You know that situation where a friend is in a ‘relationship’ (and I use that term loosely) with someone totally unsuitable, and you know that that person will never, ever commit to your friend? And until your friend realises the same thing, you will hear about the highs and lows; and for a while participate in interpreting every text message, promise made, and length of a silence, until you want to scream ‘THEY’RE NOT INTO YOU!”
I take it as a sign. He says this to me occasionally, peering at a future from a safe distance but leaves me squinting toward the horizon unsure if the shimmer is water or a mirage.
Sheena Patel’s novel, I’m a Fan, is the book version of watching that friend, with a little extra. It opens with a ripping line –
I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am.
and from there we follow the unnamed narrator through her tangled relationships (…there is never a moment I think being this available is a bad thing for me…), most notably with her boyfriend; a famous married man; and a woman who is also having an affair with the famous married man.
The reason he hasn’t left his wife for any of the other women he has on the side is because he hasn’t met the right one yet. The fault is with the women, not with him.
At first, the tone is light, almost glib, but deeper themes are soon revealed. The woman who is being ‘stalked’ is a ‘taste-maker’, or influencer, and she provides Patel with an opportunity to examine cultural access, our obsession with status, and the impact of social media. On the cost of the artwork that the narrator sees in one of the influencer’s posts, she says –
I want to own it too but how and where do you go to buy paintings? Or perhaps what I want is the disposable cash to be able to buy a painting but actually what I want is something much harder to attain which is to know what paintings are worth buying in the first place combined with the innate belief I deserve to be in surroundings that need paintings on the walls before I am able to feel at home.
The woman our narrator is ‘stalking’ has a highly curated and visible life, available online for all to see and judge. The narrator notes that ‘…the unattainability of what she chooses to surround herself with seemingly rubs off on her…’ and this is how Patel cleverly layers her themes, because this is really a book about power.
Initially, the narrator’s naivety is revealed in her assumptions about other women, particularly the influencer.
We are all of us engaged in a collective self-harm by trying to love him, seeking to be loved by him.
And yet, there is no evidence that the influencer pines after the man the way our narrator does. In fact, it’s the opposite (and this we deduce from the influencer’s social media posts, for she is the one with the power in her relationship with the man). It results in a love triangle – real or imagined, you’re never quite sure, because our narrator wants so much to believe things will ultimately go her way.
The book is written in rapid-fire chapters, some only a paragraph long, and each with snappy titles (I think my favourite was ‘first of all i didn’t miss the red flags i looked at them and thought yeah that’s sexy‘). Patel is also witty, and the commentary on the superficiality of social media is particularly good. On noting the influencers beige furniture –
…these colours announce themselves like a discreet sommelier at a nice restaurant who murmurs excellent choice. Here, beige is split into bone, pigeon, tallow, wevet – beige is not beige in this kind of taste-country, it is rustically referenced to make you believe you are cleverer than you are and you deserve to be gently handled.
The theme of racial difference is woven carefully throughout, and again, the fact that Patel slides it in when you least expect it, adds to the strength of the writing.
The comments under this post all express urgent, alarmed concern for the sacrificed dishcloth and I think white people are wild for how they will have an acute empathy for anything bar actual melanated human beings.
And of the influencer (and the fact that is ‘influencer’ even a job?!) –
She says she has five jobs but when my dad had to work a second job at KFC to pay the mortgage, he didn’t tell us or anyone because there was no pride in having two jobs so why can she say she has five, unless she has none?
And combining the themes of power, status, and race in one deft sentence –
It takes me a long time to realise that when the man I want to be with tells me he likes being seen with me in public what he means is, he enjoys what my skin colour says about him to other people.
So where does all of this go? The narrator identifies the bind –
My people-pleasing, my co-dependency, my lack of boundaries, which on the surface looks so giving, nurturing and self-effacing is actually controlling, ego-driven and emotionally demanding.
When you’re ‘in it’ it’s hard to see it, and the narrator highlights how we are all complex creatures, with the ‘good’ sitting alongside the ‘bad’.
He asks me how i am. i say fine, a waiter comes over, i order a gimlet, the man i want to be with asks me if i would like to eat and i say yes and the man i want to be with asks for menus and i sit there like a lady.