Book Reviews

October 22nd, 2013  |  Published in October 2013

Book Reviews 

By Daniel Brown

I suspect that one could take Jenni Fagan‘s prose, or chunks of it, from her debut novel The Panopticon, and make it into poetry and/or song lyrics with ease.  Not only has Fagan written a compelling novel about lost youth in London–those children born to parents who are drug addicts, and who become wards of the state since birth, and are moved around from one foster home to another, and into state-run “homes”, but she has a writing style that virtually leaps off the page.  It really is prose poetry, filled with an exuberance, a joy, a love of life , that brings another wildly gifted young female writer to the world state, and how lucky we are for the entrance of Jenni Fagan.

The narrator/heroine of this novel, who goes by the somewhat preposterous name of Anais, has learned to trust no adults, having survived 23 foster homes, abuse by foster parents and brothers, and the general indifference of the bureaucratic welfare state. She stands accused of a possible death of a woman police officer, and the System has her guilty before she can speak. That she knows a way out of this accusation is that much the more tragic, as she knows that no one will listen or perform the one simple test that will clear her.

Anais is one of those great bonders with others in similar situations. She makes friends–really, she creates little families—whenever she lives in one of these awful state-run homes, with amazing speed and dexterity, and hides her own loneliness and fears by reaching out to other kids whom she often , correctly, sees as worse off, particularly when they are new in these systems. She is, in truth, a leader, and she does remind me of those heroines in French nineteenth century literature, those prostitutes with hearts of gold so ennobled by Hugo et al.  And Fagan gives her a survivalist spunk, rather than a victim mentality, so that she learns to work these systems to her own comfort, at least.

The Panopticon is the name of a converted building in which this particular group of roughly eight adolescents live, eat, sleep. They do get passes to go out, which is inevitably where trouble comes–there are too many boys who are a friend of a friend looking to do drugs and sex with these girls who may not actually want either, but are coerced and/or raped.  The gang rape is a common phenomenon in this culture, something that Anais has experienced and will again in the course of about a year in this home.  She is convinced that, on the top floor of this converted Victorian structure, people and/or machines are watching her, and the others, and that all of the adolescents are part of which she calls “The Experiment”. And tho such magic machines don’t actually exist, they may, or will, and , of course, file upon file exists on these children. It’s clear that the Panopticon was once a mental hospital and that experiments with shock therapy occurred up on this very third floor.

As the System closes in on Anais, we remain uncertain as to whether she will get stuck into a much worse scenario, or make her escape: the last part of this novel, without revealing its ending, has evidence of a good close reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I think.  But Anais’ is immensely clever, and has had lifetime of institutional living to have figured a lot of things out: and her peers want to help her, and do.

Anais is another new/contemporary female, as Reno is in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.  Anais has a heart that’s huge, an increasing level of self-awareness, a fiercely strong sense of fair play and justice, as adolescent often do. Her plucky spirit is an antidote to all these American victim books, her intelligence and loving nature what will save her. Like Reno, she is as comfortable as she can be with her sexuality, in spite of the horrors of drug-related rape, and she bounces back: what Anais wants is freedom, not a new support base or twelve step program.  She wants out of the helping professions, and we have every reason to think that she will make it on her own.

Under entirely different cultural circumstances and conditions, Jenni Fagan’s writing reminds me of Bob Dylan’s early poetry/prose, and I suspect that Fagan’s huge talent will burst across the arts and soar like a shooting , not a falling, star.


Although 2013 began as one of the worst years for contemporary fiction, an arid, bland bunch of second tier novels kept pushing at us through around June, all of a sudden, some of the best novels in years have been published, and have continued to come out, as of this writing.  The change in quality has been astonishing as well as hopeful.

Within two months of one another, American novelist Rachel Kushner‘s phenomenal The Flame Throwers  came out and was followed by the most important debut novel of the year, Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon.  Fagan is originally from Scotland. Both of these young women are laden with talent, both have writing styles admirable and unique, and both present a similar kind of new woman, their lead characters being around 25 in Kushner’s work and about l7 in Fagan’s.

Kushner comes to us from Los Angeles, and her writing about the West, particularly the desert in Nevada, is incredibly fresh and vivid, and part of its appeal is its freedom from literary constraint.  Her protagonist is a young woman nicknamed Reno, for the Nevada in which she grew up, and she’s on her way to New York to become an artist, in the early seventies, one of the great periods of creative explosion in American art and culture. (I note that Kushner also occasionally writes for Artforum, which was started in a basement in LA around that same time).  Reno loves riding motorcycles, and she wants to drive one through the salt flats of Nevada as part of an annual contest/celebration there, and then photograph the “lines” that will be created by the cycle into the flats as her project for the unnamed art school in New York she attends.  Some of the most gorgeous writing in this novel are descriptions of what she hopes to find and then document: that she considers this art drawing , to be photographed ex post facto, in an environment also known for investigations into entropy (Robert Smithson) remind us how art and life can intertwine, but Kushner puts the poetry back into the conceptual art about to be created.  That’s an important, no, very important part of this novel, at least for this reader: Kushner removes the discussion about art from the classroom and the theorists and takes it into a rather forbidden/forbidding environment. We are privy to Reno’s thought processes as she hopes to pull this off, and a better description of conceptual art has never been written or described before.  And, since this reader maintains that he has learned more about art from reading fiction than from any other single source or art form, Kushner’s genius in intergrating art into fiction is just that much more real, more engaging, more important.

