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Big data, big brother, big issues: Carol-Ann Davids talks to Patrick Flanery about his book I Am No One

Published in the Sunday Times

I Am No OneI Am No One
Patrick Flanery (Penguin Random House)
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When the constellation of personal information that we drop every day – e-mail addresses, phone numbers, locations pinned to an ever-present grid on our phones (or to the Uber driver’s phone), a stream of social media opinions – is probed and given meaning, what becomes of our freedom? It is in this rupture between mass surveillance and privacy that Patrick Flanery locates his chilling third novel, I Am No One.

American professor Jeremy O’Keefe has just trudged through a decade at Oxford University when what he really desired, and believed was deserved, was tenure at Columbia University. Finally back home in New York, O’Keefe begins to understand that his communications and movements are being closely observed: a mysterious box with his e-mails going back several years is delivered to him, he is trailed, and he begins to bump repeatedly into the same nasty character.

The subject matter has long fascinated Flanery, a professor of creative writing at Reading University in England. He tells me: “Perhaps it’s a function of growing up in America when I did, or simply because I come from a left-wing family, but the conflict between surveillance and privacy marked my thoughts from an early age. This is as much an effect of my interest in the gaze, in cinematic terms, but also in interpersonal and sociological ones, as it is a result of my concerns about government surveillance.”

As the title suggests, O’Keefe is perplexed at the sudden interest and detailing of his life’s activities. So unfolds a novel of complex layers as one question folds into another, making I Am No One an intellectual page-turner. From O’Keefe’s often skewed angle, the novel seeks to take the measure of a world that has in the last decade seen the rise of Islamic State, the continuation of the so-called war on terror, the Arab Spring, as well as the startling revelations of Edward Snowden.

Unlike Flanery’s previous novels, Absolution and Fallen Land, the structure of I Am No One takes the form of a first-person narrative, heavy on interior monologue and stream of consciousness-like musings. Flanery tells me that he assumed an approach used by Argentinian novelist César Aira, where the work in progress is not reworked but written forward with no or few revisions until the text is complete.

Flanery says: “With this book, because I was dealing with a single narrator, I was worried about having a sense of claustrophobic stasis, and so I wanted to try a compositional approach that would create as much momentum as possible in the text, because I also needed the character to be pedantic in places and tried to balance it with a prose style that isn’t too heavily worked, so it is provisional and loose in places.”

The novel flows and the approach relays the sense that the author required for O’Keefe. Then again, Flanery’s methods may be too effective as O’Keefe tends to be solipsistic, if not outright unlikeable. Prickly personas recur in Flanery’s novels. “I don’t have the fear of creating potentially unlikeable characters because I’m interested in real people in the world and creating characters who are ambiguous or who elicit very ambiguous responses.”

One senses that O’Keefe is so coddled in elitism, so accustomed to unfettered access to any and everything, that he is unconcerned about crossing boundaries (including with female colleagues and students). It is this unknowingness which propels O’Keefe into the centre of his own drama.

In I Am No One the reader, the citizen, is hooked and cannot, dare not, look away.

Follow Carol-Ann Davids @ca_davids

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