Jeremy O’Keefe is a professor of German history at New York University. He’s recently returned to the United States after 10 years teaching at Oxford; he wants to be closer to his grown daughter and his mother. And he’s also dealing with cultural dislocations. To his American friends and colleagues, he sounds British, just as to his British friends and colleagues he always sounded like an American. He’s both, and neither.
He has an appointment with one of his graduate students to discuss her paper; he arrives on time at a local coffee shop, but the student is a no-show. A young man sitting nearby observes that it appears his date didn’t show up. Later, when he checks his email, he discovers an email from himself telling the student to reschedule, and a response from the student. He has no memory of either email.
Then the young man from the coffee shop shows up at a party given by Jeremy’s daughter and her husband. That’s followed by the arrival of the first of several boxes of printed lists of O’Keefe’s emails and online activity. He thinks he’s either losing his mind or someone is doing more than simply watching what he’s up to. His academic specialization in German history is the work of the Stasi, the East German secret police that flourished in the communist era, and he begins to wonder if his life is taking on aspects of his academic work.
I Am No One is Patrick Flanery’s third novel, and while it’s tempting to consider it a suspense novel, it actually falls in the genre of serious fiction. O’Keefe’s dilemma becomes an exploration of memory, privacy, and identity in the internet age, an age where threats can be vague and hidden, threatening people can turn out to be something else entirely, and one’s past can become intimately locked into one’s present.
Flanery, an American writer, is a professor of creative writing at the University of Reading in the U.K. His first novel, Absolution (2012), received the Spear / Laurent Perrier Best First Book Award and was shortlisted for several other awards. His second novel, Fallen Land, was published in 2013.
I’ve never been a fan of literary fiction set in academia, but I Am No One is different. Yes, it has an academic background, but this is a story that transcends it. Most of the story happens in New York City and upstate New York, away from the university. It is ultimately about a man having to come to grips with his past, as that past begins to engulf the world he currently inhabits.
Top photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.