In Propelled by plot, peppered with insights, enlivened by quirkily astute characterizations, and displaying an impressive prescience about our newly altered world, Look at Me is more nuanced than it first appears. Ultimately, it takes us beyond what we see and hints at truths we have only just begun to understand.
Equipped with an arresting premise, Egan's hip and haunting second novel (after The Invisible Circus) gets off to a promising start. Thirty-five-year-old Charlotte, a thoroughly unpleasant Manhattan-based model who escaped the middle-class nothingness of her upbringing in Rockford, Ill., then spent her adult life getting by on appearances, literally loses her face in a catastrophic car accident back in Rockford. As Charlotte's rebuilt face heals and she goes unrecognized at the restaurants and nightclubs that were her old haunts, she must grapple with the lives and losses she has tried to outrun a fractured childhood friendship, the fianc? she betrayed and "Z," a suspicious man from an unidentified Middle Eastern country. Anthony Halliday, an attractive, tormented private investigator, interrupts Charlotte's isolation. Hired by a pair of nightclub owners to track down Z because he absconded with a pile of their money, Halliday carries the scent of romance, but he also kicks off a chain of introductions that bizarrely lands Charlotte in the "mirrored room" of great fame. She is reconnected with her past at the same time that she becomes part of a brave new Internet world, where identity itself is a consumable commodity. Oddly, this narrative alternates with that of her old friend Ellen's daughter (also named Charlotte), whose life in Rockford centers around two older men. Though expertly constructed and seductively knowing, Egan's tale is marred by the overblown trendiness at its core. Charlotte (the model, who progresses from horrid to just bearable by the end) and the others come to the same realization: a world ruled by the consumerist values bred by mass production and mass informationis "a world constructed from the outside in." The Buddha said it better. National advertising; author tour. (Sept. 18) FYI: Egan's writing appears in publications like the New Yorker and Harper's, and The Invisible Circus was recently made into a film featuring Cameron Diaz. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Charlotte, a successful thirtyish model, miraculously survives a horrific car crash near Rockford, IL, her despised hometown. However, reconstructive facial surgery alters her appearance irrevocably. Within the fashion world, where one's look is one's self, she has become literally unrecognizable. Seeking a new image, Charlotte stumbles into a tantalizing Internet experiment that may both save and damn her. Back in Rockford, another Charlotte, this one a plain, unhappy teenager, wonders who she really is. Her search for self drives her to extremes; she maintains a tortuous sexual liaison with a mysterious high school math teacher and takes on an eerie scholar-disciple role opposite her unbalanced Uncle Moose, who is obsessed by his unorthodox theories about the Industrial Revolution. The intersections of these and the novel's other intriguing characters raise tantalizing questions about identity and reality in contemporary American culture. Egan continues to fulfill the literary promise she showed in her previous fiction, The Invisible Circus and Emerald City. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Brilliantly unnerving. . . . A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel.” –The New York Times
“Comic, richly imagined, and stunningly written. . . . An energetic, unorthodox, quintessentially American vision of America.” –The New Yorker
“Look at Me is so engrossing, energetic, sharp, and funny, it reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man.” –Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air (NPR)
“Arresting. . . . Look at Me is the real thing–brave, honest, unflinching. [It] is itself a mirror in which we can clearly see the true face of the times in which we live.” –Francine Prose, The New York Observer
“Egan limns the mysteries of human identity and the stranglehold our image-obsessed culture has on us all in this complicated and wildly ambitious novel.” –Newsweek
“Intriguing. . . . An unlikely blend of tabloid luridness and brainy cultural commentary. . . . The novel’s uncanny prescience gives Look at Me a rare urgency.” –Time
“Egan has created some compelling characters and written provocative meditations on our times. . . . [She] has captured our culture in its edge-city awfulness.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Look at Me is a complicated novel . . . but the questions it raises are worth following a lifetime of labyrinths toward the answers.” –Los Angeles Times
“Ambitious, swiftly paced. . . . Egan writes with such shimmering élan that it’s easy to follow her cast on its journey.” –The Wall Street Journal
