(Unbridled Books, 2010)
David Bajo’s Panopticon is an ethereal, well-crafted, and quietly disturbing novel, a book that slices creepily through its characters’ pasts to uncover aspects of a technologically warped present that are equally riveting and unnerving because of their pervasiveness. It’s a story about a journalist from the California borderlands whose life has been sucked up and morphed by the Internet and the geeks who control it. The dusty and scalded landscape of Blood Meridian choked by the icy, collectivist arm of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a trip.
That said, I was reluctant to like the book. Yes, the prose was, for the most part, luscious in its descriptions, the words bubbling out of a uniquely spicy Mexican-Californian broth. Especially meaty are the dreamlike sequences where the protagonist, the beleaguered and soon-to-be-unemployed journalist Aaron Klinsman, reflects on the now forgotten, almost folkloric landscape of his youth. But the plot is loose, rangy (in the slightly annoying way a lot of fiction that’s come out this year has been rangy), obsessed with what initially seem like tedious, unnecessary details. The slightest shift in movement, the curve of a face, the whisper of a pepper tree. All of these moments, and others like it, are described ad infinitum in a way that would make any old-school newspaper editor cringe. In this novel about journalists, there is hardly a passage that can be called terse, direct, or precise—in short, journalistic. Panopticon’s supporting characters, Klinsman’s co-workers Rita and Oscar, are superficially interesting, compelling only in how they relate to the main narrative thread. The journalists’ boss, Gina, only appears via web cam and comes off as a strangely cartoonish, behind-the-scenes mastermind, a female digital-age Bosley to Klinsman’s Angels. The book flirts at times with a side story about gruesome femicides occurring in the desert outside Juárez. However, by the end of the novel, these potentially fascinating events are little more than an afterthought. Throw in a little East Coast bias, and a virtual lack of concrete knowledge (on my own part) about most of what goes down in the California borderlands.
No, I didn’t want to like the book because of the aforementioned reasons, and probably a few more. But read on I did, and not with the iPhone-in-hand aloofness of a bored reviewer. I tore through the pages. It wasn’t because of any literary device I found particularly interesting. It’s because the central idea of Panopticon, its hook, is as prescient as it is frightening.
What happens, without giving much away, is that while Klinsman is doing research for a story (his last—the paper is closing in a week), he comes across a few young Mexicans called mozos. They are voyeuristic computer nerds, part of a reclusive sub-culture whose members spend most of their time observing unsuspecting Average Joes like Klinsman on park surveillance cameras, through hidden video capture devices, even via the lenses of their web cams, the screens of their cell phones, any object with a digital eye and pulse. They greedily absorb every movement, from the pedestrian to the intimate. But, as Klinsman soon learns, the mozos don’t just observe. They record footage of their chosen subjects, splice that with whatever images of the subject they can find online, along with images of the subject’s family/lover(s)/friends, and whatever other random footage they want to use (in Klinsman’s case, old-school Mexican wrestler movies) to create a “vida,” a video that amounts to a skewed yet alarmingly accurate version of the subject’s entire life. With the help of his fellow journalists, Klinsman learns to harness the mozos’ abilities and becomes a computer-screen voyeur in his own right.
Initially I found it hard to believe that the hacker technology in this otherwise contemporary book is available, let alone as pervasive and easy to use as it is portrayed. Or that a callow print-jockey like Klinsman can go from Internet novice to master observer in a couple days. This is science fiction, right? You can’t spy on someone through a web cam hole. There aren’t any Mexican teenagers turning my life into a messed up New York City version of Nacho Libre … right?
Being a sort of highly paranoid anti-mozo myself (I spend most of my time holed up in a Manhattan basement apartment while my suited roommates do the cubicle thing in Midtown, writing everything freehand first, keeping my cell phone and laptop a safe distance away in the kitchen), I decided to fire up Google and do some quick research on surveillance technology. What I found bugged me out. A lot.
Remember a little thing called the Patriot Act? After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created to protect law-abiding citizens from the growing threat of terrorism. Sure, everyone got upset when we found out about the wiretapping, about the anonymous agents listening to even our most trivial phone calls. But not many people have complained about the nearly invisible surveillance cameras that line the streets, popping up faster than pay phones are being dismantled. They make us feel safe. Big Brother is looking for those nasty terrorists! No one will try to steal my purse!
Except, according to a recent study by two Vanderbilt professors, the cameras don’t protect us at all. They’re expensive to operate and have not been shown to decrease crime. Then why, as I walk down Broadway, are there multiple surveillance cameras perched above Starbucks, Chipotle, American Apparel, even a store that sells nothing but 500-pound copiers? Another aspect of the Patriot Act that most people don’t know about is the construction of “fusion centers,” electronic data hubs that, according to the same study, “coordinate data-sharing among state and local police, intelligence agencies, and private companies.” And furthermore, public surveillance technologies are now being regularly embedded in trains, computer programs, televisions, IDs, medical products, and yes, cell phones. If these devices aren’t being used to fight crime, then why are more of them popping up? And what are these private companies that seem to have unlimited access to a government-run database? What kind of information could they possibly be compiling? Am I crazy?
Another study by the New York Civil Liberties Union estimates that in 1998, there were 2,397 visible video surveillance cameras in Manhattan. In 2005, there were 4,176 of these cameras below 14th Street, an area that comprises roughly a quarter of the island. The scariest part is that there are “no rules governing the distribution of what has been recorded.” If 14-year-old Russians with decade-old computers can hack into bank accounts in different hemispheres, I’d imagine it would be pretty easy to obtain video from a data grid that’s completely unregulated. Add a Google image search and whatever pictures might be lurking on your Facebook page, and there’s a good chance that your “vida” might be circulating somewhere. And if not, you are still being watched by someone.
What this all ultimately means is that Bajo has done his job as a novelist in that Panopticon has elicited a visceral response from the reader—in this case, paranoia and a gnawing fear for the future. The book accomplishes what timely fiction should do. That is, explore and validate aspects of a shared experience that impact and, more importantly, alter some kind of larger cultural consciousness. That’s why Panopticon’s tiniest details—the slightest ripple in a bed sheet, the shadows of book stacks across an oval carpet, the brief flicker of something strange behind the digital face of an alarm clock—are so vital. They signify the cold, precise eye of the camera, leaving nothing unexamined. The same eye that’s examining you right now. Whether you like it or not.