I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

😀 😀 😀 😀

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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54 thoughts on “I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

  1. That really is an interesting (and important!) question, FictionFan! How much privacy and individual liberty are we willing to give up in the name of security? Under what circumstances? And where does it end? I’m glad they were addressed here, and I’m glad that there’s no glossing over the complications involved. Sounds like an interesting character as the narrator, too. I’m glad you thought this was a good ‘un.

    • Yes, it’s an increasingly complicated issue, with both terrorism and technology making us have to keep looking at it afresh. Flanery is always worth reading, both because his style is great and for the content. This one might not have reached quite the heights of his last one for me, but since I consider it one of the best books of this century so far, that’s a pretty high bar for him to reach every time!

  2. Ooo, cool. It sounds like a great book, in fact. Stellar review. I watched this show once upon a time that raised questions similar to that. You know about security and liberty, and the balance and whatnot. Interesting thinks for sure.

    I say, I bet you were a bit hard on him! *laughs* Which is a good thing. He holds his jacket well, that much can be said. *nods*

    • Woohoo! A stellar!! *dances a little jig* Flanery’s always great for making the reader think. Yes, it’s an interesting subject and has changed so much over BUS’s lifetime (I’m much younger, as you know) with the advent of new technology and now with terrorism. Not sure what the right answers are, myself…

      *laughs* Well, I think I was! The problem with writing a brilliant book like Fallen Land is that people then expect all your books to be that brilliant – poor man! (I’m kinda frightened to say this, ‘cos you know what’ll probably happen *looks over shoulder nervously* but I truly think he’s stonkingly gorgeous!)

      • *laughs* Always picking on poor BUS! But, yeah, with the new tech and stuff, lots of new concerns have sorta surfaced. Of course you probably know where I stand on the subject. It’s all quite interesting.

        Unless, of course, Fallen Land was just a flash in the pan, a jolt in the pot, a bolt on the mountain. But I doubt it. Hahaha, he sorta is very cool looking indeed! I like his whole expression there. Now, let’s hope he comes around.

        • Oh, she deserves it! *laughs lots* Yes, I think I could make a fairly good guess… *visualises Prof tooled up like Rambo, sneaking through the undergrowth with camouflage paint on his face* But I’m not hugely enthusiastic about leaving it all to the state either, you might be surprised to know… Did you ever hear about the attempted terrorist attack in Glasgow airport a few years ago? Three (I think) terrorists tried to ram through the doors in their car to set off a suicide bomb, but a bunch of Glaswegian guys about to fly off on their holidays ran over, pulled them out of the car, beat them half to death and handed them over to the police – oddly, we haven’t had a terrorist incident since… *chuckles proudly* Nemo me impune lacessit! (Naebody messes wi’ me, pal!) The Scottish motto…

          Noooooooooooooo!!! One day, when you’re as old as BUS and Flanery is as famous as Dickens, you’ll be impressed that you first heard about him here… *laughs* You’re so mean…

          • *laughs* Like Rambo! Yeah!! With a bowie strapped here, strapped there, strapped everywhere! I can see this, too, the sudden. I did not hear about that! But I lovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvve the story to many deaths! That’s exactly what needs to happen. Now, do your police carry guns over there?

            Haha. Yes, yes. I might be impressed. Still, I think he might be better than Dickens one day–I’m thinking.

            • *laughs and shakes head* I knew that image would appeal to you! It’s a great story, isn’t it? Soooo typically Glaswegian! I almost ended up feeling sorry for the poor terrorists – they really didn’t know what had hit them! Not routinely, but there are armed police anywhere where a terrorist attack is likely – airports, the Parliament etc. But not ordinary police on the streets – don’t need them.

              *gulps* I’m not sure that’s possible…

  3. This sounds fascinating and very clever – maybe too clever for the likes of me but I would give it a go anyway. The question of state surveillance is an interesting one and I’m with you – recent years have made me think very differently about it. That said, if Mr Cameron wants to read the nonsense I send in emails and whatnot he is most welcome, although I might end up getting sectioned… 😉

    • Ha! If it’s not too clever for me, I think you should be safe!! What I like about him is that he addresses serious issues but always remember to wrtie a good book too – so many of these kinda intellectual writers get carried away with their own brilliance *glowers at Umberto Eco, Julian Barnes, JM Coetzee and various others* Haha! Yes, I try to get all uptight about my privacy but honestly, my life is so dull I actually pity the spies… maybe I should start making stuff up just to brighten their day…

      • When things get too intellectual I just switch off, unfortunately, but this does sound good. But please stop reviewing all these great books – they are too tempting!
        I hope they hack my Twitter. I get some really weird messages on there. Yesterday, someone messaged me asking who I thought would win in a dog fight – 4 RAF pilots or a Nazi riding a dragon. I mean – really!