“Prescient and provocative. . . . The characters . . . jump from the pages and dare you to care about them. . . . The prose is crisp and precise. . . . The pieces fit together at the end with a satisfying click.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“Impressive. . . . Few recent books have so eloquently demonstrated how often fiction, in its visionary form, speaks of truth.” –Salon.com
“Look at Me makes us think about our trust in the images that bombard us, and what we give away in the process.” –Chicago Tribune
“Egan’s rich new novel . . . is about bigger things: double lives; secret selves; the difficulty of really seeing anything in a world so flooded with images.” –The Nation
“Stunning. . . . This is more than a story, it’s a thought-world, a novel of ideas brilliantly cloaked in the skin of characters.” –The Sunday Oregonian
“Egan’s take . . . is surreal and profoundly ironic and exaggerated, but it still rings true. . . . Beneath it all, she finds characters worth saving.” –Hartford Courant
“Breathtaking. . . . Combines the tautness of a good mystery with the measured, exquisitely articulated detail and emotional landscape of the most literary of narratives. . . . Sure to leave readers thinking about these very real characters for some time to come.” –BookPage
“An imaginative, well-paced read with serious questions about the elusiveness of meaning inside the gilded cage. Egan has intelligence to burn but plenty of feeling too.” –People
“Part mystery, part cultural critique, [Look at Me] . . . build[s] to a conclusion that is unexpected and disturbing, and mak[es] an incisive statement about our society’s obsession with fame and glamour.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting. . . . As the book gains momentum, Egan’s writing is both fluid and driven, with wonderful slashes of satire. . . . A remarkable study of our culture . . . and of our palpable need to be known.” –O: The Oprah Magazine
“Egan has created a compelling world. . . . With [her] graceful prose and vivid characterizations, she navigates her plot lines’ churning waters with admirable skill.” –Seattle Weekly
“[A] scintillating inquiry into the complex and profound dynamics of perception. . . . Egan . . . animates a superb cast of intriguing and unpredictable characters, and tells an elegantly structured, emotionally arresting and slyly suspenseful story.” –Newsday
“Dark, hugely ambitious. . . . As riveting as a roadside wreck–and noxiously, scathingly funny.” –Elle
“Intelligent and refreshingly dark, Egan’s eerie tale has the same mesmerizing pull as the culture it skewers.” –Us Weekly
“This masterfully plotted work bears the stamp of a perceptive–if not clairvoyant–writer whose disturbing vision . . . rings all too true.” –SF Weekly
“Egan’s ability to move with ease between sincerity and satire sets Look at Me apart. . . . Her authentic-feeling details give a sense of unusual immediacy.” –Vogue
Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneCopyright 2001 by Jennifer Egan
After the accident, I became less visible. I don't mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.
In my memory, the accident has acquired a harsh, dazzling beauty: white sunlight, a slow loop through space like being on the Tilt-A-Whirl (always a favorite of mine), feeling my body move faster than, and counter to, the vehicle containing it. Then a bright, splintering crack as I burst through the windshield into the open air, bloody and frightened and uncomprehending.
The truth is that I don't remember anything. The accident happened at night during an August downpour on a deserted stretch of highway through corn and soybean fields, a few miles outside Rockford, Illinois, my hometown. I hit the brakes and my face collided with the windshield, knocking me out instantly. Thus I was spared the adventure of my car veering off the tollway into a cornfield, rolling several times, bursting into flame and ultimately exploding. The air bags didn't inflate; I could sue, of course, but since I wasn't wearing my seatbelt, it's probably a good thing they didn't inflate, or I might have been decapitated, adding injury to insult, you might say. The shatterproof windshield did indeed hold fast upon its impact with my head, so although I broke virtually every bone in my face, I have almost no visible scars.
I owe my life to what is known as a "Good Samaritan" someone who pulled me out of the flaming wreck so promptly that only my hair was burned, someone who laid me gently on the perimeter of the cornfield, called an ambulance,described my location with some precision and then, with a self-effacement that strikes me as perverse, not to mention un-American, chose to slink away anonymously rather than take credit for these sterling deeds. A passing motorist in a hurry, that sort of thing.
