'I'm A Fan' - Sheena Patel

An Easter long-read for those of us considering an existential crisis
April 9, 2023

At one stage or another I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel made me question the point of anything and had me regretting not even knowing mid-century furniture was a thing. On the promise of tickets to see the author speak in Blackburn I bought the book, read the book, was battered by the book and now feel compelled to write about the book.

To read I’m a Fan, I stopped reading something around quarks and atoms and the ways that the standard model of the universe is missing about 98% of the stuff required to make it work and we understand so little that if that was even slightly wrong we would pretty much understand nothing at all. Like Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Gravity, the darkness we know nothing about and that is pretty much everything bar the few dancing star lights we focus all out attention on.

I was immersed in how quarks are the smallest thing imaginable and that they make up the neutrons, protons and the electrons in atoms that make up molecules that make up cells that then divide and after millions of years in the making, are currently all we see around us. Ancient strings of attraction and charm, neuro-chemical attraction and seduction, electrical pulses of lure and enchantment that make the knower in the universe.  

I knew ignorance was at the heart of our place in the universe through that reading. It was only after reading I’m a Fan that I felt I had experienced it. This book has a surface of modern urban concerns that are rooted in displacement and capitalism as cancer and technology as veiled and maleficent tools for manipulation and exposure. There are influencers, jealousies, unrequited loves and all the things of novels I have not read and that would avoid. And it is not that at all and thanks to the attraction of the quarks and the splitting of the cells and the fates that conspire that I found this book. It took me a while to know this world just enough to join in the loathing of it, to let Sheena Patel show me what is in there so I know not to be enamoured by it. It is not that simple, much more complexity than just slating the ephemeral world of the influencers, but doing so by loving through loathing, a space of hate and love that is beautiful because we cannot stop looking at it, it is so perfect, we feel that as we recognise those immaculate star lights around our own worlds. I’m a Fan wrenches us in and around an ecliptic chaos, wild but contained, but never really contained. It hints at that all-encompassing darkness in which we play and confuse and loathe/ love and does so with wit, humour and brutality.

Newness exists in this book, newness overlaid onto familiar, the ephemeral as that which can be fixed just long enough to be depicted and that it ends. Each of our familiar will differ, mine is random and made up of a few too many decades late recognition of London place names. Patel doesn’t as such invite us into these places anyway, much of the time she doesn’t go herself and creates them from assemblage of Instagram posts, overheard tales, zeitgeisty mental palaces of nowness. We join her imaginings of restaurants, rooftop galleries, parties that are figments in her bedroom and we are all the same as fellow not-really-there people. We can only recognise ourselves imagining with the narrator as we read one layer of imagination through to others and then all the time start to hear our own soul weevils vibrating as they recognise this layered unreality as actual reality; but probably not really and now we are not quite sure. Not sure that is clever, not the not sure that says I cannot go on with this, the not sure that attracts me and charms me and makes strange for me in a way that says read on. Quarks. They are at the bottom of all of this.

Sheena Patel (Image: Rough Trade Books)

That is maybe where the humour lies for me, and I start to feel I am wrong now in seeing that and not the darkness and the forbidding, and the desperate and disturbing. Not the unrelenting hate that drives this novel along so completely we stop seeing it. Maybe it is not humour so much as giddiness, that falling into voids that I got from reading the impossible historical views of Cosmicomics, a series of tales that Italo Calivino writes about being before there was being. Or at least as far as we know there was being. And maybe we never know anyway and that is what is happening when I read this too-close-to-pink book for Wetherspoons on a drizzly mid-afternoon when the races seem to have been disappointing and the mood is changing to hostile around me. Even here, the focus on soul weevils means that I am finding self in this book and giddy with it, all is possible because nothing is. Calvino made up impossible names, like Qfwfq, to explore what is beyond exploration. Patel does not bother with names, and is more powerful still for that. The woman I am obsessed with, the man I want to be with, they dominate and they are the framework of our internal and external wanderings with our unnamed narrator. All of this helps finding the real amongst the made up. That is what this book feels like, when I thought I had clicked with it, that the real is the unreal and vice versa. Especially the vice.

