A year ago, when Jenni Fagan released her first novel in England, “The Panopticon” must have seemed like a dangerously arcane title. The British edition includes a dictionary definition right on the front cover. It refers to a prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Convinced he could grind criminals into citizens with the power of constant observation, Bentham imagined a cylinder of cells built around a central watchtower.
Edward Snowden invoked the “panopticon” when he leaked information about the National Security Agency’s secret spy program to reporter Barton Gellman, and we’ve all spent the past few weeks getting used to the news that our government is snooping on us with extraordinary efficiency. It’s through the prism of those revelations, then, that American readers will greet Fagan’s debut.
But “The Panopticon” is not ripped from the headlines about electronic scrutiny. Instead, it concerns an old, low-tech disgrace: unwanted children. Every year, thousands of them _ abandoned by parents, removed by social workers or caught by the law — trudge through a rickety system designed to care for their physical needs and possibly carry them along toward productive adulthood. They are constantly supervised, and yet, in the most important way, they remain witheringly unseen.
Fagan is a Scottish poet who was recently included in Granta’s list of “Best of Young British Novelists.” She grew up in what’s euphemistically called “the care system,” and she writes about these young people with a deep sympathy for their violently disordered lives and an equally deep appreciation of their humor and resiliency.
“The Panopticon” is the story of Anais Hendricks, who, at 15, has already survived a lifetime of horrors. She never knew her parents. “I’m rotten,” she tells us. “There’s something wrong with me. It’s why nobody kept me.” Her foster mother — a kindly prostitute — was stabbed to death. Her adult boyfriend is a drug pusher and pimp. She has moved 51 times and collected dozens of charges for “the riots, the dealing, the fires, the fights.” Her signature crime is driving minibuses into walls. On fire.
As the novel opens, Anais is being delivered to the Panopticon, an old prison and insane asylum now being used as a home for juvenile delinquents. Somewhere back in the city, a comatose police officer named Dawn Craig lies in the hospital. If Officer Craig dies, Anais will be charged with murder.
That accusation is hard to reconcile with this witty, crude and often tender girl with bright green hair, but Anais was too high to remember what actually happened, and she’s certainly capable of violence. “I’ll pick on the polis, aye,” she admits, “but only when they ask for it. . . . I hate fighting. I’m a pacifist really, but if you dinnae fight — you’ll just get battered.” Getting battered, though, is all she’s ever known in what one official calls the “downhill spiral” of her life.
Even the people assigned to help her offer only more depressing criticism or useless advice. Told by an officious social worker that she has a borderline personality, Anais fires back, “It’s better than no personality.” Forced to listen to a pompous judge condemn her to a hopeless future, she silently rages: “Here is what you don’t know — I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d [beat] 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 . . . 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 that you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable . . . life.”
Her rousing voice, with its roundly rendered Scottish accent, carries this tense but static novel along. In the months that follow, Anais finds her place among the other troubled kids in the Panopticon. A lifetime of disruption has made her a wary expert at starting over. She makes friends with a young HIV-positive mother of twins and with other sundry lost teens. She learns whom to trust and whom to avoid on the staff. And she grows increasingly convinced that she’s being observed by people conducting an experiment in the watchtower.
That element of the plot is something of a red herring, which front-loads “The Panopticon” with expectations of intrigue that the novel never fulfills. Indeed, the banal threats to Anais’s life are threatening enough; her paranoid fantasies about all-seeing scientists involved in a grotesque conspiracy only glamorize a heartless institutional system that chews up kids in quite ordinary ways.
I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if “The Panopticon,” like these adolescents, falls through the cracks. As an older, grislier version of Louis Sachar’s “Holes,” it’s too graphic for all but the most liberal high schools. And despite some extraordinary critical praise here and abroad, adult readers are likely to find Fagan’s polemical impulse a bit obvious, her emotional trajectory too well-traveled. That right-thinking people really should love this novel isn’t quite enough to make me love it.
It’s best in small, poignant asides, as when Anais escapes into her whimsical “birthday game”: Stuck in a loveless life of abandonment and sexual abuse, she imagines a better past, starting with a better birth — say, in Paris, to people who want her and care for her. It’s impossible to read this simple, anguished daydream and resist the urge to wish that for her, too, but harder.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Jenni Fagan
Hogarth. 282 pp. $22