It took Jennifer Egan six years to write "Look at Me," and it shows. This sprawling, ambitious novel links together strange and diverse characters: Moose, a middle-aged ex-jock turned erratic history professor, still reeling from an epiphany he experienced years ago; Charlotte, a teenager longing for love while her brother recovers from leukemia; a furious Lebanese terrorist and an unhappily divorced private detective. Most strikingly, another older Charlotte dominates the narrative, this one a model from New York who has been in a disastrous car accident. Her face has been reconstructed with 80 titanium screws; once her livelihood, it is now a mask she hides behind as she walks past old friends and lovers who show no sign of recognition.
Many critics have commented on the uncanny way in which Egan's futuristic visions have come true. Indeed, in an age without webcams, Egan invents a dotcom start-up that approaches Charlotte in the hope that she'll let them record and webcast every detail of her daily life. The author's hinting at terrorist attacks on the United States (the book was published before 9/11) invokes an equal sense of eerieness and unease.
The climax that brings all the characters together feels both implausible and predictable yet Egan ultimately creates a commentary on how our own stories are mediated, commodified and shone back at us distortedly. As Charlotte says of her modeling career: "Being observed felt like an action, the only one worth taking. Anything else seemed passive, futile by comparison."
on March 9, 2004
In reading the reviews I have now learned that this is an ambitious novel. I suppose it is, but I rather call it rich, moving, and engrossing. I didn't want it to end, didn't want to put the book down, and it is rare that a book does that to me lately. What is most ambitious about this novel is that the author tackles complex themes in such a wonderful read. I wanted to know more about the main character whether she was hiding from herself or discovering who she really is. I didn't always like her, but I always wanted to know what happens next. For me, this is essential to a good read--I want to lose myself in the world of characters and, like with this book, wonder what happens to them after I have turned the final page and put the book on the shelf.
In addition to great characters, this novel does address issues of who we are. What happens when we lose it all? When we are no longer who we thought we were, who we pretended to be, who we played out for the world? It goes to the heart of self and self-discovery, but it's not some sappy lesson about being yourself or always having the answer. It's truer than that and that's what makes it complex and yes, ambitious. It was exciting to peel through the layers and go on this journey...
on January 26, 2004
Almost all of the press for LOOK AT ME describes the novel as "ambitious," and that it is, but I'm wondering if Egan could have scaled the novel down slightly, she might have had a more compelling and important story. As it stands, Egan opens plenty of cans of worms but doesn't hook much of a fish for her efforts.
Overall, I found the book to be a bit plodding and distracting. Once one story line got warmed up, it was soon abandoned for another. Egan's shifting narrative focus, although ambitious, resulted in me not connecting very deeply with any of the characters. There were various points throughout the novel where I was about ready to call it quits, but then Egan would dangle another morsel of insight to keep me around for just a few more chapters. I trust her as a writer with voice. The morsels are good, but the overall experience is not.
I'm glad I read it but would hope for a less "ambitious" novel from Egan next time around--perhaps giving up some of the intrigue of plot for the sake of insight into character.
on January 4, 2004
This was a page-turner, as they say. The first half was particularly compelling, although you quickly got the sense that here was a popular entertainment with high-philosophy pretensions that it couldn't quite handle the weight of. The other extremely irritating thing about the novel was the unconvincing efforts of the author to get inside the heads of her many supporting characters. The voice of the main character, the accident-damaged ex-model Charlotte Swenson, was pitch-perfect; this is probably because it was an extension of the author herself.
But everyone else, with the possible exception of Charlotte's childhood friend Ellen Metcalf, was off-pitch in one way or another. The world of the other Charlotte, Ellen's seventeen-year-old daughter, was hilariously off-base. What current-day teenagers, even white ones living in Rockford, IL, use words like "dire," "egregious," and "peachy"?
There were two black characters, a gay modeling agent and a straight homeless man. Both spoke in voices inauthentic to the cultures they were supposed to represent. The character of the identity-shifting Lebanese terrorist Aziz (and the foggy examination of his motivations) was even more unconvincing; the other male characters were made of cardboard or else too vaguely developed to stick with you. (There was also a paragraph about the World Trade Center that seemed almost flippant after the events of 2001.)