The shift in chapters, micro-sized and a little longer, then longer still, then tiny, all help carry us in to a series of thinking and responses that are unsettling but exhilarating. It is not all pulse and exhilarating giddiness. The chapters ‘there’s no business like’, ‘show business like no’ and ‘no business I know’ offer crunching depictions of diversity and lay the groundwork for the swamplands ahead, the swamps we are already eyes deep in. Sapience drips in every phrase, some bombarding and explosive,

‘if we specialise in telling others What The World is Really Like: A Race Relation’, it’s not really such a burden to spin these trauma ballads for a little bit of status’. We are saddened by the knowledge that nothing really collectively changes but reassured by the thought that it did for me on an individual level, as we backstroke across the vast placid sea of righteous superiority’ (p.33-34).

As we come across such insights that cut like acid into the largely merely written constitutions of the call for opening the doors of art, publishing, cultural and political life. Through Sheena Patel’s narrator, we see the complexity of performance and maybe allow ourselves a place in the deception of ourselves. None of it is simple truths and uncomplicated invitations to take part, none of us is beyond the interplay of imaginings, those we control, those we pretend to control, most of it we are unaware of, like dark matter or dark energy. I found the questioning of this clearly ridiculous zeitgeist so compelling because the mockery is surrendered to it being so eternally attractive. The mid-century furniture, the acolytes of a court of social media, the nonsensical, and the brilliant all combined in the unreal reality of I’m a Fan.  Pointlessness asserts inevitable charm and attraction. Trending temporality made clear as the ways power never shifts from those that hold it, while the ways they holds power perpetually changes. Mesmerising, quark-like, in two places at once and appearing only when you look.  You have to look. 

Those quarks, those soul weevils, those near invisible electro-chemical messages between ancient chains of atoms seem to be telling us we are making this shit up and do not ever forget that. In this tale of love and desire, of longing and imagination, of mental toil and exclusion, of philosophy, rejection, nihilism and absolute hate we find at some point that we are reading it as we are, just us, able to read it. I have been in there, social media, scrolling around East London art spaces, video artists, a new avant garde, checking out candles and classic furniture that I have never heard of, finding out what a gimlet is and immediately scoffing at those who use anything other than Rose’s Lime Juice because I just read the Google definition and Raymond Chandler writing in a novel (The Long Goodbye) that is all a real gimlet contains, half gin and half Rose’s lime juice. Realising as I am informed that I am more than informed, I am now part of the process, the writing in of knowledge through quarks or weevils or whatever. I am in the book and the book is in me – Damn You Patel!

I came to this book knowing I was going to see 4 Brown Girls Who Write, a collective that includes Sheena Patel and will be in Blackburn (13th April, you cannot go now because it is sold out, you were not with it enough to get in at the ticket stage). More, I came to this because it is through art and literature, performance and creation, that I increasingly see as the necessary antidote to an academic approach to knowledge that is killing the potential for change. Academic work seems tumbling wilfully into an unreal reality of its own, a pedagogy of obfuscation, one in which being human and alive is a mere inconvenience to some theoretical, cognitively contrived explanation of here, now, you, me.

I can see more clearly now the pointless meanderings of an Academy too embedded in an unreal world it helped create and that is never there to inhabit. Powerful literature like this attracts us as the atomic creations we are and ignores our pomposity of unformed knowledge to present us with crystal clarity of all that exists, the ugly pursuit of impossible perfection. That is the thing with I’m a Fan, I had to make my reading of it often hilarious because, if not, the whirlpool that opens will drag everything in, pull everything apart, a wild vortex in which nothing can escape. Identities are at risk, mine too. It is a book of hate, of a life lost to hate and vindictiveness, of destructive petulance of other’s art works. No soup in the louvre and grandiose arrests for global television here, instead the scratches are venomous and in secret while other eyes are averted. This book depicts hate as something more terrifying than those powerful and systematic hatreds of the powerful, it is low key, hidden, made in tiny scratches of deleted social media comments, of empty threats and insults that can never be shared, od sharpies on collage. It is a hate that we watch consume and destroy the hater.

