At the start of this edgy and ambitiously multilayered novel, a fashion model named Charlotte Swenson emerges from a car accident in her Illinois hometown with her face so badly shattered that it takes eighty titanium screws to reassemble it. She returns to New York still beautiful but oddly unrecognizable, a virtual stranger in the world she once effortlessly occupied. With the surreal authority of a David Lynch, Jennifer Egan threads Charlotte's narrative with those of other casualties of our infatuation with the image. There's a deceptively plain teenaged girl embarking on a dangerous secret life, an alcoholic private eye, and an enigmatic stranger who changes names and accents as he prepares an apocalyptic blow against American society. As these narratives inexorably converge, Look at Me becomes a coolly mesmerizing intellectual thriller of identity and imposture.
This book was written in 2001, before 9/11 and before so much of our lives began to be lived online. As a result it feels alternately naive and prescient. The character of the terrorist is less believable now in a post 9/11 world but he is sympathetically drawn and his journey is comically bleak at the end. Similarly the 'real-life' Internet experiment that Charlotte takes part in is all too familiar now - the only detail strange to us is how much money she gets paid for sharing her life online.
Not only is Jennifer Egan a brilliant writer who manages that rare combination of readable and well-crafted prose, she seems to have predicted the future. 10 years on, this still feels like a book that is of our time and well worth a read today.
The final images are as haunting as they are prophetic.
The book is written in both first person and third. Charlotte Swenson takes first person. She’s an aging model- well, aging by the standards of the fashion world. She’s thirty five, but claims to be 28. She’s spent her whole life wanting to have people look at her. Now she’s had a terrible auto accident that crushed her face. She has 80 titanium screws holding her facial bones together now, and it’s funny- no one recognizes her, even people she’s known for years. She thinks it’s because her face has been rearranged, but as she tries to get modeling work she finds that it’s worse than that- she’s gotten too old to be a model, especially since she never really hit the big time. She is now invisible to the fashion and media world, as older women frequently are. But it was pretty hard for me to care much, because Charlotte is fairly obnoxious and self absorbed.
The stories of the other characters are all told in third person. Teen aged Charlotte, the daughter of older Charlotte’s best childhood friend, is trying to get seen clearly by people rather than being seen through the lens of a lying boy. A college professor is trying to get a student, any student, to see the world clearly. A terrorist assimilates himself so well in a dozen different places, blending in perfectly as if he’s bending light around himself. A teenage boy who had cancer wants to be seen as a teenage boy, not a boy with cancer. Celebrities are seen as interchangeable in the end.
It’s a great theme- I loved how Egan explored so many different aspects of the theme- and it’s mostly done very well, albeit a bit slow in some spots. I was a little disappointed with the ending- it was all building up to one heck of a climax and I thought that all the strands would come together there, but I was let down a bit. But not disappointed enough to not recommend this book pretty highly.
A few of the characters are incomplete, I think Michael West is one of them despite the author's focus on and controversy surrounding him. The Good Samaritan in the beginning isn't sufficiently explored, despite the ending.
Some of the male characters come across as charicatures: Michael West and Anthony Halliday. But Charlotte's (elder) identity is explored with depth and feeling. The middle of the book is fantastically written, as we start to get inside her head.
The characters. Each character is so interesting and so different, yet they are all interconnected in some way. They have their secrets, their faults and I just couldn't wait to see what was going to happen to them next.
So, who are these people?
There is the main character, Charlotte, a twenty-something model that had to have reconstructive surgery to her face after a car accident. Her old high school friend, Ellen, who is now married and has two children, one in remission from leukimia. The eldest, Charlotte, is sixteen, experimenting with sex and older men. Her uncle and Ellen's brother, Moose, a brilliant but troubled professor, who was institutionalized for awhile.
Like I said, interesting and captivating. It is like finding out about the gossip of people you once knew.
Urban sprawl/blight, the superficiality of our society, the happy/fat/stupidity/contentedness of Americans, our desire to believe that "reality" media is actaully reality...Egan tackles all of these subjects and more...including an eerily prescient portrait of a terrorist in New York (this was written just prior to 9/11).
Given my four star rating - I certainly cannot say that I disliked the book - I just wanted to be drawn in a bit more. Although - in thinking of the nature of most of the main characters - that is the last thing they would have wanted. The only things that seem to matter are surface things. Like the book's title - "Look at Me"...suggesting that if the characters had their way - we would only judge this book by the cover.
