Finding and losing the self: an interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery tells GARETH LANGDON about the themes of surveillance and identity that swirl around his thrilling new novel, I Am No One.

Flanery Patrick 2015 photo credit Andrew van der Vlies

Sit around any 21st century bar, in any boardroom or coffee house, and the issue of globalisation, our online lives, privacy and the fragmentation of consciousness and self is bound to come up in conversation. Open a newspaper, or online publication, and at least one article that day or week will lament the rise of the internet, the invasions of privacy committed daily by our governments, and the loss of individuality we suffer at the hands of social media. As marketers try and capitalise on a changing world, philosophers continue to fear it but, once in a while, a writer comes along who engages critically with it.

In I Am No One, Patrick Flanery writes of ageing history professor, Jeremy O’Keefe: an American who, after a difficult divorce, expatriated to England and taught in Oxford for some years – long enough to earn a dual citizenship, encounter some strange characters and engage in a romantic relationship. When we first meet him, he is back in the US, teaching and supervising students. The novel opens with a scene that suggests Jeremy is ageing faster than we expected. He has arrived for a meeting with a student, but when she doesn’t arrive, he goes back to check his email and discovers that he had cancelled the appointment a day prior. This complete blank in memory troubles him, and leads him to confide in his young daughter who suggests professional advice and an fMRI. Jeremy is hesitant. His paranoia then begins to grow as a series of mysterious packages arrive at his home. Dropped off anonymously by a bike messenger, each subsequent package reveals more about how much can be known of Jeremy’s private life – from full email records, to browsing history and telephone history. The question is clear – is Jeremy losing his mind, or is he the victim of some ghastly invasion of privacy? Jeremy grapples throughout I Am No One with the various possible explanations for the strange packages, as well as his own uncertainty of his own sanity, personal and national identity, and future as a father and husband or lover.

I had the privilege of exploring these and other themes of writing and the self with the novel’s author when he came to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year.

What strikes the reader with I Am No One is the way in which it is able to fragment and cohere seamlessly, moving across time and in and out of Jeremy’s head smoothly. Flanery suggests this arose from the new approach he took for I Am No One in which he “consciously set out to write in a very different way than the first two (novels)”.

“I decided because I was going to have this single narrator and single point of view that I wanted to do what I could to guard against it becoming too claustrophobic,” he says. “So I decided to borrow the process of an Argentinian writer who I admire whose name is Cesar Aira… he has an idea for a book which he holds in his head and each day he writes forward and he doesn’t go back and re-work until he comes to the end of the composition, and if the story changes over the course of that composition then it changes and he ends up with what he has.”I Am No One

This allows for what Flanery calls a kind of “free association” as he sits down to write, and this lends itself to the kind of novel that I Am No One is – the central character constantly exploring his own consciousness and self as he faces these confusing invasions of his privacy and what appear to be lapses in memory. This technique also drives the plot, allowing for “forward momentum”.

For Flanery though, the real trouble in I Am No One is not the loss of the mind and the free flow of consciousness but rather the loss of the self and the fragmentation of identity in light of our ever dwindling privacy. He relates to me the anecdote that sparked the novel:

“[We] were staying with a friend who was living [in New York] and as we got back to her building, I could see her in the window of her bedroom and I waved from the street but she didn’t see us, and when we went upstairs I said to her ‘You know, I could see you from the street’ and it was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way. And I began thinking about the way in which New Yorkers are so often kind of living these half public lives but they have to kind of shut off that awareness of the ways in which they are observable in order to maintain a sense of sanity.”

Not long before Flanery began writing the novel, the Snowden revelations had become big news and they remained in the back of his mind throughout the writing. The interplay of his personal experience with global events got him questioning the nature of privacy, and how our being watched affects our identity. With lives lived online in this way – and furthermore in a world that is increasingly globalised – where do we place ourselves; where do we find ourselves? Can we find ourselves at all, or will we live in purgatory as Jeremy feels he has to?

The technology we can now use to increase our reach and social circles seems to excite and terrify us. As our world grows more connected and our reach extends, our localities seem to shrink simultaneously. Flanery notes the “excitement amongst some people about the ways in which technology can be mobilised not just by government but by ordinary citizens to create this world of certain transparency”. However, as we know all too well from recent phone-hacking scandals, and acts of terror, these same technologies can be used to hurt others or protect perpetrators. The trouble is, Flanery notes, that the technologies have become so ubiquitous, that we can’t help but be seduced by them – they are designed to seem as though they should be there and we should not question them – they are extensions of our selves.

Many in the world have responded with a kind of “hyper-nationalism”, which we often read about motivating many acts of terror. Human beings are searching for ways to assert themselves in a world that is fragmented and pays them no heed. There is simultaneously a drive for individuality stoked by social media, and a constant reminder of the insignificance of the single self (or even single nation) in an enormous and globalised world.

Flanery is able to weave all of these themes and debates through the consciousness of Jeremy as he fights to find his own place in his country, his family and even in his own head. This is not a totally foreign struggle to Flanery, noting his own experience living both in Britain and America, and how he is often mistaken for British when he is at home in the U.S. However, he is careful to skirt around the issue of auto-biography, noting instead that he sees “every novel engag(ing) with the process of self-examination”.

The novels are not autobiographical at all, but are rather “always responding in some way to the things that I am thinking,” he says. “Because my thinking is kind of inherently political because of the way I grew up, you know. I see political relationships and the politics of relationships in everyday life, and the kinds of things that can contaminate those.”

I Am No One could be seen – as I think all novels can be – as brief intrusions into the minds of the author. In this way, writers tend to feel the urge to censor themselves at the fear of being exposed or misunderstood. The fear from the first novel, Flanery notes “is a fear with every book you publish… you’re in constant fear of how the people closest to you will respond to it” but that is something that must necessarily be overcome. In this way, we may go so far as to draw a parallel between authorship and our online existence, where censorship is necessary for fear of being “found out”. Jeremy fights this, Flanery is aware of this, and each of us feels this every day as we live out our lives online.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is racing with more and more questions and I want to continue to dig deeper into Flanery’s mind  – but like his privacy, his time is precious and we bid each other a polite farewell.

I am left wondering how I should engage with the conversation on paper, and how it will come to be read. Then I think of how I will be perceived in this feature, and where it could lead – and as these wonders of the internet and writing and my personal investment in any piece of writing (and the inevitable feedback) start to overtake my thinking, I stand up and decide it’s time for some fresh air. Outside, no one will be able to interrupt me. Hopefully.

I Am No One is published by Atlantic Books. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew van der Vlies.

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