I was at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Royal Exchange in Manchester a few days before reading this. The director wrote about the play but made more about the forgotten and ignored presence of race in everything; of oppression that built the theatre (an old cotton exchange), and the culture that dominated it. The complacency of those that can choose to ignore it, mainly white, middle class, comfortable and threatened by analysis of the histories that brought us all here. The rage of those crushed by these same processes that are not historical but are being lived now. What Sheena Patel does is make that rage visible, ripped through these relationships, tearing apart the surface sheen and glittered perfection of the Instagram lives of the rich and famous, the beautiful and influencing. Inherent racism is not ignored here, it is made horribly visible, not as simple oppression, it is marbled through everything. The wild insecurities of the narrator draw the messy scribbles of navigation that wreck the neat convenience of histories, of small regrets amidst appropriated cultures butchered, battered and recreated in galleries by the adroit manipulators of the world. Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there are many ways to be tickled and to laugh with this book, like that 60-odd year old play, those laughs become increasingly strained and as we start to suspect our part in this whole fucked up business. In their commentary about whiteness the most powerful observation of oppression is how whiteness created itself and made that creation seem an inevitability.

I wrote to my friend while reading this that me, a Northern, old white bloke would be as far from the intended demographic of this book as it is possible to be. That was early on. By the end, I realised this was not an easy truth. I had been deconstructed to a quark level and could see my identity melded in a primordial sense of being, to that time before even the octopus brain had branched out, left us to our imagined realities. Sat in the library, in Wetherspoons, on Blackpool Pier (the north one, classy), on a wall, on a bench and every page was something else and every location changed just a little bit because of what was on those pages. Every encounter was changed, in WhatsApp messages, reading and writing in social media, no longer social (except in the socialising within myself) and all made fizzy yeast volcano in a brewer’s jug creating something that is both eternal and feels brand new. It was an odd sensation. It still is, it won’t let go. I found this book is not a friend, nor a call to change or solidarity or creating newness or feeling positive and facing the future. It is not a book about Class, but it very much is. It is a book of hate and anger and loss and the destruction of the self by a world of selfish obsession, of futility and obsession and loathing.

I struggled continually with how or whether to write this review. Despite the freedom reviewing offers in comparison to academic writing, it asks other questions. Do we apologise to the authors, creators, thinkers, performers for bastardising their art? Should we just write our own stuff and not be in this nether world of creative response rather than creative expression? Is everything I read a part of male dominated, white and privileged sense of entitlement even when I think it is the opposite? This is not the usual struggle either, of unpaid work and the purposes for which any of us write. This book makes a change in how we see things and that is what writing must do to pay back the energy it takes. This is why I’m a Fan is necessary far beyond the audience I think I knew was intended and that not being me. It is me, it shakes me out of passive acceptance even as I question where that comes from and knowing I am not comfortable here, nor should I be. None of us should.

My friend replied and said we are exactly the demographic that should read Sheena Patel, and he is right. Just as academia professes to but seldom does, this book unsettles – a lot. Chapters evoke new ways of seeing well-trodden arguments. The chapter viennetta really is the epitome of luxury is not only compelling it beautifully describes the soaking through of capitalism into every recess. How does your garden grow illustrates the contradictions of the responses to a dying planet being the preserve of those same capitalist power brokers that killed it. The disembodied comments of those Instagram posters supporting the candles, poetry, art woman are brilliant, I have never felt so clear a depiction of how this sycophantic orchestra makes me feel. And we are never free to observe as if it is someone else being depicted, there is no objective safe space. We are all in here if we can bear looking long enough.

