Totally Dublin

September 24, 2012

Words: Kevin Breathnach

The Panopticon is Jenni Fagan’s widely-acclaimed debut novel about Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year old girl who has lived in care all her life, who has a long string of offenses to her name and who relies heavily on all manner of uppers, downers and hallucinogens. Since being accused of putting a police officer into a life-threatening coma, Anais has been sent to live in the Panopticon, an institution whose resident young offenders can be observed at all times. “My social worker said they were gonnae make all the nuthouses and prisons like this, once. The thought of it pleased her, I could tell. Helen reckons she’s a liberal, but really – she’s just a cunt.” Narrated in the first-person by Anais herself, the novel is told in her own intractable Scottish vernacular. Anais has been failed by the system. Her story is an extremely bleak one, and yet the novel is not without moments of humour and even joy. Fagan is also a prize-winning poet. Her collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia is available on Blackheath books.

The very first line of The Panopticon reads: “I am an experiment.” To what extent are you, the writer, in charge of that experiment, which Anais believes is always watching her?

None at all. Anais starts with “I am an experiment” because, as we soon learn, she has never met anyone she’s related to. She has been moved so much within the system; she has been observed constantly within it. And so she begins to believe that it would be just as feasible for her to have been created in an experimental study. She imagines being engineered in a Petri dish. To her this is a feasible idea about how she came into existence – and possibly how people came into existence. She doesn’t see how her idea is different to religion or any other concept of how humanity and the world came to be. She doesn’t understand her origins and so she begins to wonder what the origins of mankind are full-stop. And she doesn’t understand why people don’t talk it more. In a way, she’s really quite concerned with metaphysical questions.

She’s quietly philosophical, yes. When she’s coming up on acid, for instance, she names everything she sees to “be sure that things are what they say they are”, an idea that for me touches on Berkeleyan idealism. And then later on, she talks about brains in formaldehyde having no memories, which seems related to the Cartesian split between mind and body. What is your background or your interest in philosophy?

I guess quite a bit part of the character probably came from me considering… not philosophy so much as the universe. I’m not extraordinarily well-read on philosophy. But if you think about 15- or 16-year olds on drugs, you’ll find that they will end up discussing philosophical things, whether they realise it or not. Kids think. As for the counting thing, she’s seeking a sense of security there. She’s in an insecure space when she’s coming up, so she looks for something concrete, for something to tie her to the world. And counting, looking at numbers on cars, reading something as she goes past it, these are all ways of tying herself down, of keeping her present within herself. That’s just how frail her link to feeling grounded is in a way.

Authors sometimes have difficulty measuring what their child narrator should and should not know about the world. Did the fact that Anais has experienced altogether too much eliminate that problem to some degree?

I don’t really think of Anais as a child. I mean, I guess she is. She’s 15, she’s a teenager, but because of how she’s lived, she’s almost an adult. She lives in a very extreme, unique way, and that has vastly affected the way she functions in the world. And although she is very damaged emotionally, she’s also quite intellectually advanced. So, yeah, I was able to take liberties with her as a character that I might not have been able to if, say, the character had lived a really sheltered life. Anais has an awareness of adults. Since she was little, she’s been dealing with the adults in the social work department, who engage with her in a very specific way: social-worker-speak, the language they have for evaluating and reflecting on situations. She can very effectively present an adult persona to them; she’s well able to engage in convincing adult dialogue.

What the relationship, if any, between Foucault’s idea of the panopticon and your novel?

I was reading Discipline and Punishment when I was writing it. And I was quite inspired by Foucault’s point about the progression of the punishment system, how the focus moved from physical punishment – you know, flogging and worse things than that – which had caused the legal system to be seen as being just as brutal as the criminals – as actually just recreating crime in the form of a public spectacle. And so the legal system started to move away from so that it could once again be seen as the good guy. Instead of flogging, etc., it would take away the freedom of the criminal, making punishment something that would break the criminal down internally. I’m very interested in the processes of institutionalization and how it impacts upon the individual. So, yeah, that did in part come from Foucault. And Jeremy Bentham. It was Bentham who originally called for the abolition of physical punishment – especially for children – and it was also Bentham who designed the original panopticon, although that one was never build.

Is The Panopticon a dystopian novel?

No, I don’t think so. It nods not to the future, but to the present. We’re all living in a panopticon. Society has been engineered that way. We are forever observing each other – from things like table manners, to TV, to the fact that offices are now open-plan and of course to social media, which we all use constantly. The feeling of being watched or of watching is something that everybody experiences and understands. The idea of privacy, of not engaging publically in ways that allow you to be observed, this is no longer considered totally normal. I read recently that some employers won’t employ somebody if they don’t have a Facebook and Twitter account because their refusal to take part in the spectacle could mean that they’re anti-social or have a mental illness. I’m intrigued to see how this will impact kids who have never lived without Facebook or Twitter. It’s like watching society live in two different ways.

You’ve spoken about Anais and her friends being subalterns. If it isn’t a dystopian novel, then is there any way The Panopticon could be considered a postcolonial novel?

I guess it could. I didn’t really think about like that, though, because I always think of colonialism having less to do with class than it does with countries. But I guess it does involve class as well. Anais has a relationship with Professor True, who had been one of her adopted mother’s clients before she was murdered., Professor True he lectures in structuralism, and that’s where she’s got some of her ideas. When I first discovered structuralism, I discovered something that I already knew very well. Structuralism just explained it to me – and on a much larger scale than I’d been able to articulate before then. So, if anything, I’d say The Panopticon is closer to a structuralist novel than it is a postcolonial novel, although obviously they resonate.

I was really drawn – and am really drawn in my work – to how peripheral groups are homogenized, and what the function that serves in society. It’s something that’s always gone on, and often it’s quite inaccurate. Take witches and witchcraft and warlocks as an example. Society managed to use these unrealistic, archaic beliefs to separate society and to control it. And then you look at some of the modern ways that people are institutionalized by separation, by ideas of separation, ideas that children in care are somehow different from ordinary children. Often that comes with archaic ideas of what it means to be in that situation – that children in care are bad, or they’ve done something wrong. It dehumanizes them. But whereas adults in the prison system have to a certain degree made a choice to be in the prison system, kids in care haven’t made the choice to be there. So I think for them to be judged in some way is really destructive. It’s Victorian and it’s unnecessary. I wanted to write a novel where the characters that come from the care system are much more real and multifaceted than how the media portrays them. And it’s quite difficult because obviously Anais isn’t the easiest character to be around all the time. She’s not a poster girl for an advisable way to live your life within the care system. She is flawed. She’s in a mess. I didn’t really go for the easiest option; but it felt totally right.

Did Anais’s subalternity influence your decision to write in Scottish?

Originally the novel was 140,000 words long. It was written in the third-person, and it wasn’t written in Scottish. The first draft was quite vastly different. I realised I was imposing too much of my own authorial thing at that point. I had to pull the novel apart completely, strip it right back and rewrite it in the first person. Anais didn’t want to speak English. She didn’t sound great in English. The book itself didn’t sound great in English. I mean, if you’re trying to record a real voice, a voice that isn’t heard in society, why would you then write about it in the third-person, in an authorial voice, the way it’s written about everywhere else? The book only properly came to life when I let Anais and Shortie and all the other characters speak for themselves, in their own accents, in the way they would in real life. Only after I did that did the book become a more complete kind of world.

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