Look at Me by Jennifer Egan: Review
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.