Do you remember the central conceit of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, that Goldman had taken an old forgotten novel and just taken out the boring parts? Well, it feels like someone did the opposite to Jenni Fagan’s first novel. The story promises all sorts of interesting occurrences and unusual circumstances, but time after time the author insists on refraining from really getting into the thick of her story, instead relying on writerly craft and a bag of tricks to impress her readers rather than entertain them.
The Panopticon is narrated by Scottish teenager Anais Hendricks, a ward of the state with no past, a tendency to violence, and little prospect for spending her life anywhere other than an institution. At the start of the novel, Anais is under suspicion of putting a female cop into a coma and is being transferred to an experimental new facility called the Panopticon. The structure, based on the real life design by English reformer Jeremy Bentham, is a circular design with a central watchtower allowing for the residents to be under constant supervision.
The staff of the Panopticon are a mixed lot, but they do try their best for Anais and her fellow residents, a collection of similarly troubled young men and women, many with tragic family backgrounds. Anais grows particularly close to the other girls, Isla, Natasha (Tash), and Shona (Shortie.) Together they discuss their various crimes, share cigarettes, pot, and other drugs, and commiserate over being stuck in such a dreadful place. Isla and Tash are in love and planning to start a life together with Tash’s money from prostitution. (The residents are given what to an American seems like an astonishing amount of freedom for people supposedly posing a danger to themselves and others.)
The main problem with The Panopticon is Fagan unwillingness to commit, either to her story or to the bleak portrait of human nature suggested by her plot. Some of the horrors that Fagan hints at would be described by many as unimaginable, but that cliche does not absolve Fagan from trying. The novel’s impact is lessened by Fagan’s flinching from real, searing description and explication. Time and again the reader is abandoned by Fagan, a narrative trick which feels like the author recognizing her own shortcomings and trying to play them off.