  4. Great review, FF. My own Also 4 star, in the end, will go live on mine tomorrow. Like you, I inched up a little a few weeks after finishing it, when I thought it would be 3 1/2 , rounding up to 4 on Amazon, but not a clear enough 4 to make my bloggy entry rule! However, it kept me thinking about it for some weeks, and that meant it was under my skin in a good way! Did you hear him, btw, on I think open book on R4 a few days ago?

    • Thanks, LF – I’ll look forward to reading yours! I must say I found it a particularly hard one to write without getting into spoiler territory – even as oblique as I tried to be, I’m not sure I totally succeeded. But without discussing the… thing(!), it’s really hard to explain why the slight disappointment… No I didn’t – but I was listening to a youtube thing yesterday where he discussed Fallen Land. Doesn’t he have a kinda weird accent? A bit like Jeremy’s in fact…

      • Yes, I thought his own English/American relationship had some similarities with Jeremy’s. I agree, when you see mine you will also see I partake in the ‘it’s difficult to explain without spoilers’ and so I don’t explain either!

  5. Wow! Excellent and thought-provoking review, FF. I had forgotten to mention I read Fallen Land based on your recommendation and felt many of the issues addressed here are issues I was pondering with Fallen Land. The idea of surveillance seems to be a central theme in his books, wrapped tightly around other current issues (in the case of Fallen Land, the housing and banking crisis and shifting use of land). I will be pondering my civil liberties today, while continuing to fret over our political election this year! (Ugh) …Flanery does seem to possess an ability to probe the right questions and stay away from absolutes, which is brilliant writing indeed!

    • Woohoo! You’ve no idea how happy it makes me to hear you read Fallen Land!! I was just thinking while writing this review that I’ve been banging on about FL for years now and I didn’t think I’d persuaded anyone to read it! *happy, happy dance* I’m guessing from what you say that you certainly found it thought-provoking, but did you enjoy it? Yes, he seems to be focussing on the political and security aftermath of 9/11, and now the European attacks too. And he always leaves me thinking and pondering – the sign of a good, intelligent book. It’s hard to know where the line should be drawn between security and privacy…

      Yay! At least our man didn’t actually win Iowa – I take some comfort from that… 😉

          • Yes, but he’ll get no where with that nonsense! He’s getting hammered in the press everywhere you turn. He’s so full of nonsense I cannot fathom how he was able to even get this far. Mind blowing stuff! Yes, I need to stay alive to cast my vote! I’m rather fond of having a woman in charge these days. 🙂

            • Yeah, even if he loses – WHEN he loses – I’ve still been horrified at the number of votes he’s managed to attract. Frightening! Mind you, our own UKIP (the we hate nasty foreigners, uppity women, and anybody else who isn’t us party) keep doing remarkably well too – but at least their leader is a bit less obviously obnoxious than Mr T! I cannot lie – I’m praying for Hillary to win – she’s the only one of the contenders I can bear… (Plus, think how annoyed the Professor would be… *chuckles wickedly*)

  6. Great review. As you know, this is a subject on which I have a bit of a “bee in my bonnet”, so this one quite appeals to me.

  7. It’s interesting how you can convince someone that he or she needs to read a less than perfect book. I am such a sucker for unreliable narrators and how they delude themselves. So true to life. That was one of the things I loved most about The Remains of the Day (for lit fic) or Treasure Island! (for a laugh a minute fiction).

    The thing is, I now feel the need to read all three of Flanery’s books….

    • Haha! Oh good! I wasn’t sure my nefarious plan had been successful! 😉 I like that kind of unreliable narrator too, and for the most part I thought he sustained Jeremy’s character brilliantly. In fact, I wasn’t altogether sure I hadn’t maybe just missed something when I was a bit disappointed at how it turned out, but LF hit the same problem, so I suspect it actually is a plot or structure problem, rather than just me…

      I can’t believe you haven’t read Fallen Land yet! I have written to every chocolate shop in the US to tell them to cut off your supplies till you give me a written report on it…!!!

