The narrator of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is Anais. She is 15, working class and she is TROUBLE. She takes drugs and starts riots, she fights and skives off school, she is disrespectful, she steals, she joyrides. She hates the police and any other authority figures. She is wildly out of control and it’s hard to know if you or I would be able to cope if we had a real Anais in our life.
But she is honest too and hates bullies. She is fierce, charismatic and electric. I can remember a girl a bit like her at school—quite clever and funny when she wanted to be but always clashing with teachers, getting in fights, skiving, seemingly high on something or other a lot of the time. But she had a kind of integrity too—there was a hint of kindness behind the angry public façade and she never tormented people. Of course we’ve all come across disruptive people who ARE bullies and seem to have few redeeming features and it’s then much harder to sympathise with the reasons that might influence their poor behaviour.
As the novel begins Anais is in the back seat of a police car being taken to a young offenders’ home called the Panoptican. For those of you who don’t know, a panoptican is “a circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times”. In a world where we are increasingly observed in every aspect of our lives - think security cameras and social media for instance - it would seem to be quite a potent symbol for our consideration and Fagan makes good on it. Indeed the novel makes you think about the things that people watch for and, crucially, all the things we fail to see or don't want to see.
In the course of the novel you discover a lot about Anais’s past and about the lives of other teenagers at the home. On one level this might not sound too unusual but there are several reasons to recommend Fagan’s brilliant first novel. First is Anais’s voice - funny, irreverent, shocking, thoughtful, defiant, tormented, sad, sincere. She has a punk heart and she is a rebel and a fighter. You’d want her on your side and you’d want to be on hers. Secondly it is worth asking how many novels concentrate on working class lives? Not that many is the answer. And next how many do so without coming off as too worthy or didactic or idealistic? Hardly any. Instead Fagan gives us a novel charged with electricity and righteous anger. It rages at injustice, inequality and stupidity as it makes you laugh and cry. Thirdly, if you choose to examine them there are weird and uncanny moments in the text and philosophical ideas to contemplate too. When I'm recommending to our students I have to warn them there is a LOT of swearing, some sex and some very upsetting bits. Sometimes you see straight away that the wisdom of a book has been hard won and that the electrifying writing is a mixture of hard graft and a singular sort of thinking and insight. The Panoptican is one of those novels.
I should point out that Fagan’s treatment of sex, sexuality and gender in The Panoptican is pitch perfect. In her new novel The Sunlight Pilgrims she puts gender firmly at the centre of the novel. It concentrates on three characters: after the death of his mum Dylan finds himself unexpectedly moving to a caravan park in a remote part of Scotland. There he meets 12 year old Stella and her mum Constance. Stella has, thirteen months previously, made the transition from boy to girl and is facing bullying, incomprehension and distaste from her peers and others in the community. There’s more. The novel is set in 2020. With climate change accelerating, all the cold water pouring into the sea from the Arctic is causing the North Atlantic Drift to cool precipitating a dramatic fall in temperatures throughout northern Europe. When the novel begins in November it is already minus 6 degrees and getting colder and colder all the time.
There are lots of reasons to recommend The Sunlight Pilgrims as it has many of the qualities of The Panoptican and I could read Fagan’s prose all day (she is also a poet) but what struck me most is this. At one point Stella ponders her situation:
“Before it was just poverty, pestilence, terrorists, paedophiles, drugs, eating disorders, online grooming, meteors skimming a bit too close for comfort. Now every single person in this hall looks like they are terrified they’re all about to become frozen corpses”
So in a world going (gone?) mad, the novel is asking: How do you find ways to live and still appreciate the moments of wonder in our existence? Perhaps even with bravery, integrity and kindness in spite of all our pain and bafflement? It would be SO easy to offer answers that are banal or nihilistic. Fagan just about manages to get the tone of her novel right by giving us hope, determination and wonder instead. The structure, symbolism and the mode of storytelling is striking - stream of consciousness flights of fancy mixed with beautiful descriptions of nature wrapped around a core of fable and fairy tale. Fagan concentrates on fairly short moments in time so that you witness the thoueght processes of Stella and Dylan, their sensations, their trails of thought, their observations, their worries and emotions: their yearning and desire for simple pleasures. The chapter breaks are fascinating too (and worthy I suspect of further investigation). There are passages that will live with me for some time: Dylan's walk in Chapter's 9 & 10, Stella's bike ride with the deer, are evoked lyrically and precisely; with great emotion and a touch of the surreal. I love the fierce and tender love of Constance and Stella and the voices and ways of thinking Fagan gives her characters.
Few novels have made have provoked and prodded me quite as much as this one all year even though Fagan's novel is essentially a kind and hopeful one. The reasons I suspect, are personal. I'm having a hard time knowing how to live at the moment. It feels like the world is going to fuck - with the Tories and Trump, and climate change, and refugees being treated like dirt and so on and on and on. And on top of that I'm lonely and dissatisfied; unmoored with no idea what to do with my life or how to make a difference. And it feels like I'll never get to love or be loved again. I try to tell myself to just do it day by day. To have small goals, be kind, drink less, go to the gym. The usual stuff. And yh, I know - first world problems and all, but its not easy at the moment. But Fagan's novel has a belief in people that I can't quite connect to at the moment. It's not that I can't have pleasant and kind exchanges with people - it's that I feel no connection. Fagan's text takes connection for granted. Obvious of course that texts will hit you in different ways at different times of life but this feels like a falsehood at the moment. Most obviously it's the way the relationship between Dylan and Constance is figured that doesn't feel quite right - there's a bit of whimsy and romanticism that doesn't fit. I suspect other readers will feel differently.
I waded through The Panoptican feverishly, all in one day. I didn't want to read The Sunlight Pilgrims as fast. Maybe because there are more weird and uncanny sections and more description but mainly I think there's more to ponder and reflect on. Both novels feel urgent and necessary.
I can think of no greater compliment than to say whilst reading the novels I kept contrasting and comparing with some of my favourite British contemporary novelists: Ali Smith, Sarah Hall, MJ Hyland, Liz Jensen, Jeanette Winterson: yes, Fagan really is that good. I urge you to get reading.