Look at Me by Jennifer Egan: Review

Lookat MeJennifer Egan’s debut novel Look at Me is a sprawling, disturbing tale that looks at the issue of image and identity through a collection of diverse characters whose lives somehow converge.

We get an Islamic terrorist who uses a variety of disguises to infiltrate the country he has grown to detest and an erratic history professor obsessed with the degradation of his home town – once a beacon of the industrial age it’s now full of little more than ubiquitous shopping malls and car parking lots.  Then there’s the alcoholic detective in rehab, a reporter who isn’t what she seems to be and a teenage boy so determined to have a normal life despite his leukaemia that he joins a gang of drug-taking undesirables.

You’d think that would be enough of a cast for one book. But no, we haven’t got to the character whose narrative dominates the first half of the book.

This is Charlotte Swenson, a former model whose life at the top was already going south when she was horrifically injured in a car crash. Her new face is held together with 80 titanium screws, changing her appearance so drastically that few people, even former lovers, recognise her. She returns to her apartment in Manhattan but when it becomes the fashion houses no longer want her she descends into despair and some serious drinking.

As Charlotte tours the studios desperately seeking work, Egan provides glimpses of the darker side of the ephemeral world of modelling. In one scene she’s on a photo shoot, transformed with layers of make up and hair spray and feeling the buzz of her old life return. Until an assistant approaches with razor blade and latex gloves. It’s not the clothes he plans to cut but Charlotte’s face. “I’m trying to get at some kind of truth here, in this phone, sick, ludicrous world. something pure,” the photographer pleads. “Releasing blood is a sacrifice. It’s the most real thing there is… I want to cut through to what’s real and fundamental.” It proves the breaking point for Charlotte but not for a younger girl waiting in the wings to take her place. The world it seems has moved on; the glossy groomed look exemplified by models like Charlotte, is no longer in vogue; now the world yearns for ‘refugee chic’ and girls rescued from the debris of disasters.

This could easily have become a novel of cliches about the sordid world of the image machine but Egan proves remarkably prescient in her treatment of perception and the creation of ‘personalities’. Look At Me was written in the late 1990s, before the time when much of the western world fell under the spell of reality tv programs and instant ‘fame’. Yet Charlotte finds a new life as one of the first people featured in a  dotcom startup endeavour.  “Ordinary People™”, signs up people willing to give  24-hour access to their lives and a sexed up testimony of their past. Through a webcam which records every detail of her life, subscribers will get access to the authenticity they lack in their own lives, explains the CEO of Ordinary Lives.

”   …  books, movies – they try, but they’re all so lame – so mediated! They’re just not real enough.”

In the future he predicts people won’t have to go to all the bother of experiencing the world for themselves. One click of the switch and they can call up a Kenyan warrior. Another click takes them to a homeless man. Travel overseas? Why go through all that cost and inconvenience of travelling to Egypt to see the Temple of Luxor when it can come to you direct in your living room?

It might have seemed a far fetched idea when Egan wrote Look At Me – who on earth would want to spend their free time in front of the tv watching other people lounging in their houses watching tv. Or just sitting around talking?? Clearly the viewing statistics for the early series of Big Brother showed Egan was ahead of the curve here.

It’s an ambitious novel, probably overly so for at times it feels like its labouring under the weight of the message Egan is trying to convey. But then there are scenes where she pulls off something remarkable.  It’s not her best novel – that accolade is reserved for A Visit from the Goon Squad with which she won the Pulitzer – but it’s a more than worthy debut.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 10, 2016, in American authors, Book Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I hadn’t heard of this (had heard of Goon Squad) but do I want to read it. I like what you say about her being ahead of things and the mix of people in the book.

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  2. Great review. I actually liked this one better than Goon Squad, although it waz great too.

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  3. I still haven’t read Goon Squad (despite many trusted reading buddies urging me to!) – will probably read it before this one although this sounds intriguing.

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  4. I have a paperback copy of this in a box back in the States and look forward to reading it in the near future — you’ve whetted my appetite. I loved Goon Squad but haven’t read anything else by Egan. It sounds like even with her debut she was hugely ambitious.

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  5. I just finished Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, and she discusses something in that book that your review reminded me of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Live_in_Public

    It was an art project by an Internet entrepreneur, Josh Harris. Very voyeuristic, but people queued up to participate in it–both to be imprisoned and to see the prisoners. He, too, was running it at the end of the ’90s (the project was busted on New Years Eve, 1999, by the cops; they’d heard the sound of the guns from the free shooting ranges that Harris included in the complex.) Fascinating and disturbing stuff.

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    • that does sound weird – why would anyone want to experience imprisonment

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      • I think Harris framed it explicitly as an art project or a social experiment, which people liked. Plus, the only thing you couldn’t do was leave–the food was gourmet, there were pools and shooting ranges and libraries and orgies and whatever else might appeal. It was just all happening in a contained space and under surveillance. Which, when I put it that way, makes me think that it was rather prescient, since so much of our current lives (especially urban dwellers) are lived in a contained space and under surveillance anyway.

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  6. It’s funny. I really enjoyed Egan’s Good Squad when it came out in paperback, but I never went on to read any of her other books. Maybe I should take another look at her at some point as you’ve made a good case for her debut.

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  7. Since I’ve yet to read Goon Squad, I’ll probably not go for this one, but it certainly sounds interesting! And, oh my god! What is that guy thinking–a razor blade to the face? Yikes! What a psycho!

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  8. I read this one several years ago, when I was living in the foothills and would go into the city regularly to visit bookstores and fill my shelves. Sort of like now, only nowadays I buy e-books from Amazon…LOL.

    I still have the book. It survived my purges, and I thought I might want to reread it at some point.

    I am probably in the minority, but I didn’t like Goon Squad. The Keep wasn’t one of my favorites, either.

    Thanks for sharing…and now I might give this one another read. Or not. When would I find time?

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