On the other hand, the plot was intriguing enough that you wanted to get to the end of the book, no matter how poorly it moved in the second half. But the ending was flat and seemed tacked-on. It sure didn't resolve any of the stories of the characters who weren't the protagonist.
on November 2, 2003
I picked this book up around 6:30 or 7:00pm and could not stop until I was finished. A fascinating novel about beauty, identity and the way that society sees both. The story begins with Charlotte Swenson, a woman who left her small-town USA home to become a big city model. When returning to her hometown (the first time in a number of years) she has a horrific car accident that nearly kills her. She is badly injured and requires reconstructive surgery to put her face back together. After 80 titanium screws are put into Charlotte's face, and numerous surgeries and treatments later, she begins to realize how her life has changed, and how things will never be the same. She returns to New York and is not recognized by her closest friends. She no longer can find work as an aging and drastically changed model. The whole concept of how beauty affected her work and her social status really intrigued me and kept me reading. Charlotte herself begins to view people differently, with their true intentions, their "shadow self" as she terms it.
There are many interesting side stories that tie into the larger cohesive novel. Egan did a great job tying the stories together with the themes of identity and societal norms. I found the Author's Afterword particularly interesting, and it helped me see the larger picture. Very interesting read.
on August 28, 2003
This story opens with Charlotte Swenson, NYC sub-par model, emerging from a car accident that leaves her with her face changed, 80 titanium screws holding her together, outside of her hated hometown of Rockford, IL (90 miles west of Chicago.) She does not know the identity of the Good Samaritan who pulled her out of her burning car. She recoups at a neighbor's home while her sister and young neices visit her (she can't stand her brother-in-law.) During her convalescence, she tries to visit her best friend from high school, and meets her teenaged daughter, also named Charlotte.
From there, the plot splits into the worlds of the two Charlottes and everyone they know (who also get to narrate parts of their own stories.)
Only the adult Charlotte speaks her story in the first voice. This Charlotte is a C-list celeb who is no longer identifiable ("that woman in the ad telling you about her embarrassing flatulence in the board meeting? That's me.") At age 35, she was over-the-hill for modeling and she is stuck in horrifying embarrassing assignments if she is to get a job at all.
Teenaged Charlotte (and everyone else) speak in the third voice (so you can identify who is who.) She is dealing with not inheriting her mother's beauty (it instead went to her younger cooler brother Ricky, who has leukemia.) Charlotte is also starting a love affair with an older teacher who has newly arrived to town. (There is no information into this teacher's psyche until well into this book, and I appreciate the afterword the author provides that this book was written over a period of 6 years, and world events, particularly September 11, may affect how this character is viewed.)
Teenaged Charlotte is also having a difficult time with her uncle Moose, who was a high school football star during her mother and adult Charlotte's youth. Moose has since experienced a difficult time, including accusations of terrorism which cost him a job at Yale University.
The story all comes together in the end, as the two Charlotte's collide and the cause and nature of the car accident that changed both Charlotte's lives are revealed.
on August 19, 2003
I thought I'd try this novel after reading Egan's collection "Emerald City," which had some wonderful short stories in it. The book begins with the life of a model after a tragic accident and reconstructive surgery, an interesting premise, then begins to get confusing as it gets interleaved with the life of a teenager somehow loosely connected to the model. I stuck with this, hoping for beautiful language or reasonable leads as to where the story was going, but it only got more and more confusing to me, and began taking on the elements of a mystery or detective piece, a much different path than both how the story began and what I was expecting after reading the author's other work. I'm sure others will disagree, but I don't like big changes like this. If I invest in reading 200 pages, I would expect the latter 200 to follow suit and deliver in a contemporary style consistently, and regrettably I didn't find it here. A novel that this one seems to try to rival would be Nicholas Christopher's "A Trip to the Stars," however in that one, we know right away what's in store for us, whereas in this one I think readers will struggle too hard to try to keep up.
on March 20, 2003
"Look at Me," Jennifer Egan's intriguing, surrealistic sendup of American pop culture starts with an automobile accident and a shattered face in Rockford, IL, two women named Charlotte, and a return to New York, with its co-op apartments, its club scene, its New York Post, and its supermodels. Egan playfully sets the tale in "199_," but the dash could be only 7 or 8 or 9. As clearly the setting is the time of the Great Age of Dotcoms--so _not_ this era.
The older Charlotte is a 28-year-old-beauty (or anyway was before her face gets redone) who admits to having been born 35 years before the story takes place. She's a far from super fashion model who makes the playoffs but never gets to the final round (what she calls her "mirrored room") has her face repaired in Rockford (it now sports 80 titanium screws), her home town, and then returns to New York--to find nobody recognizes her anymore.
