Anais Hendricks and the Panopticon – How much can a nobody from nowhere take? (A review of the new novel by Jenni Fagan)

Posted: August 10, 2013 in Book Reviews, Experiences, On Compassion
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Anais Hendricks has an astonishing vocabulary. In the space of a single thought she can use both the “F word” and the “C word” more times than most drunken sailors will in a week. In Scotland, where Anais has been in and out of foster homes and countless “care units”, it seem that the “C word” is even commonly applied to men. Anais has an amazingly broad application for these to words, along with the ever provocative word “shite”. But that’s not why Anais’ vocabulary is amazing.

Anais Hendricks dreams of living in Paris, owning a little dog, drinking café au lait, and reading everything in the National Library (including the reference books). She is different from most 15 year olds who share her blend of drug use, sexual promiscuity, violent crime, and other illicit behaviors. Unlike other kids, she is REALLY smart. Anais is well read (named after her prostitute-adopted-mother’s favorite author, even), knowledgeable, and surprisingly worldly for a kid who has been bounced around within a Scottish child care system that seems to have given up on her, is just waiting for the right reason to place her in a “secure unit”, and expects nothing for her but an eventual life in prison. So, Anais basically has nothing going for her and nothing to which she may look ahead.

But, it’s not simply that she seems to have no future; Anais also has no real past. You see, Anais Hendricks does not know her birth mother who died in a mental institution. An elderly gentleman in the institution is certain he saw Anais when she was born. He says that her mother flew in the window on a flying cat and gave birth in the institution. That is not the most credible supposition, though. So, Anais often passes time playing “the birthday game”, trying to invent, for herself, a credible backstory,

Anais Hendrick is the protagonist of the new novel “The Panpoticon”; the first novel by Scottish author Jenni Fagan. As the book begins, Anais is being sent to a newly designed institution for juveniles, The facility is called “The Panopticon” after the prison design of Jeremy Bentham; which I actually discussed in a different context, on this blog, in October 2012 (http://wp.me/p1I5vv-9H);  for putting a policewoman in a coma. Anais remembers nothing of the night because she was so stoned. That is… except for trying to save a half-dead squirrel (and I won’t spoil anything by saying more).

Within the dark world of the Panopticon are a variety of adults who, not surprisingly, constantly let the young residents down, Anais, though, builds powerful friendships with her fellow residents. These include two girls: Isla, an anorexic, self-mutilating, HIV-positive teenage mother of twins, and Tash (Isla’s supposed lover), who’s big dream is to raise enough money to rent a flat by working as a prostitute. Both of these girls are far more troubled than the Panopticon can deal with. Both are contributors to the novel’s deep embodiment of tragedy; yet, both, in their own unique ways embody a deep beauty as they strive for meaning. Then, of course, there are the equally pitiful young men of the Panopticon. One is a prostitute himself. Another (perhaps the books most debased character – but perhaps not!) is shunned by everyone because his big crime is that he raped a dog. Let’s just say there is no shortage of emotional derangement among the residents here.

Anais thinks continually about her ‘bio-mum’, Helen; her relatively useless social worker; and her imprisoned boyfriend who (again without spoiling things) turns out to be the cause of one of the most terrifying and powerful scenes of deceit in any book I’ve ever read.

As I said already, Anais does not really know her past. But, she is quite confident that she’s part of something she calls “the Experiment”.

She says:

“In all actuality they grew me—from a bit of bacteria in a petri dish. An experiment, created and raised just to see exactly how much fuck-you a nobody from nowhere can take.”

But, you see, Anais Hendricks is not the product of an experiment at all. And THAT is one of the books main points: She is the product of all the adults who have abused her, lied to her, taken advantage of her, disrespected her, used her for their own fulfillment, provided her with every manner of narcotic, and then locked her up for following the path that they themselves have enabled.

Throughout the majority of this book, I struggled with my feeling that this should be one of those nihilistic, existential, postmodern stories of futility that I should hate. I could not really figure out why I liked it until it ended and it continued to stick with me and disturb me for days. Finally, I came to realize why I did not hate it; why I love this book. Anais Hendricks is a HERO. She is not the kind of role model hero in whose footsteps you want your children to follow. Certainly not. But Anais is a fighter and that’s not necessarily bad. Criminal or not, Anais is compassionate enough to grieve over a squirrel and sums herself up like this:

“I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck 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 as fuck 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 than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.”

I’m sorry, but if there was ever the use of the work “fuck” that you can call beautiful, there it is.

In the end, my assessment of The Panopticon is that this book a gripping, powerful, deeply disturbing book. But it is also the story of a 15-year-old compassionate, honorable, young woman who refuses to forsake her individuality,  to give up on finding her personal story, or to continue to seek a path to meaning in a disaster-filled life in which “the system” provides no hope. Did Anais put a cop in a coma? Was Anais the product of an evil experiment? Is a dog and a cafe in Paris even a possibility? Well… if I told you what I know I’d kill the book for you; so I won’t. What I will say is that you should read it, and in among the wretchedness and the angst, look for hope.  l Could not put the book down for the last few chapters and it is in my thought now long after those last chapters.

Personally, I see hope amid terror; and that’s a good thing.

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