What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, that a private life is a possibility any longer, and this is not just true for those of us living out our sentence in the developed world, but anyone anywhere, except perhaps those hidden underground, for the satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the Earth, gaze down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves …
When a stranger seems overfamiliar, he wonders if he’s become too British in his time away. When his emails show that he’s rescheduled an appointment with no memory of having done so, he wonders if it’s an early sign of dementia. When it appears that someone is watching his apartment, he is afraid to tell anyone else in case they think he’s becoming paranoid. When he receives a parcel containing a printout of his digital footprint since his departure for England, he has to conclude he’s being watched.
In parallel with Jeremy, the reader also questions what’s going on; not only regarding the particulars of the narrator’s predicament, but what kind of novel this is. Was it about how we’ve all traded our privacy for supposed protection, or about how a series of seemingly-innocent choices can make anyone a suspect? For me, this made the novel slow to get going, with lots of philosophising on the irritations of being taken for British in America, and on what it means to be observed. But as the novel progressed, the constantly changing focus proved a strength.
This is a multi-layered novel about cultural identity, mental health, and the madness of how we’ve sculpted society. It’s particularly thought-provoking on how being observed is fundamental to the human condition, in which not “to be observed is, in fact, regarded as a crime, the crime of parental neglect or abandonment” (p72), yet too much scrutiny can erode our sense of self. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the very occasional references to places in the Peak District (leading me to wonder whether the author had a particular affinity for the village of Stoney Middleton or he just liked the name).
Reading I Am No One, I was reminded of other novels I’ve recently reviewed: Jihadi for a man writing his response to real or imagined accusations in relation to the war on terror; The Long Room for the other side of state surveillance; Amnesia for another novel about a father unexpectedly forced to take a political stand.
As a story about guilt-by association and the workings of the human mind, it also connects to Andrew’s Brain.
While we’re on the subject of cognition (p313):
Can the conscious mind partition what it knows, keeping one part in the dark as another part works frantically behind the curtain, turning gears and knobs, pressing buttons, amplifying and distorting the voice to deceive both its other self and those that encounter physical person?
I Am No One also connects with the non-fiction book, The Voices Within, which I recently reviewed for Shiny New Books. I didn’t have space to include the following quote, which Jeremy might find interesting (p33):
Stealing is wrong, but there is something particularly repugnant about making off with thoughts which the owner cannot even recognise as missing.
Thanks to Atlantic books for my review copy of I Am No One; it’s an interesting, somewhat different, novel and I wonder what connections resonate for you?