The ambulance took me to Rockford Memorial Hospital, where I fell into the hands of one Dr. Hans Fabermann, reconstructive surgeon extraordinaire. When I emerged from unconsciousness fourteen hours later, it was Dr. Fabermann who sat beside me, an elderly man with a broad, muscular jaw and tufts of white hair in both ears, though most of this I didn't see that nightI could hardly see at all. Calmly Dr. Fabermann explained that I was lucky; I'd broken ribs, arm and leg, but had no internal injuries to speak of. My face was in the midst of what he called a "golden time" before the "grotesque swelling" would set in. If he operated immediately, he could get a jump on my "gross asymmetry"namely, the disconnection of my cheekbones from my upper skull and of my lower jaw from my "midface." I had no idea where I was, or what had happened to me. My face was numb, I saw with slurry double vision and had an odd sensation around my mouth as if my upper and lower teeth were out of whack. I felt a hand on mine, and realized then that my sister, Grace, was at my bedside. I sensed the vibration of her terror, and it induced in me a familiar desire to calm her, Grace curled against me in bed during a thunderstorm, the smell of cedar, wet leaves.... . It's fine, I wanted to say. It's a golden time.
"If we don't operate now, we'll have to wait five or six days for the swelling to go down," Dr. Fabermann said.
I tried to speak, to acquiesce, but no moving parts of my head would move. I produced one of those aerated gurgles made by movie characters expiring from war wounds. Then I closed my eyes. But apparently Dr. Fabermann understood, because he operated that night.
After twelve hours of surgery, during which eighty titanium screws were implanted in the crushed bones of my face to connect and hold them together; after I'd been sliced from ear to ear over the crown of my head so Dr. Fabermann could peel down the skin from my forehead and reattach my cheekbones to my upper skull; after incisions were made inside my mouth so that he could connect my lower and upper jaws; after eleven days during which my sister fluttered by my hospital bed like a squeamish angel while her husband, Frank Jones, whom I loathed and who loathed me, stayed home with my two nieces and nephewI was discharged from the hospital.
I found myself at a strange crossroads. I had spent my youth awaiting the chance to bolt from Rockford, Illinois, and had done so the moment I was able. I'd visited rarely, to the chagrin of my parents and sister, and what visits I made were impetuous, cranky and short. In my real life, as I thought of it, I had actively concealed my connection to Rockford, telling people I was from Chicago, if I told even that. But much as I longed to return to New York after the accident, to pad barefoot on the fluffy white carpeting of my twenty-fifth floor apartment overlooking the East River, the fact that I lived alone made this impossible. My right leg and left arm were sheathed in plaster. My face was just entering the "angry healing phase": black bruises extending down to my chest, the whites of my eyes a monstrous red; a swollen, basketball-sized head with stitches across the crown (an improvement over the staples they'd used initially). My head was partly shaved, and what hair remained was singed, rank smelling and falling out in bunches. Pain, mercifully, wasn't a problem; nerve damage had left me mostly numb, particularly from my eyes down, though I did have excruciating headaches. I wanted to stay near Dr. Fabermann, though he insisted, with classic midwestern self-deprecation, that I would find his surgical equal, or superior, in New York. But New York was for the strong, and I was weakso weak! I slept nearly all the time. It seemed fitting that I nurse my weakness in a place I had always associated with the meek, the lame, and the useless.
And so, to the bewilderment of my friends and colleagues at home, to the pain of my sister, whose husband refused to have me under his roof (not that I could have borne it), she arranged for me to move into the home of an old friend of our parents', Mary Cunningham, who lived just east of the Rock River on Ridgewood Road, near the house where we grew up. My parents had long since moved to Arizona, where my father's lungs were slowly dissolving from emphysema, and where my mother had come to believe in the power of certain oddly shaped stones, which she arranged on his gasping chest at night while he slept. "Please let me come," my mother pleaded with me over the phone, having assembled healing pouches full of herbs and feathers and teeth. But no, I said, please. Stay with Dad. "I'll be fine," I told her, "Grace will take care of me," and even through my croaking stranger's voice I heard a resolve that was familiar to meand no doubt to my mother. I would take care of myself. I always had.
Mrs. Cunningham had become an old woman since I knew her as the lady who used a broom to chase away neighborhood kids trying to scoop the billowing goldfish from her murky backyard pond. The fish, or their descendants, were still there, visible in flashes of gold-speckled white among a snarl of moss and lily pads. The house smelled of dust and dead flowers, the closets were full of old hats. The lives of Mrs. Cunningham's dead husband and her children who lived far away were still in that house, asleep in the cedar-filled attic, which is doubtless why she, an old woman with a bum hip, was still living there, struggling up that flight of stairs when most of her widowed, bridge-playing friends had decamped long ago to spiffy apartments. She tucked me into bed in one of her daughters' rooms and seemed to enjoy a renaissance of second motherhood, bringing me tea and juice which I drank from a baby cup, slipping knitted booties on my feet and feeding me Gerber apricot puree, which I lapped down lustily. She had the lawn boy carry the TV up to my room, and in the evenings would recline on the twin bed beside mine, her waxen, veiny calves exposed beneath the hem of her padded bathrobe. Together we watched the local news, where I learned that even in Rockford, drug gangs had come to rule the streets, and drive-by shootings were the norm.
