A university professor worries about lost privacy and past sins after receiving cartons filled with years of personal data in this blend of psychological and political suspense.
When Jeremy O’Keefe failed to get tenure at Columbia, he took a post at Oxford University shortly after the 9/11 attacks, even acquiring British citizenship in the course of more than 10 years in the U.K. As the novel opens with Jeremy’s first-person narration, he has recently returned to the U.S. to teach at New York University, his chief area of interest being 20th-century German history, with a specialization in the Stasi and its informants. Then his seemingly comfortable, unremarkable life is overturned in the course of a few weeks. He receives from an anonymous sender four boxes containing a breadth of personal data—URLs, phone traffic, photos— that suggests something only a government agency could organize. Jeremy also repeatedly encounters a man who knows his wealthy son-in-law and behaves oddly enough to make Jeremy suspicious of him. As he searches his memory for possible causes and culprits, Jeremy revisits his years in England and wonders about incidents when he might have offended someone. There was also an unsavory colleague who compelled him to help a woman gain acceptance to Oxford. Could the woman’s Egyptian background include terrorist ties? The question of why Jeremy has fallen under Big Brother’s unblinking gaze—or even if he has—is left ambiguous, but Flanery (Fallen Land, 2013, etc.) makes his protagonist’s flaws common enough to let him serve as Everyman at a time when innocence might be irrelevant in a world that “assumes guilt by algorithmic association.” Less judicious is the writer’s decision to have Jeremy withhold from the narrative for a while vital information that is clearly ever present in his memory because doing so is useful to Flanery as novelist.
This is a worthy addition to the growing shelf on the erosion of personal privacy in the service of public security.