The humour is darker as we move through this book. Maybe there is no humour, maybe I want some to feel OK. It is raw and brutal. The passive aggressive non-fucked (but really fucked up) man the narrator wants to be with, the ridiculous but familiar woman she is obsessed with, become more and more the clear creators or inheritors of a vain and poisonous world that is at once the death of everything, and yet the source of all desire. These embodied and out of reach characters are present but not, like the dream visions of capitalism, enticing but always out of reach. What is brilliant here is the ways these two and the narrator play out a series of obsessions and desires that are never about the body, the relationship, the people. They seemed to me a madness that pervades all things, at the heart of this single narrator’s rages and drives is the monstrous thumping cruelty of capitalism. Not as economic or ideological critique, but as a cancerous destruction of the psyche, of the social and that eats away the potential for new possibilities.

I could not leave it alone.

And then I think, maybe it is not that at all and instead the cacophony of unrequited loves and entitlement and identities unchecked and that growing awareness of the unfairness of a world that is cruel and thoughtless and selfish.

There are new words and ideas in here, for me these are about being young, metropolitan, outside a certain bubble. Even reading of the narrator’s own gangling interloper anxieties I am aware of my own position here as way out of sight, a part of the grey peopled blob of elsewhere that acts in the book as a shadowland of retreat. I read of yt and look it up and think about it as a way of resistance while also thinking that yt means me and I do not know, precisely because I am yt. There is nowhere to go with this either, no sanctity, the floor of ‘not me’ is gone and we are made to see ourselves as others do and that all we have built and are part of is actually too far gone for any salvation. Maybe it is, even in the presence of the arrogant and assertive that convince us that if it is all working for them it is all working for us. Patel does a great job of ripping it all down, there is no safety in nature, not anymore, at least not through the pretend organic thinking of elitist retreat. The safety of the supermarket with its plastic envelopes of globalised food is so perfect, the removal even of poverty as a kind of salvation. Everyone is damaging and damaged.

And yet there is something affirming and energised and perfect about this book. The honesty of hate. Unlike the subjective objectivity of finding hope and solidarity for the future through othering, of seeing Greta Thunberg movements of natural care and responsibility, I’m a Fan does the opposite. The positivity of youth, the innate kindness of the oppressed, the solidarity within genders, the closeness to truth of this or that battered and manipulated ‘other’, there is nothing of that here. Every fucker for themselves and the last one standing will be the most fucked up of all.

I might say go and get this book, like a ayahuasca ceremony of revelation that costs less, does not require travel and thousands of pounds in money and free time. The book itself will be influential, the artist’s wish list of gimmie coming true for Sheena Patel. There is a feeling here of something beginning way beyond the superficial teenage daydream of the narrator. There is a readership I began to imagine that know they must get on a mission to buy Rose’s lime juice and not even know if that ceased production in 1923 (and if it did, so much the better, find the last remaining bottle). Mid way through the book the playfulness does that to you, makes you flimsy and open to influencer suggestions, shows you that at work. It makes the ridiculousness of it all seem so clear, allows a laugh, a familiar and wry observational stance. Do not get comfortable! It does not let you rest there, and you do not deserve to, none of us do. It becomes clear that only when our ego is rinsed can we see what is happening, feel it, see the mess of it all and recognise the flaws in our ready-made explanations and excuses for our place in it. That recognition, that power is something I have not found in a thousand academic papers. There is darkness and ignorance in 98% of everything and in I’m a Fan dances in that fog. It illuminates by highlighting contradiction, it frightens and unsettles. I think my quarks and yours, ostensibly the same things, recognise this book and jangle a little more hummingly in the reading of it. A very human book and in the world of AI, we can for sure know our salvation may well be the broken ignorance at the centre of us all.

I'm A Fan by Sheena Patel is published by Rough Trade Books