* slightly poetic but otherwise totally banal prose style.
* huge numbers of plots that never actually get joined together.
* fascination with characters, but no way of actually distinguishing them other than altering their ages and genders (i.e., they all sound exactly the same).
* at least twice as long as it should have been.
* obsession with social and intellectual issues, but in a purely personal manner that, ironically, never does much more than skim the surface of said issues.
* silly ideas about seeing people's 'true selves.'
Yes: this is a Victorian novel, written about what we think of as a uniquely twentieth century problem, the obsession with images and appearances.
More specifically, for the first 100 pages, the first-person narrative of Charlotte the model is really boring, and the third person narrative of Charlotte the young girl is great. For the next 300 pages, this is so completely inverted that I almost skipped whole chapters to get back to the actual story, as young Charlotte's plot blossomed out into a whole bunch of useless, shit flowers (her brother has cancer! her uncle is crazy! her friends are teenagers!). Yes, there's all sorts of neat, foreheadsmackingly obvious parallels between the Charlottes (they both relate to people only through sex! they both live/d in Rockford! they know some of the same people! they both alter their appearance! they're both involved with a man who might be a terrorist but actually appears to have decided to direct movies instead!), but otherwise there's no connection between them. In other words: one story, told twice. Not fun.
The breathless praise this book received suggests that people really like reading about things that are just about to happen, and that's fair. But I was deeply disappointed: this could have been a monster. As it is, it's period piece, but one that makes me think I ought to keep reading her novels, because she clearly *could* write the monster.
I found this book slow and unnecessarily burdened down by excessive detail. I was halfway through and seriously considered giving up on this novel because it didn't draw me in. I finally finished it, but I can't say it was worth it. I love Egan's other works but it is hard to believe this one was a National Book Award Finalist.
That being said, the book itself is rather compelling and the story is the major reason that I kept on reading. Egan dives into the human psyche, taking a look at how our outward appearance really affects the way we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. She does an stellar job of creating three characters who show this in their own ways. Toeing the themes of attraction, obsession, and mental illness, Look At Me is much more intellectual than it seems on the surface.
The parallels between young Charlotte and older Charlotte were intriguing. I especially enjoyed taking a look inside the psyche of a teenage girl who feels like she is looking in from the outside. It made for a rough read at some points, and I'm sure there are people who will be offended by the choices she makes, but it was still an interesting read. My other gripe about this book was mainly Moose as a character. He is so broken, so mentally destroyed, that being in his head actually hurts. I could have done without him, honestly.
I'd recommend that if you do decide to tackle this lengthy read, you pass on the audio version. Although it did help me keep my characters separated by voice, the length of the book is actually exacerbated by the audio. About three quarters of the way through I was fairly ready to be done with Look At Me. Try this is you're a reader who enjoys contemporary reads that deal with real life issues and have deep characters.
West, Z or Aziz as he is known by turns, is a strange character. He lived in New York and still snow is new? Huh? I wasn’t sure what to make of him. At first he seemed just another thug trying to get away with a scam, but then he got a little religious, but it didn’t stick and when he just vanished at the end, I wondered if he’d been totally seduced by “the West” as he had been by Charlotte. Did he finally see himself clearly? We’ll never know and I’m ok with that. Not everything should be tied up in a bow.
The other character to mystify me was Moose. I couldn’t see his connection to anyone else and have no idea what purpose he served. After a while I skimmed a lot of his anguish and male twisting in the wind. I couldn’t understand his obscure obsessions or why he resorted to torturing his students with a bomb. It was bizarre. I did like the way his ramblings brought glass and its history into things; how it has affected the way humanity functions and sees itself, both literally and figuratively. His book about it, or maybe it was someone elses’, is something I would willingly read.
Young Charlotte on the other hand was real and I tought her writing and inner monologues rang quite true for an adolescent. That horrible division between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in. No protective coloration. She had it in spades.
In the end, Egan splices all the narratives together without distinction - you were taken from one aspect to another in adjoining sentences and I’m not sure this was necessary. I didn’t see what it did that a more traditional spacing wouldn’t have done, other than make me read things over again. And all of the musings on terrorism and especially the failed attack on the world trade center must have freaked Egan out a little since this was published just after the successful attacks. Also the whole thing with the “Personal Space” project. Jeez. It reeked of My Space, but had none of the prescience of Facebook. Of course, none of us knew that then. Except a few. Kind of creepy in a way.