Someone IS watching you… Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One
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.