The younger Charlotte, 16, the daughter of the older Charlotte's high school friend, is an unconventionally troubled teen with an attitude, a brother who's being treated for leukemia, and a dotty uncle.
Also making an appearance are an alcoholic private detective and the mysterious Z, terrorist-math teacher, whose life takes a dramatic turn after he dines at a Micky D's.
Egan skillfully interweaves the story lines and creates some hilarious moments--among them a fashion photographer who finds a creative use for razors, perhaps the most bizarre attempted suicide in recent American literature, a reference to a tv documentary about the making of a "making of" movie, and a climactic attempt to re-create on film what is now Charlotte's (in)famous auto accident for an Internet Website, to which she has sold her very identity.
In an afterword, Egan mentions that she wrote the book between 1994 and 2001. So what seems like remembrance and reflection is actually prescience and prediction. It's quite an achievement.
on January 11, 2003
Jennifer Egan's "Look at Me" is the story of Charlotte Swenson,an already fading, not-as-successful-as-she-might-have been fashion model whose face is destroyed in a car accident. Her new face (held together by 80 titanium screws) allows her to forge a new identity. Initially, Charlotte has little to recommend her. She is not especially brave but is interested in making enough money so that she can continue to live in Manhattan. Egan also follows the stories of Charlotte Hauser, Charlotte Swenson's namesake, a fascinating but plain teenage girl,Z, a terrorist who is appalled to find that the anger that keeps him going is being sapped by his immersion in American culture, Moose, a sweet but unstable collge professor,and a private detective whose career as an assistant DA was cut short because of his drinking. Egan manages to weave these stories together and her prose is frequently wonderful.
The best parts of the novel are Egan's send ups of the American culture of display. Charlotte has a chance to revive her career but only if she lets a fashion photographer cut her face. Charlotte gives up this opportunity but agrees to become part of an project in which she sells her identity to an online company.
The ways in which an academic hungry for money and the online producer "shape" Charlotte's story in order to make it appealing
to an audience makes for some grim hilarity.
The novel isn't perfect, but as a sort of 21st century comedy of manners,it's well worth reading.
on September 23, 2002
Jennifer Egan's "Look at Me" started out with great potential: a fashion model is rendered unrecognizable in a mysterious car accident that takes place in her Midwestern hometown. How will she redefine her life now that her face is no longer her fortune? Will she succumb to cynicism, or look at the alteration of her life as a sort of tabula rasa, seizing the opportunity for reinventing her previously superficial existence? Rather than introspection, Egan chooses to craft pseudo-protagonist Charlotte Swenson's life into a purely contemporary plot line, one that never quite rang true in my heart and mind.
My primary problem is not with Egan's unpleasant lead character. Charlotte Swenson is a seemingly knowing, above-it-all fashion model, a creature of a world she abhors, and yet cannot comprehend abandoning. Unable to resist its' allure, Charlotte seeks salvation in the compatriots of her previous life of nightclubs, alcohol, air-kisses and scorn, and disparages those in a position to help her. There's not much to like about Charlotte, but she's colorful and bright, and hardly seems like the sort to play for sympathy. Rather, it's the unbelievable direction in which Egan takes her recovery that bothered me.
For example, at her lowest moment, Charlotte attempts suicide, and the scene is quite powerful in it's pathos. The resulting debacle of her unsuccessful attempt is glossed over, played then, as well as in later chapters, for laughs. Charlotte also toys with the idea of a second career as she assists a detective in locating a mysterious man, who may or may not be a terrorist. (This mystery man, who has crafted a new life for himself in Charlotte's hometown, has entered into an affair with the teenage daughter of Charlotte's childhood best friend. The author makes no attempt to portray this relationship in the negative manner it deserves: although, in the author's defense I will point out that Egan is consistent in her amoral approach to her character's transgressions.) This detective represents a kind of savior for Charlotte, a conduit for a new life who can relate to and help her recover from alcoholism. Charlotte thanks him for his empathy by surprising him with a vodka-laced kiss. Later on, we discover that the detective has relapsed into his addiction, and he thanks Charlotte for freeing him from sobriety. Huh?
The ending of this novel, which ties to together the many characters (who are more closely connected the then shortest string in a 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' game) in a climactic film shoot chronicling Charlotte's accident, is about as ridiculous and fantastic as any science fiction novel. I read through hastilly to the book's end, desperate for an authentic moment. It wasn't to be found. I
f you are looking for lush, descriptive prose Egan is a master. If you desire clarity and realism, however, they are in short supply.