History professor Jeremy O’Keefe is worried about his memory, among other things. He’s made plans to meet a student to discuss her work, and when she doesn’t show, he’s surprised to find that he previously sent her an email cancelling their meeting. He’s started receiving packages of paper listing all the websites he’s visited, phone calls he’s made, and so on. And he seems to be running the same stranger wherever he goes. It is all in his head, or is someone after him?
I don’t know if author Patrick Flanery intended Jeremy to come across as a self-important ass, but he did. The early chapters of the book feature a great deal of his pontificating about East German cinema and art about surveillance and regretful musings about his past. The fact that this is his field of study would seem too on-the-nose in a novel about potentially being spied on, but his academic interest could be the source of his (possibly unfounded) paranoia, so I’ll let that go.
Whatever happened in his past to make him so fretful is unclear at first. He had to leave his position at Columbia years earlier, and he took a position at Oxford, which kept him away from his daughter and his estranged wife. Now he’s back at NYU, building a relationship with his daughter, who has married into wealth and power. Jeremy comes across as resentful about the whole thing, and he certainly gives the impression that his behavior has not always been appropriate.
So Jeremy is terrible, but I could live with that, especially since it sometimes appeared that I wasn’t supposed to trust or like him. His self-pitying monologues are tedious reading, however, and the book doesn’t really pick up until he starts divulging one of his secrets, the one that he thinks might have put him in danger now.
When Jeremy was teaching Oxford, he had a affair with a student from Egypt named Fadia. Fadia has a brother who has gotten involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, but Fadia has no contact with him, and Jeremy is not the sort to hold that association against her. He is, however, the sort to become fascinated with people from the Middle East. He recalls an Egyptian student named Amir whom he liked to follow on the bus when he was studying in Georgetown. Jeremy is careful to assure us that his interest in this young man was not in the least sexual, no no no, but he was always aware of his odor. (Have I mentioned that Jeremy is gross?)
I kept hoping that Jeremy’s lack of self-awareness would eventually fold in on him, but the story never quite gets there. Flanery plays with the idea that Jeremy is losing his mind, but that angle doesn’t fully pay off. Instead, the plot turns into a not-very-original story about whether a man has gotten roped into giving money to extremists and is now being monitored because of it. I’d rather have heard Fadia’s story, although Flanery might not have been the right person to tell it. Still, it would be something different, whether Fadia is in league with her brother or not.
But apparently Fadia is too “different” for this story to be about her. Who cares if an Egyptian student is followed and monitored just because of her family? There’s a point toward the end of this book that I found depressingly relevant. A man tells Jeremy that his story of being monitored matters because “people could relate to it.” Jeremy has the resources and privilege to bounce back if his story is revealed. His story will make white American people care about privacy loss. It’s true even if he’s terrible, even if he took advantage of a vulnerable young woman, even if he’s kind of racist, even if he’s a snob. I don’t know if this was the intended message of the book, but it’s the one I like—by which I mean, it’s the one I believe and am glad to see pointed out.
I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.