The unnamed narrator of I’m A Fan is cheating, sort of, on her live-in boyfriend with ‘the man I want to be with’, a well-known married artist who’s placed a moratorium on their clandestine sex life but strings her along by sharing intimate details of his tortured feelings for one of his exes, the white daughter of a famous eco-poet whose carefully curated blue-tick Instagram account and exclusive web-shop is beloved by her thousands of followers. When our narrator isn’t emailing and texting ‘the man I want to be with’, she’s poring over this woman’s feeds (‘the woman I am obsessed with’), frustrated, jealous, and by virtue of class and race, excluded.
I’m A Fan details the non-progression of the narrator’s pseudo-relationship with this man via a series of knowing vignettes that detail her twin obsessions in pained and articulate detail: awkward lunch-dates, cancellations, early unsatisfying hotel hook-ups, conversations about his being ‘cunt struck’ by ‘the woman I am obsessed with’. These snippets both recognise and reject the non-viability of the narrator’s situation, because like anybody in the thrall of sexual obsession, she can see and yet not see the futility of her expectations. Patel’s evocation of the tortuousness of this position is exquisite, made all the more convincing by the ways in which she draws together the ideas of fandom, love and desire. Her narrator acknowledges the distance at which ‘the man I want to be with’ holds her and the ways in this both compels and damages her and others: ‘[we] are all of us engaged in a collective self-harm by trying to love him, seeking to be loved by him’. She takes out her rage upon her luckless boyfriend, while begging the man for resolution; she maps the ways in which she is similar to ‘the woman I am obsessed with’ and wonders if she can curate her way into his affection and/or, otherwise, public recognition and success. She won’t succeed, she can’t succeed, and she knows this because the entire game is premised upon the maintenance of her outsider status, but she can’t stop either, because to cease striving would be to cede her ground, admit her precarity and undesirability in a sexual, social and cultural economy that relies upon her subjugation.
Fandom here isn’t exclusive to sexual longing or male/female obsession: ‘the woman I am obsessed with’ has her own legion of fans, and large portions of the book comprise the narrator’s dissection of the phenomenon of the liberal white woman – specifically, the spectacle of the liberal white woman performing liberalism online to an audience of other liberal white women. Whiteness is the topic here: its ‘parental and condescending tone’, its nihilistic, othering power, the ‘terrible violence’ of its ‘organising power’. In the figure of ‘the woman I am obsessed with’, we see whiteness as capitalism, and capitalism as exploitation, as inherited privilege, as an overwhelming, suffocating force that ensures the narrator’s ongoing status as less-than.
Lest all this sound a little too academic, don’t worry: Patel balances social critique with daily drama and cutting humour very nicely. The commentary is horribly funny – Instagram is a locus for the ‘soft launch’ of new boyfriends, and tastefully photographed home décor and PR hashtags (price on request!) are rightfully pegged as ‘your late-stage capitalist side hustles’: who’s bankrolling these lifestyles, asks the narrator, before she plots how to stalk the half-sister of ‘the woman I am obsessed with’ to see if she too can infiltrate them. Nobody’s nice here. The story is as fragmented and inconclusive as an Insta grid; we read as she scrolls, and none of us will ever reach the satisfying conclusion we long for, but we’ll be entertained along the way. Formally, then, this is Jenny Offill meets Natasha Brown: Assembly, another acute exploration of class and race and desire, is a neat lead-in to Patel’s novel. In terms of its exploration of sex and power and London’s arty moneyed classes, if you liked Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, you’ll find this equally compelling.
Any Cop?: A short and pithy novel about debasement and power, frustration and fantasy and revenge, safety and lies and gender exploitation and the construction of race: what’s not to like?
I LOVED “Boy Parts” and found “I’m a Fan” self-indulgent drivel. Sorry. None of it rang true, or seemed in the slightest bit authentic.