I Am No One reads like a collaboration between spy novelist John le Carre and Franz Kafka, the early 20th-century master of alienation and existential anxiety. It’s at once a beautifully written slow-motion thriller, an unnerving story of fear and paranoia, and a cautionary tale about the perils of spy satellites, security cameras and electronic surveillance by faceless government bureaucrats.
...exquisitely written, sinuously plotted and deliciously creepy ... But what should anyone, let alone some government agency, want with a nondescript professor at New York University? In its haunting exploration of this surreal yet timely question, Flanery’s self-assured I Am No One may do for the 21st century what Franz Kafka’s The Trial did for the 20th ... The ambiguity with which Flanery shrouds certain story elements, the better to heighten his protagonist’s (and presumably our own) sense of vulnerability, sometimes proves too thick.
...as the plot begins to creak through various twists and turns, stage-managed either by the author or his unreliable narrator, Jeremy can sound more like a nervous novelist than a traumatized professor ... Flanery is a writer capable of delicately layering elements of the surreal and absurd into his work, but in this novel the themes can seem rather thickly laid, prioritized over the characters and their sentences ... The instances of more aloof, detached narration tend to carry the book’s ideas forward with greater force, leaving us feeling we’re wired to a cold security camera and its fascinating, unfinished footage of events.
This is undeniably a novel with a point to make, one about privacy in this 'new regime of data collection [that] does not see innocence first but assumes guilt by algorithmic association.' But Flanery resists the obvious at every turn. This is not a polemic — instead, emotional and psychological precision are the order of the day ... This question — what would be worse outcome, insanity or appalling government overreach? — gives the novel its taut and eager force. The nuance, on the other hand, comes from a quiet and subtle counter-melody of anxiety about the opposite of surveillance ... [a] seductive and frightening novel.
Flanery is a master of puzzling, alarming and even terrifying storytelling. As Jeremy’s predicament intensifies we realise that Jeremy’s plight is at least in part an aspect of a much larger one ... One of the pleasures of reading Flanery is the tussle between ways of understanding the shapes of stories and language. He mixes, to quote an interview he gave, 'expressionism, symbolism, surrealism' into what he calls 'critical realism' – he writes realist novels which show their awareness that realism is a self-conscious form like others.
[Flannery] is a writer deeply invested in the fluid nature of truth that inevitably operates in a world with only the outward appearance of privacy.
He is also a writer who puts his themes front and center. I Am No One constantly reminds us that its plot is primarily a vessel for the ideas ... Whether we share the protagonist’s growing alarm about the erosion of Internet privacy or not, by planting us so firmly inside O’Keefe’s exacting deliberations, the novel ensnares us in its noir-like web of anxiety.
What’s most terrifying about I Am No One is precisely the possibility that O’Keefe hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s just an ordinary citizen who is suddenly made aware of the remarkable amount of scrutiny that we all endure over the course of our day-to-day lives ... Flanery relays all of the necessary information with tick-tock, masterful precision and yet the longer the mystery is drawn out the more frustrated I became. The action of the book, and its secret, becomes centered in the past, so we read only to discover what O’Keefe already knows. Flanery does such an excellent job of putting O’Keefe in danger and creating a tense and thrilling atmosphere that I wanted to spend less time investigating what had already happened and more time seeing what was going to happen next ... If the plot of the novel sometimes frustrates, Flanery compensates by creating a character who wins us over with his erudition and charm.
As he unravels this backstory, Mr. Flanery indulges in some pretty hammy spy-thriller conventions. There are a lot of moody, cinematic images of people observing each other through rain-streaked windows, and the spook at Oxford, a mincing decadent who lures O’Keefe into questionable behavior with his collection of top-shelf whiskey, is a stereotypical gay villain from the heyday of Ian Fleming and Trevanian. But as a cautionary tale about a sympathetic everyman snared in the net of global surveillance, I Am No One is deft and trenchant, a pertinent investigation of 'the ways this nation has contorted its gaze back on itself.'”
...a believable and thought-provoking story that takes a close look at what it feels like to sense someone is out there. Watching ... In all of this, Flanery hits home for many of us when he communicates so poetically, through Jeremy, about a simpler time in the not-so-distant past ... The unpredictable end surprised me. And still, we’re left to ponder the novel’s dark wisdom, 'Truth may be beautiful but it lacks the artistry of lies.' Indeed it does.