Monday, April 08, 2013

Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

To what extent is image tied to identity? Would others see me as the same person were my image to change markedly? Would I? These are a few of the questions Jennifer Egan asks in her complex and ambitious novel, Look At Me. Chances are if you’ve heard of Egan, it is because of her 2011 Pulitzer winning novel, A Visit from the Good Squad; today I want to talk about her earlier 2002 novel Look At Me, which I see as even richer and more philosophically interesting than her prize winner, though both are superb. 

There are so many characters in this novel, each narrator of his or her story, that it’s almost difficult to pick a lead character. And yet certainly it is the model, Charlotte Swenson, who is the pivot point. The reader meets Charlotte shortly after she has been involved in a horrific auto accident, one in which she is pulled from the burning wreck by a good Samaritan, and then quite literally put back together. Her broken arm, leg, and ribs almost incidental to the reconstructive work on her face whose crushed bones are reassembled with eighty titanium screws and then another surgery a year later to fine-tune her broken face.

For reasons the reader will learn as s/he reads the book, the accident occurs close to Charlotte’s hometown of Rockford Illinois, where much of the subsequent action occurs, although Charlotte returns as quickly as she can to her New York apartment and hopefully to her life as a model. Apparently, the reconstructive surgery is remarkably successful in that she is still a beautiful woman, but she soon discovers that she is literally unrecognizable to the circle of models and agents whom she has lived amongst for well over a decade. 
…I’d postponed…reckoning with the world for the simple reason that I still didn’t know what I looked like. I’d spent as long as an hour staring through the ring of chalky light around my bathroom mirror; I’d held up old pictures of myself beside my reflection and tried to compare them. But my sole discovery was that in addition to not knowing what I looked like now, I had never known. The old pictures were no help; like all good pictures, they hid the truth. I had never kept a bad one—this was one of my cardinal rules, photographically speaking. One: never let someone take your picture until you’re ready, or the result will almost certainly be awful. Two: never keep bad pictures of yourself for any reason, sentimental or otherwise. Bad pictures reveal you in exactly the light you wish never to be seen, and not only will they be found, if you keep them, but invariably by the single person in the world you least want to see you that way.
The question of identity, of how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others, is crucial in this tale not only for Charlotte, the model, where image is everything, but for all of the other main characters as well. Moose, the older brother of Charlotte’s childhood friend Ellen, metamorphoses from an easygoing, dashing and sought after athlete in high school into a morose and enigmatic professor understood by none, and shunned by most because of his startling and unpredictable behavior. He wanders his hometown of Rockford seeing the future by studying the past of this one-time industrial hub reduced now to a kind of ghost of its former self. Muttering the phrase, “We are what we see,” and fascinated by the invention of clear glass in the 1300s, he searches for someone to whom he can pass on his insights, his foresight, his scorching epiphanies. “For Moose had sensed that a terrible reversal was in progress, a technological disaster whereby the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves, whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had been once.”

Moose thinks perhaps his niece, Charlotte, almost certainly named after his sister’s childhood friend, is a candidate for carrying on his nearly unbearable prophesies. But it turns out that the sixteen year old Charlotte is attempting to find her own identity by starting up a sexual relationship with a much older man who is himself a shadowy figure whose identity is less certain, more plastic, than either of the Charlottes, or, for that matter, than anyone else he encounters. 

Add to the list of identity casualties an alcoholic private detective, cut loose from his past by events he refuses to disclose, and the cast of characters is almost complete.  Egan mixes in one more, a reporter who wants to interview Charlotte not because of an interest in fashion, but as an instance of a person whose appearance has changed drastically. 
I’m interested in the relationship between interior and exterior, how the world’s perception of women affect our perceptions of ourselves. A model whose appearance has changed drastically is a perfect vehicle, I think, for examining the relationship among image, perception and identity, because a model’s position as a purely physical object—a media object, if you will—is in a sense just a more exaggerated version of everyone’s position in a visually based, media-driven culture, and so watching a model renegotiate a drastic change in her image could prove a perfect lens…
What is personal identity? What is the truth, about the past, about the future, about ourselves? And who is discover and untangle it? 

There is so much in this book that I cannot in a short space even begin to lay out the issues, the mysteries, the questions. And to add a final element to the tangle, there is a character named simply Z who is adept in languages, changes identities as easily as changing a coat, and who remains always in the shadows. He has come to this country from somewhere, no one knows quite where, searching for the conspirators and for the plan of subjugation that allow America to rule the world. Finally in America, “standing in their midst, {he} felt the peculiar dizzying pleasure of hating a thing so purely you’ll do anything to destroy it, anything, a pleasure that was indistinguishable from the wish to be destroyed himself. Consumed.” 

A mystery, a tragedy, and in some remarkable ways a comedy as well—this is an excellent novel written in language that is as sharp-edged and contemporary as the world she describes. It is a fine example of my favorite sort of fiction, stories about us, here, now.