Roderick Hart's Reviews > Look at Me

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
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Mar 09, 12


The main character in this book is Charlotte Swenson, who undergoes extensive facial surgery after a car crash. Despite the skill of her surgeons she does not look quite the same as she did, with the result that people who knew her before the accident now fail to recognise her. Given that Charlotte is a model this is difficult to adapt to.

The accident couldn’t have happened to a better person since Charlotte was already given to trying to penetrate the masks that others present to the world and also to what others might see in her. One of those others was her lover Hansen, whom she cheated on big time while in Paris for a modelling assignmnet. Despite studying her at length, Hansen didn’t see a cheat.

‘It was Hansen who first made me aware of shadow selves. He would lie in bed watching me for whole minutes, and I would look back into his eyes and wonder, What does he see? How can he not see the truth? Where is it hidden? It made me ask, when I looked at other people, what possible selves they were hiding behind the strange rubber masks of their faces. I could nearly always find one, if I watched for long enough. It became the only one I was interested in seeing.’ (Ch 4)

There are many variations on the theme, but the theme is always there. To take just one example, when growing up in Rockford, Illinois, her best friend had been Ellen, till a shared physical encounter caused their friendship to cool. Some years later Charlotte learned that Ellen had called her own daughter Charlotte, and young Charlotte is no slouch at presenting a face to the world either. Her mother cannot read her at all but Charlotte tries hard to protect her younger brother, Ricky, who was then undergoing chemotherapy.
‘No one knows what you feel – no one can see behind your face.’
‘You can hide behind your face,’ she told him. (Ch 11)

Possibly the most tricky strand of the book concerns a character called ‘Z’. Z is being sought by a private detective, Anthony Halliday, who contacts Charlotte since she had briefly known him. Later in the book, Charlotte uses an academic called Irene Maitlock to write her autobiography, and Irene tells of a journey Charlotte undertook with Z – the journey that led to the car crash. But Irene is inventive, making much out of little, so the reader cannot count on the accuracy of this narrative.

Z is a man of terrorist tendencies. He is full of anger and believes that the way people live their lives in the United States is the result of a conspiracy. He morphs into Michael West, teaching maths in a local high school. Young Charlotte first meets him on a river bank with his arm in a sling (possibly corroborating part of Irene’s story) and pursues him relentlessly till they become lovers, or at least have regular sex. When he tires of being Michael West he moves west, having a suddenly acquired desire to be in the movies. He says goodbye to young Charlotte, but since she is sleeping at the time it doesn’t help her much.

There is an excellent analysis of West’s character in chapter six which includes the following thought attributed to him: ‘People were vines awaiting their chance to cling’. When he leaves Rockford, Halliday gives up the chase. By this time he has fallen for Charlotte, whom he later marries.

Michael West isn’t the only person harbouring critical thoughts about the United States. The same could be said of his creator, since large sections of the book are satirical. Two examples. When Charlotte is trying to get back into the modelling business, she finds herself at a shoot which not only involves fetching but penniless young models brought in from overseas but the artistic cutting of their faces in the interest of arresting pictures. This is not made clear to Charlotte by her agent, who reasons she would not have turned up if she had known. After all, she had already been subjected to serious work on her face.

Then there is the website devoted to people’s lives, both ordinary people and celebrities. Charlotte becomes involved in this since she has a story to tell. Her ghost writer, Irene, though hostile to the idea, becomes sucked into the project because it pays and her husband’s career is failing. The author takes this idea as far as it will go, namely, extreme intrusion (webcam in the bedroom) combined with ready invention to improve on the facts.

Ellen’s brother Edmund, known as Moose, once a popular and out-going person, is now introverted and anti-social. This seems to result from a ‘vision’ he had, in the sense of suddenly seeing something clearly. He is now researching the industrial past of Rockford.
‘It was all right there, the narrative of industrial America told in these glyphs: a tale that began with the rationalization of objects through standardization, abstraction and mass production, and concluded with the rationalization of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin.’ (Chapter 9)

There is a clear connection between this analysis and the web-site Charlotte becomes involved with, which is all about marketing, public relations and spin. So to the reader may feel that the various strands in the book are neatly stitched together.

It is unclear to me whether Thomas, the man behind the website, really believes his own publicity. Perhaps he did at the outset but is gradually taken over by a project which acquires a commercial momentum of its own. Whatever the truth of it, he has one thing in common with Irene, who makes so much of the little Charlotte gives her: they share a knowledge and appreciation of literature to the extent that Charlotte feels left out whenever they refer to it.

I think the author may be implying that both, for their different reasons, have not only bought into this bold, new money-making scheme but, in so doing, have sold out on their true values. Both become increasingly dishonest. Charlotte, on the other hand, with her passing knowledge of The Eve of St Agnes and the Rape of the Lock, is ultimately more principled than either and uses a clause in her contract to buy herself out and return to anonymity. Some may not take to Charlotte, but I did. It seems to me that, whatever her failings, she usually sees things clearly and is often usefully frank in her exchanges with others. Her native honesty wins out in the end. She is true to herself.

The book is ambitious in its scope and largely successful. Jennifer Egan writes well and there are many telling images (though the unfortunate Moose is troubled by metaphor, which therefore becomes another subject of the book). This example concerns the effect which the web site developer, Thomas, has on Charlotte when he is in persuasive mode.
‘Now he turned to me, aiming his attention so fully upon me that I felt my spine extend like a charmed snake.’

There is also one strange statement which seems to have strayed out of Finnegan’s Wake. ‘My mind gyred harriedly’ (Chapter 13). I have studied English for a few years now but cannot get my brain round this one.

[It seems there is no copyright in titles since ‘Look at Me’ is also the title of an earlier novel by Anita Brookner which, I think, is one of her best.]

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