Patrick Flanery's new novel I Am No One asks whether it is more delusional to think you are being watched, or to think you are not being watched. Conventionally a mark of mental illness, it has more recently come to mean you're just well informed. You are not, maybe, being particularly watched, but it is now obvious that a vast and impersonal state apparatus hovers perpetually just outside the boundaries of visibility, waiting to be triggered by that infelicitous internet search, that email from relatives abroad, that unlikely bank transfer.
Jeremy O'Keefe, a mild history professor returning to NYU after 10 years at Oxford, begins to suspect he is under surveillance. Emails he does not remember sending show up in his inbox. There is a man outside his window day and night, trailing him on the street. And boxes begin to arrive, delivered by a masked messenger, filled with printouts of his search history and phone records.
This is undeniably a novel with a point to make, one about privacy in this "new regime of data collection [that] does not see innocence first but assumes guilt by algorithmic association." But Flanery resists the obvious at every turn. This is not a polemic — instead, emotional and psychological precision are the order of the day.
The title I Am No One is a protestation of innocence — I am ordinary, not worth monitoring -- but also hints at the bland urbanity of Jeremy. His identity is one of displacement and dissolution: He is transatlantic, divorced, mild, urbane, a little prim, middle-aged, with the chilly formality of the American who has lived in the UK for a long time. He is neither particularly good nor particularly evil. He hasn't — he thinks — committed any crimes. He could be anyone.
And yet Jeremy is not certain these figures shadowing him aren't products of a mind diseased, and neither are we. As the novel goes on and Jeremy becomes more desperate, the border between erudite and mild academic and sweating, manic conspiracy theorist grows porous. "The most alarming thing about this experience or realization or epiphany was that there was no discernable barrier between sanity and insanity," Jeremy jitters in one long sentence,
"all it would take is a single step across the demarcating line and yet I knew, just as clearly, that while it is all too easy to defect out of sanity, just as simple as taking a step, to go back in the other direction and regain the territory of sanity, to leave the realm of insanity, which totally encompasses its more rational neighbor, a kind of perforated state where insanity is the largest of the two territories and sanity merely the affiliated enclave within it, a Vatican or San Marino of the mind (or indeed a West Berlin surrounded by the menace of the German Democratic Republic) would require an effort only the superhuman might be capable of achieving."
Jeremy strains, desperately, for precision, with an academic's sense that to describe a phenomenon in perfect terms with appropriate parallels and precedents is to somehow contain it, make it comprehensible. This question — what would be worse outcome, insanity or appalling government overreach? — gives the novel its taut and eager force.
The nuance, on the other hand, comes from a quiet and subtle counter-melody of anxiety about the opposite of surveillance: being forgotten, being unknown, being ignored. Love in this book is expressed as seeing and watching. "To Bethan. Who is not ignored," Jeremy inscribes a gift book to a lover. He has a mild, nearly imperceptible identification with overlooked objects: He sees an old gift with relief, gratified it "had not been stowed in a cupboard, forgotten, or re-gifted to some less affluent friend." Being watched and being ignored happen to be two of our biggest fears — if only we could be watched how we wanted, why we wanted, by the people we wanted.
It isn't until late in the book that those questions about Jeremy's sanity — what kind of book are we reading, really? — begin to resolve. A man losing his mind or a warning about government overreach? A love story or a thriller? "In what genre am I trapped?" asks our reflexive narrator. In this seductive and frightening novel, it's never quite clear.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.