I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel review – a brutal, brilliant debut

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The protagonist of Sheena Patel’s corrosive, brilliant debut, a 30-year-old arts freelancer living in south London, is fanatical about two individuals: “the man I want to be with” and “the woman I am obsessed with”, who is also having an affair with “the man I want to be with”. The protagonist’s relationship with “the man I want to be with”, a highly esteemed artist, started off with a fan letter she sent him. Years later, she still cannot extricate herself from the asymmetrical affair that has developed – one in which she wants him enough to obliterate most other aspects of her life, and he holds her at arm’s length.

The desperate, cornered strength of the narrative voice in I’m A Fan is like nothing else I’ve read

This is not the kind of relationship where the players remain wilfully ignorant of its caustic nature. The protagonist faces into the flames. She tells herself: “By the fact of his gender you are fundamentally dismissed and because you are asking for his vulnerability, you become the enemy, you are treated as a hostile invader, with suspicion, surveyed as a constant high-level threat and you will be suppressed or defeated.” It sets up a familiar kind of power dynamic, one established along gender lines. To prevent the awful possibility of his own debasement, “the man I want to be with” – serially unfaithful, far older than the protagonist – requires that she submit to him, that she remains nothing more than a vessel through which his own agency can flow.

Patel also supplies another very contemporary lens by which to assess interpersonal power dynamics. For every relationship in the novel, there is the fan and there is their object of devotion. Some of these dynamics play out on social media, some in the flesh. It would be a disservice to call I’m a Fan a social-media novel, because the plot is so much more ramified and vital than the cold flat surface of a screen would allow for. The objects of devotion need their fans like a fire needs fuel. The fans love their objects of devotion because they want to be them; they want to cannibalise them. But it is a more complex matrix than that. For fandom intersects in distinctive ways with other pervasive structural systems, especially race and gender. A man with power carries more clout than a woman with power; a white female celebrity can easily achieve greater prestige than Black or ethnic-minority celebrities.

Every day, the protagonist spends hours scrutinising the manicured Instagram of “the woman I am obsessed with”, a white American influencer with a shiny life and a six-figure book advance. This infatuation provides Patel with the opportunity to critique the way whiteness operates on social media platforms. “The closer you are to whiteness,” says her protagonist, “the better, more beautiful you are regarded, the more suited to power you are.” In this respect, I’m a Fan has close parallels with Jasmine Lee-Jones’s debut play Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. Instead of Instagram, Lee-Jones uses Twitter as the medium for the play’s young Black protagonist, Cleo, to perform her ecstatic outrage in response to the news that Jenner, that practically famous-from-birth white celebrity, was declared the “world’s youngest self-made billionaire” by Forbes magazine.

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The protagonist also has her own one-man fanbase: the long-term boyfriend she has lived with during her secret affair, who is adoring and faithful, despite the fact that she admits to “publicly mock[ing] his inability to fuck me, to dominate me the way I want him to”. And she understands that she’s going to need a whole load more fans if she’s to make any headway in her desired career as a writer. For, as a second-generation immigrant, she must seek favour in a “cultural system which excludes us” by way of “an algorithm not built by us, for a platform not designed for us”.

The narrative is divided into short chapters whose fatuous titles – “i might look innocent but i screenshot a lot” or “viennetta really is the epitome of luxury” – work purposefully against the seriousness of the narrative and the protagonist’s enraged and churning internal state. The desperate, cornered strength of the narrative voice in I’m a Fan is like nothing else I’ve read. Every word is fought for, its potential for violence acknowledged: if the protagonist does not use them to hurt others, they will end up destroying her.

Patel offers no way out from the brutal arena of fandom into which she organises human life. But what makes I’m a Fan so successful is the protagonist’s ability to interpret and critique the toxicity of these structures even as she is caught inside them. She recognises, with shattering clarity, that if she goes on like this she could “turn out to be the man I want to be with in all the ways I don’t want to be”.

• I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel is published by Rough Trade Books (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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