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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.

Snapshot February 2016

imageAnother storm was predicted to hit the UK today and tomorrow which is not good news  at any time but esp ecially disconcerting when you have to get to the airport. Hope the Met Office gets the forecast wrong… Talking of the Met Office it seems ever since they embarked on their “name the storm” project last autumn, we seem to have had  them more frequently.  We started with Abigail, now we’re up to Henry. At this rate we’ll have exhausted the alphabet before year end.

Reading

I just managed to finish Look at Me by Jennifer Egan on my last night at home for a few weeks. I started reading this in November but put it on the back burner so I could attend to a few other commitments but I was determined not to let it run into a third month. I wasn’t sure I would take to it but it grew on me the more I saw how richly layered it was in its treatment of the theme of identity. So here I am on the first of the month with a new book to open. And I can’t decide which it will be. I have with me Sovereign by C.J Sansom which is the third in his series about the lawyer turned detective Matthew Shardlake who has to navigate the political turmoil of the Tudor era. I also have Winifred  Holtby’s most famous work, South Riding, which is  a portrait of a Yorkshire community dealing with the effect of the Depression. Both have the advantage of being long enough to sustain me through an eight hour flight. I suspect the decision will be a sour of the moment thing just before my bag goes through check in.  Of course if the ultimate choice doesn’t work out I have plenty of Net Galley titles on my e reader including the latest Helen Dunmore novel Exposure. I wasn’t impressed with the on,y other title I read by her, The Great Coat, but since that wasnt  the genre she normally inhabits I thoughts she deserved another try.

Listening

On my car journey up to the airport I listened to the final chapters of The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid. It’s not one that features any of her detective creations but is a stand alone thriller about the abud toon of a child from an airport while in the care of his adopted mother Stephanie Harker. She is a ghost writer who compiles the autographies of celebrities. Her relationship with the boys real mother Scarlett Higgins, a foul-mouthed reality TV star known to the nation as the Scarlett Harlot, began on a professional level but soon lurched towards the personal. To discover who addicted the boy, Harker has to delve into the past. This is the first time I’ve experienced fed Val McDermid which is odd given how prolific and highly respected she is.  I suspect this is not one of her best, though it was good enough to get me through the drive even if I did find the actress playing Harker had that very irritating habit of the upward inflection at the end of every sentence.

Watching

The hotel tv channels didn’t offer  too much in the way of entertainment tonight – practically every channel had a tribute to Terry Wogan and all more or less said the same thing. The best option was a dramatisation of the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1 told through through the correspondance they maintained for about two decades. It did a pretty fair job of showing the  rivalry between these two and how cunning Elizabeth was towards her cousin.

Snapshot January 2016

Happy New Year!

 

First of all a big thank you to all of you who’ve followed this blog over the last year, sharing your reactions, asking questions and giving advice. Without you this whole blogging lark would be a very miserable experience.

Now what was I up to as I opened my new calendar to the first page?

Reading

I’ve landed myself in a spot I don’t enjoy where I have multiple books on the go. Two I can manage if they are vastly different genres (one fiction, one non fiction for example) or if one is in hard copy and the other on the e reader. But three is testing my limit.

Lookat Me

NorwegianwoodA place called winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started reading Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me early in December but this story of a model’s identity issue after she is smashed up in a car accident, didn’t feel the right thing to be reading during our family Christmas retreat. The snowy landscape on the cover of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood seemed far more apt (even though there was no snow around and the weather on Christmas Day was more like spring). And things were going really well despite not being given much opportunity to read – there was always someone who wanted to play charades or dish out yet more cake. And then I got into a panic yesterday because I realised the book club meeting is next week and I hadn’t even opened the chosen title. Which is why I’ve had to abandon the first two novels and to pick up Patrick Gale’s shortlisted Costa prize novel A Place Called Winter.  It don’t hate it but I don’t love it either and would much rather be reading Murakami…..

Listening

Sarah Walters is one of those names I’ve seen  around a lot but never felt that motivated to read. But I spotted an audio recording in the library of her most recent novel Paying Guests and decided to give it a go. Not convinced I would enjoy reading it but it’s certainly a good one for the car as I’ve been scurrying around recently. This one is set in London in the early years after the end of World War 1 when a genteel lady and her daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. The arrival of Len and Lily as ‘paying guests’ disrupts the household but no-one could have predicted it would all end in a sensational court case. Walters does a superb job of conveying the period detail where just to take a bath involves considerable effort and the streets are full of out of work ex-servicemen.

Watching

TV is not allowed at our family Christmas gatherings so we had to wait for our return home to catch up with the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was much trailed because of its star-studded cast. But I found it disappointing – very slow and ponderous.

Sunday salon: New acquisitions

garden readingSunday greetings from one very hot reader. Here in the UK we’re going through a very hot spell and unusually this one is sticking around for a while.  Even though my garden is in desperate need of some attention it’s far too hot to do anything much beyond pruning the rose bushes and deadheading some border plants. On a day like this there really is only one thing in the garden I want to do and that’s to sit in it with a good book and a glass of something cold.

  • Which makes it fortuitous that I stocked up my reading shelves yesterday. I can hear you saying “I thought you weren’t buying any books till you’d cleared that TBR collection???” I have indeed been doing well on that front – more on that another time – but I had gone to the library to pick up The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan which had finally become available and then found the library was having a book sale. I couldn’t resist taking a look as you might expect and found some titles that will be good additions for my world literature reading project.

So now I’m set up for a lovely few hours of reading. And all I have to decide is which of these to open first.

  • An Elergy for Easterly which is  a collection of short stories by the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki. This was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now renamed the Baileys Prize) in 2012. This is the fifth novel by Farooki,  who was born Pakistan to a literary family but now lives in London. It’s about a somewhat shady character who travels around the world adopting a different persona in each country.
  • A book by another Pakistani author caught my eye. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. It’s a noel about the shared histories of two families, moving from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of September 11 and Afghanistan in the wake of the resulting US bombing campaign.
  • I’ve never read anything by Mario  Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature , nor have I read anything by a Peruvian author so when I spotted Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. It actually isn’t set in South America but in Ireland where a hero of Irish Nationalism awaits the hangman’s noose having been convicted of treason.

I would have been happy with just those four but the library was offering a discount if you bought five so onto my pile went one book that has nothing to do with world literature: Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. I have A Visit from the Goon Squad but have yet to open it so I have no idea whether I will like her style. This one predates Goon Squad by 10 years. It’s about a model who is trying to return to life after a catastrophic car accident which so badly impacted her face, she needed 80 screws to fix the back in place. Unrecognisable and unable to return to her former work, she drifts into drink and despair.

If these were your new acquisitions which would you read first?

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