy), deWitt’s protagonist, is provided all the requisite tests of adulthood and where deWitt loots the motifs of the Romantic coming-of-age tale to produce a rollicking, modern work.
We join the seventeen-year-old Lucy as he leaves home for his new job as an under-servant at the castle Von Aux. After an exchange of farewells with his mother, he sets off down the road and soon finds the opportunity to sit on his suitcase and reflect, as any Victorian dandy might do: “He elected to linger, a favored pastime,” and as he lit his pipe and drew on the tobacco he grew dizzy and disorientated. Thus begins his tale.
A train carries Lucy across “the great green valley” and finally comes to a station “above the snow line, well beyond the first pass and into the deeper ranges where the drifts formed impossible meringue shapes and were painted blue and green in their shadows.” After getting directions from a pair of ruddy townsfolk, Lucy makes his way toward Von Aux, and as the castle comes into view he contemplates it’s significance: ”But what was the castle representative of? It was too early to name it. He only knew that it spoke of something colossal and ominous and quite beyond his experience.”
Inside Von Aux, Myron Olderglough introduces himself as Lucy’s immediate overseer, and Lucy is shown his quarters (the quarters of the former Mr. Broom, the previous undermajordomo who mysteriously disappeared.) Olderglough puts Lucy straight to work, and a few days later, during one of Lucy’s errands in town, Lucy falls in love with Klara, an attractive local girl whose hand he will win only by deposing her lover and soldier, Adolphus.
Back at Von Aux, Lucy learns one of the castles darkest secrets: that the Baron Von Aux is mad. The Baron prowls the cold halls at night, dining on rats and comporting himself as nocturnal beast, and Lucy surmises that it is love, or lack of it, that has driven the Baron to this wretched state. Lucy conspires to send a letter to the Baroness (she had left the castle long ago, for reasons only vaguely addressed) in which he entreats her to return so that the Baron might regain his sanity.
The baroness does return, along with consorts. There is a bawdy party thrown for the visiting aristocrats, a big hole in the mountain in which Lucy falls, and all other manner of mayhem. The question remains: will Lucy pass his tests, or perish?
deWitt’s goal with Undermajordomom Minor is literary. He isn’t out to right social injustice or comment on the major issues of our age. This book is simply an expression of joy and a love affair with language and writing. With this book deWitt succeeds in reshaping the magic tale to fit more closely with our modern tastes…our cravings for irony, cynicism, and parody. In the end deWitt’s Lucy eludes the two-dimensionality trap that parody often imparts on its heroes (think Wes Anderson here), and we give him our trust that he has emerged from his travails just as we would hope to. Lucy is human and fallible, after all, and this novel is better for it.
(This review first appeared on WorkadyReads.com on 11/3/2015)
Daryl Gregory’s new book Afterparty (Tor Books 2014) couldn’t have arrived at a better time. I was right in the middle of a punishing slog through Peter Hamilton’s 2012 novel Great North Road, where the plot is so overwhelmingly forced and the characters so underwhelmingly two-dimensional, that I was beginning to wonder if this huge tome (the trade paperback is over one thousand pages, and it must weigh at least a couple pounds) was worth finishing.
Gregory’s book provided the perfect relief.
Where Hamilton’s story contains a vast set of characters, Gregory’s is a tidy first person narrative. Where Hamilton’s vision of the future consists of hyper-engineered nano dust, wearable tech, and lightwave spacecraft, Gregory’s Afterparty explores a future where unchecked pharmaceuticals have become the latest social nemesis. Finally, where Hamiton’s novel is veritable opera, one with space-bending, galaxy-bridging wormholes connecting disparate planets and solar systems, Gregory’s universe is gritty and geographically compact, the action taking place in familiar cities and in a familiar and not to distant future.
Part William Gibson, part Raymond Chandler, and part Ken Kesey, Gregory’s Afterparty is a convincing story about betrayal and redemption. There are no winners in this tale, however, only a slight tipping of the scales back in the direction of justice.
I enjoyed this short book (…it barely scratches three hundred pages.) The hoodlums were dysfunctional and real, the drug-induced hallucinations of guardian angels was artfully executed, and the future science of street drug production was tangible. The real surprise in Afterparty, though, (and it really shouldn’t have been) was Gregory’s incorporation of a gay female protagonist; one of the rare instances in a SF genre still burdened by regressive perceptions of gender and sexuality. It would have been easy for Gregory to have flipped the “she” to a “he” (and probably pleased the marketers at the same time), but he resisted, and the result was a better more complex work.