NOVEMBER 18, 2016
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, my father used to receive phone calls that disturbed him greatly. I don’t know who was calling or why, but every couple of months the phone would ring and my father would disappear into his bedroom only to emerge hours later looking pale and shaken. Whenever I’d ask about the calls, my parents would dismiss me or try to redirect my questions. If I persisted, they’d tell me it was an old friend from high school, but in a tone that let me know that I should let it drop. The calls upset my father so much he eventually had our home phone changed to an unlisted number. The calls stopped, though the mystery remained unresolved and stayed lodged in my imagination. My father is the most upright person I know. I couldn’t imagine that he’d done anything to warrant this extra attention. Still, I got the sense that he wasn’t being called so much as being called out.
In Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One, a paranoid novel for the post-Snowden age, Jeremy O’Keefe finds himself in a similar situation. O’Keefe is a mid-career academic who has returned to New York after having left the city to teach German history at Oxford for nearly a decade. He lives alone, keeps to himself, and has a dull and somewhat brooding existence. He’s divorced and though he has an adult daughter, who’s the biggest motivating factor in his return to the US, he still finds himself lonely and aimless. He wanders the city, comfortable in his routines, but unable to connect with the people around him. He’s the titular “no one,” unworthy of special attention. Or so he thinks.
The novel opens with O’Keefe alone at a café, apparently stood up by one of his graduate students. When he returns home he finds an email he doesn’t remember sending, rescheduling the meeting for the following week. Even more mysteriously, he soon starts receiving packages that contain printouts of all his online activity from the past 10 years. Sinister men in ski masks linger outside his building and stare up into his apartment window. His mother receives anonymous, slandering phone calls. He runs into the same loquacious, young stranger so often that their chance meetings begin to seem like anything but. Throughout it all, O’Keefe maintains his innocence and naïveté. He is no one, he insists, totally unremarkable, certainly not worthy of all this scrutiny. Who is watching him and why? What has he done?
As the novel progresses, we realize that O’Keefe’s story is part of a much larger scheme. In a memorable scene, a lost cell phone reappears in the refrigerator with the message “Phones Listen” on the screen. Indeed they do, and they do much more than just listen. Phones know where we are, what we’ve been looking at and whom we’ve been talking to. We live in an age of near-constant surveillance. It isn’t just cellphones that erode our privacy. CCTV cameras, social networks, and GPS all keep tabs on us. All of this surveillance is voluntary — we’ve already given our consent. As O’Keefe puts it:
satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the earth, gaz[ing] down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, or perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves, or at least the governments we allow to remain in power are watching us on our own behalf.
What’s most terrifying about I Am No One is precisely the possibility that O’Keefe hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s just an ordinary citizen who is suddenly made aware of the remarkable amount of scrutiny that we all endure over the course of our day-to-day lives.
All of this surveillance comes at a high psychological cost. O’Keefe’s behavior becomes increasingly paranoid and erratic, straining his relationships with those around him, especially his daughter. He worries about his mental health and consults with a neurologist, who finds nothing wrong and offers to refer him to a psychologist, which O’Keefe resists. “I’m not interested in talk therapy,” he says,
I don’t think there are any traumas that might explain what’s been happening. I’m fairly certain I’m not delusional or suffering from blackouts. I’m anxious and a little depressed, but probably not significantly more so than most people who find themselves whiplashed by cultural dislocation. No worse, in fact, that most New Yorkers.
O’Keefe refuses all forms of surveillance, even self-surveillance.
This resistance makes O’Keefe a beguiling protagonist and narrator. To narrate a story, even unreliably, is to open yourself up to others, to put yourself on display. O’Keefe, on the other hand, is cagey and withholding, and even though the novel takes the form of a confession — a document O’Keefe has written after the mystery has been at least partially resolved — it gradually becomes clear that he’s omitting a lot of information. His pleas of naïveté ring increasingly false. By the second half of the book, we know that O’Keefe is well aware of why he might be the object of invasive government surveillance, yet he dances around this revelation, choosing instead to remain coy. He wants to tell his story but he doesn’t want to be seen, not even by the reader, which sets up a strange and strained relationship between us and the book. We realize that he is not quite the “no one” he claims to be and so must scrutinize the pieces of his life with the same diligence as his persecutors. The novel shows us how we participate in the systems of surveillance that surround us. We are watching O’Keefe while he is being watched. What exactly is he confessing? Why doesn’t he want anyone to know?
Flanery relays all of the necessary information with tick-tock, masterful precision and yet the longer the mystery is drawn out the more frustrated I became. The action of the book, and its secret, becomes centered in the past, so we read only to discover what O’Keefe already knows. Flanery does such an excellent job of putting O’Keefe in danger and creating a tense and thrilling atmosphere that I wanted to spend less time investigating what had already happened and more time seeing what was going to happen next.
The answers to the mysteries of the past are chillingly logical and somewhat banal. Their ultimate revelation robs the book of some of its initial appealing strangeness. O’Keefe becomes more of a George Smiley than a Joseph K. I won’t reveal what O’Keefe did to land himself on the government’s radar, but he did it with mostly good intentions, selfless in some ways and self-serving in others, and in order to amend for past wrongs. In a keen bit of social commentary, Flanery shows that the more we see of each other the less we actually know. The surveilled subject may be visible in many different ways, but remains completely invisible in many others. This is something we know well: the government might be able to track O’Keefe’s online activities, his phone calls and social interactions, but all of this data obscures what makes him human. They can see everything about him, except for the person he actually is.
If the plot of the novel sometimes frustrates, Flanery compensates by creating a character who wins us over with his erudition and charm. O’Keefe’s specialty is East German history. He wrote a book about citizens who turned informants for the Stasi, the secret police who spied on nearly everyone and wove paranoia into the fabric of East German society, and he tells us somewhat unconvincingly late in the novel that he’s one of the world’s foremost experts on surveillance. His background and education give him plenty of opportunities to talk in great and eloquent detail about both the history of surveillance and its prevalence. He’s willing to spend pages expounding on Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola’s The Conversation or talking about corporate surveillance and the devil’s bargain in which we trade
free access to all knowledge of the world for the recording of such by corporations of the habits of our activity and making ourselves susceptible not only to the collecting of this data and its potential monetization, that is to say its sale to other entities collecting their own kinds of data about us, but also to be bombarded with advertising that, however much we may struggle against it, inserts deep messages into our thoughts influencing us one way or another.
Surveillance, as both an object of study as well as a daily reality, has shaped O’Keefe’s life, so it isn’t surprising when he declares: “A large part of growing up in society, which is to say growing up in any kind of community, involves acculturating oneself from infancy to the experience of being observed. One might go so far as to say that the human condition is one of observation.”
These digressions enlarge the scope of the book and underline the fact that we’re all complicit in surveillance culture. There’s no aspect of our lives in which we’re not observing or being observed. The inclusion of these digressions makes large swaths of the book more meditative than thrilling. So, while I Am No One shares some of its DNA with the work of John Le Carré and Graham Greene, Flanery doesn’t fully commit to its thriller hooks. Flanery demands agility from his readers, but there’s a real pleasure in keeping up with his fast and omnivorous intellect. The book allows for a rare kind of readerly observation: we’re watching the writer while knowing that we, ourselves, are being watched.