Reno will fall in with a blustering, somewhat bs-spewing crowd in New York, but is quickly drawn to a man/artist/ lifestyle bohemian whose Italian family owns factories which make tires, for motorcyles and the like , in an Italy being rampaged by the terrorists of the early seventies.  Kushner will combine the early New York creative explosion with the world of Red Brigades in Italy thrugh Reno following her lover to Italy; she intends to participate in another race which is to be made into a film: all this is historically accurate/possible, and Kushner’s desire to extend her reach out of the art world of New York into the politics of terrorism is a brilliant stroke, and she manages to pull all this off without a hitch.  She is unprepared for the dying upper class snobbery of her boyfriend’s mother, which forces her out of the villa of leisure and comfort into the middle of street riots in Rome.  Kushner does not add another novel here–Reno is not kidnapped, although she is sexually compromised, though she bounces back from these experiences with an aplomb we do associate with American women who were the products of contemporary feminism. And Kushner doesn’t grab for more , and Reno will return to New York and resume her life as an artist/urban woman.

But the kind of woman Kushner has created in Reno is truly new.  She’s confident, comfortable with situations once considered even dangerous, sexually aware and curious: she enjoys her sexuality, and it’s wrapped right into her identity, neither greater nor lesser.  She seeks adventures in the kinds of ways that , until the very period Kushner writes about, would have been the purview of males only (Edmund White’s recent autobiographical The City, describing this creative explosion in New York, of which he was an early participant, is a canvas or blackboard without a female in sight).  And Reno’s comfort with motorcycles is explained as a typical enough phenomenon for a girl who grew up in Nevada at that time, with brothers only in her family.

I noticed yesterday that this novel is one of five nominees for this year’s National Book Award, so it’s been noticed already by many.  Whether she wins or not is probably less relevant than a kind of grand announcement that a great new writer of uncanny talent has hit the literary world, and she, Rachel Kushner, is brilliant and funny, and confident and certain to have one of those meteoric careers that are so rare, but in her case, so deserving.  Watch for her.


One of the most gorgeous novels I have read in decades slipped into my reading, a quiet but powerfully moving slim book by Paul Yoon, called Snow Hunters.  It’s the author’s debut novel, though he has published one book of short stories.

Set during the last two years of the Korean War–that alone is a rarity, writing about “the unknown war”, as it’s often called—Yoon creates a character about 25 years old who has spent two years in an American prisoner of war camp, but when the war is over, he refused repatriation to North Korea (his father has died, his mother long dead: there is no one and nothing to which he can return). His one childhood friend has died in the camp, but the close bonding between these two men is brilliantly and achingly described. The Americans are pretty decent with him–those American traits of friendliness, warmth, openness and the like–are well delineated in the sparest of prose one could read in today’s world.  One’s mind creates images, almost archetypes, in reading
Yoon’s novel, as it is immensely visual and totally minimalist.

So the narrator/protagonist, Yohan, leaves for Brazil, as that’s where a boat is going; he is to be apprenticed to a Japanese tailor in a small coastal city.   When he arrives, and walks up a hill to the town and the shop, we are privileged to read some of the most exceptional prose created in years; one feels an underlying Zen chant, so to speak.  The two men meet, and work and live together for years.  The pieces of a friendship, of some kind of emotional intimacy, grows, and the shop does well. The two men drink tea together, occasionally sit on the roof of the building, where they can see down to the port, and, wounded though they both are, seem to grow to care for one another.  Each has his one room in the building in which he lives; they listen to the radio together.

Yohan eventually makes three friends outside the shop, over a period of five to ten years, and learns that a Japanese detainment camp had existed in this town during World War II, and that his boss/friend has lost his entire family, just as Yohan had lost his, though not to war per se.  Two parentless children bond with Yohan, as does the caretaker on a local property.  These relationships are achingly lovely, and not uncomplicated.   When, once a year, a ship from Japan arrives with fabrics for the shop, Yohan will go down and have a beer or cup of tea with those sailors he knows from his original crossing, til the last one dies, and that part of his life is cut off forever.

A lot of immigrant/emigrant literature has been written in recent years, such as the phenomenal The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (yes, the daughter of the superbly gifted Anita Desai); novels and short fiction by the extraordinary Jhumpa Lahiri; fiction and essays by the Proustian Andre Aciman all come to mind. But the power of the loneliness and then the opening/partial flowering of Yohan in this bizarre corner of Brazil in which he finds himself is among the most beautiful, partly because so much goes on in his mind, partly because the number of characters is so small, partly because the human spirit can survive as long as some love is around, and partly because Paul Yoon is such an immensely sensitive and probably spiritually attuned writer.

Two of these characters, other than the original tailor and Yohan, find one another to love, and this coming together is heartbreaking, yet utterly diginified, as two of the world’s lost souls do find one another: they ask for so little, but find it in each other:  this novel sometimes seems a Butoh dance in its expressionist yet minimalist discipline.  Paul Yoon is as gifted a young writer as we’re likely to find, and his gifts are both those of a writer and those nearly of a monk.  Snow Hunters is unique, this year, and I urge you to read it.

——-Daniel Brown

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