Patrick Flanery’s topical, multi-layered novel probes the ubiquitous culture of surveillance today and its potential ramifications for a democratic society. Jeremy O’ Keefe, an American professor of modern history and politics, knows all about the dangers of monitoring others’ lives, having specialised in East Germany and the Stasi. However, he does not expect to become a government target himself .
As the novel opens, Jeremy has returned to his native New York, having secured a professorship in the university’s History Department. It is not long before he realises that something is amiss. When Rachel, one of his students, doesn’t turn up for a tutorial, Jeremy is alarmed to discover that he has no memory of emailing her to reschedule their meeting, nor of receiving her confirmation. But the emails are in his mailbox. Worried, he consults his daughter, Meredith, and her “media titan” husband, who recommend a memory specialist.
Mysterious packages arrive with printouts of Jeremy’s emails and telephone calls dating back years. Someone appears to be watching his apartment and he keeps bumping into an elusive young man. He revisits his past to try to understand why he has become a marked man. Ten years previously, after the breakdown of his marriage, Jeremy had accepted a job at one of Oxford’s older colleges, which … “does not attract the brightest students or have the largest endowment”. While here, we learn, he made some injudicious choices.
Flanery really gets under the skin of his main character; his bewilderment and increasing paranoia. Initially, Jeremy, is not particularly likeable – his ponderous, pedantic tone, his academic snobbery, irritability and gauche attitude to women and relationships all jar. But we can sympathise with his plight: do some poor moral decisions make him a criminal? Can the authorities build a case “drawing conclusions on the basis of association and little else”? It gradually dawns on him what this loss of privacy means ... “what seems like paranoid delusion might be anything but, that suspecting that you are being followed and monitored and manipulated is, in fact, the height of sanity”.
A masterful plot, a terrifying subject, and a gripping read. Flanery keeps us guessing. The layers of Jeremy’s own subterfuge are peeled back, and the truth is only revealed in the novel’s closing pages. It is clear where Flanery’s sympathies lie – in the words of one character: “A country without privacy is a country without freedom.”
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