  8. Great review of yet another work I hadn’t heard about, FF! For sure, the balance between liberty and security is a timely concern, though I’m not at a point right now where I want to “think” so hard, ha! Still, very cool author photo — much better than somebody with their head propped up on a fist, staring wistfully into the distance!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 🙂 I think we’re all thinking about it again over here in the wake of the Paris attacks – very close to home. It’s a difficult balance to get right, especially since nearly everyone has a different view of where the line should be drawn. Yes, indeed – he looks nice and relaxed, rather than ‘posed’…

  9. As someone who loved Absolution and was so disappointed by Fallen Land that it remains unfinished, I think this one sounds like it might be more to my liking. I will be interested to se how other reviewers respond.

    • Fallen Land did seem to divide people – I was in the ‘brilliant book’ camp. What disappointed you about it so much? Though each book has been very different, I’d say this one might be slightly closer in style to FL than to Absolution, though the uncertainty about ‘truth’ certainly features in this one. When you get around to reading it, I hope you enjoy it – he’s shaping up to be one of this century’s important authors, I think…

      • What troubled me with Fallen Land was the attempt to use three distinct styles. I felt he was over reaching to be clever and could have told the same story without that distraction. Absolution was a much cleaner read and really zeroed in on a way of existence in contemporary South Africa. I am not a huge fan of magic realism and really disliked that thread of the book, and I am a fan of Ballardian bureaucratic dystopia but found that aspect uncomfortably derivative. I did like the tautness of the psychological thriller thread and would have preferred to see that approach carried throughout. I gave up halfway through so I can’t say if there is a resolution that pulls these elements together in an effective way. I really felt the idea was good, the execution too showy and it lost me.

        • Isn’t it interesting how we all react differently? I’ve been discussing Flanery with Lady Fancifull, another long-term fan, and we were agreeing yesterday that the reason we preferred Fallen Land to this one was exactly because of the multiple voices! I loved Absolution too, and would really like to re-read it sometime soon. My earliest political memories are nearly all to do with the anti-apartheid movement, with the white South Africans cast in the role of ogres – I was fascinated by how Flanery changed my perception somewhat, not of the politics, but of the people. Like any author, some of his books will appeal more than others but he’s definitely on my must-read list for the future, whatever he writes about.

          • I went to university in the early 80’s with many South African ex-pats and the decade leading up to the first free elections in 1994 were the dismantling of Apartheid was the hallmark of my early adult political reality too. Although I was fond of some South African writers, Absolution was a wake up call to the level of violence and racial tension still evident in the “new” South Africa. It shocked me into seeking contemporary SA writers (Damon Galgut is my favourite – and my favourite English language writer in general). Now I have good friends in the country and made my first visit last year (which was fascinating, wonderful and unsettling). I cam home with several $100 worth of books! And I have Patrick Flannery to thank/blame. He is, by the way, very popular there.

            • I’ve been intending to read some Galgut for ages – really must get round to it this year. I’ve read very little South African fiction in fact – I think I may have avoided it because of political overkill in my youth, but it seems there’s lots of interesting stuff coming from there now – from the whole continent, in fact. I’m delighted to hear Flanery’s popular over there – I know he gets a reasonable readership in the UK, US and Canada, but I always feel he hasn’t yet got quite the name recognition of many other writers.

  10. Yes – despite your reservations I do like the sound of this one although of course Absolution is languishing somewhere in the TBR – the issue of surveillance is one of those where the arguments for both sides holds sway but my instinct is that society should have stopped the creep long ago… so for that reason alone I want to read this one – poor TBR, it’ll have to go on the wishlist!

    • This one is on Netgalley – for the US, but it might be worth a try anyway. But I do think Absolution is a better book, so probably better to read it first and see what you think of him. Yes, I have very mixed feelings about it all – every time there’s an attack the authorities come in for a lot of criticism, but unless we become a total police state there’s always going to be a limit to what they can do… it’s a tricky balance.

  11. I’d been waiting for the next novel by this terrific writer, and can’t wait to dig into this one. My own favorite of his earlier ones is Absolution, but as I said about Fallen Land, I’ll read everything he publishes. More young writers need to swing for the fences, and Flanery surely does.

    • It’s out on Kindle over your side but for some reason the paper version isn’t coming out till summer. Yes, he’s an absolute must-read for me too, and though this one wasn’t for me quite as good as the first two, that’s mainly because I’ve come to expect so much from him. I think you’ll enjoy this one – hope you’ll review it!

    • Ha! Yes! Though poor Jeremy isn’t quite as mad as that – or is he…?? 😉 The unreliability of his character is done really well though… even though this wasn’t my favourite, any Flanery book is well worth reading…

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