"When I think what this town used to be," Mrs. Cunningham would mutter as she watched, alluding to the postwar years when she and her husband, Ralph, had chosen Rockford above all American cities as the ideal place to make their home. "The most prosperous community in the nation," some erstwhile pundit named Roger Babson had apparently anointed it; Mary Cunningham went so far as to heft a musty tome onto my bed and jab her bent, trembling finger at the very quotation. I sensed her bitterness, her disgust at the grave miscalculation that left her now, in her solitude, obliged by memory and experience to love a place she had come to despise.
It was four weeks before I left the house to do anything more than herd my various limbs into Grace's car for visits to Dr. Fabermann and his associate, Dr. Pine, who was tending to my broken bones. When he implanted a walking plug in my leg cast, I ventured outside for the very first time in zebra-striped sunglasses Mary Cunningham had worn in the sixties, Mary herself at my side, to walk gingerly through my old neighborhood. I hadn't returned to this part of town since Grace had left for college, at which point my parents had bought a smaller place on a bit of land east of town, near the interstate, and a horse, Daffodil, whom my father rode until he was too short of breath.
By now it was late September; I had tracked the passing days in the obsessive belief that if I measured the time, it wouldn't really be lost. We stepped through a warm breeze toward the house on Brownwood Drive where I had lain in bed for several thousand nights, staring into a cat's cradle of Elm trees that were slowly expiring from Dutch elm disease, where I'd listened to Supertramp albums in a basement with orange indoor- outdoor carpeting laid over the concrete, where I'd stood before a mirror in a prom dress, my mother plucking at its petals of rayonand yet, for all that, a house I'd thought of hardly ever since I'd left. And there it was: flat, ranch-style, covered with yellow bricks that must have been pasted on from outside, a square of crisp green lawn tucked like a napkin under its chin. So indistinguishable was this house from tens of thousands of others in Rockford that I turned to Mary Cunningham and asked, "Are you sure this is it?"
She looked puzzled, then laughed, no doubt reminding herself that my vision was worse than hers at the moment, that I was doped up on painkillers.
And yet, as we were turning to go, I had what I guess was a memory: this house against a dawn sky as I jogged toward it from my best friend Ellen Metcalf's house, where I'd spent the night. The feeling of seeing it theremy house, with everything I knew inside it. The experience of that memory was like being hit, or kissed, unexpectedly. I blinked to recover from it.
The next week, I made my way on crutches to the Rock River, where a park and jogging path meandered along the water's eastern edge. I gazed hungrily at the path, longing to visit the rose garden and duck pond farther north along it, but knowing I didn't have the strength. Instead, I used a pay phone in the parking lot beside the YMCA to call my answering machine; Mrs. Cunningham's phones were all rotaries.
It had now been seven weeks since the accident, and the outgoing message I'd instructed my sister to leave on my machine explaining my plight while not revealing that I'd left my apartmentlest it get robbed, which would really have finished mehad provoked a rash of messages from worried friends that Grace had been dutifully collecting. But there were a couple she hadn't retrieved yet. One from Oscar, my booker, who yelled through a polyphony of ringing phones that seemed otherworldly to me now, "Just checking in, sweet. Call when you've regained the gift of speech." He'd been calling every day, my sister said. Oscar adored me, though it had been years since I'd earned my agency, Femme, any serious money.
The second call was from someone named Anthony Halliday, who identified himself as a private detective. Grace had taken two messages from him already. Having never spoken with a private detective before, I dialed his number out of curiosity.
"Anthony Halliday's office." A wobbly, almost childish female voice. Not a professional, I thought; someone filling in. "He's not here right now," she told me. "Can I take a message?"
I wasn't giving out Mary Cunningham's phone number, in part because she was a kind old woman, not my secretary, and because there was something perverse and incompatible in the notion of New York and its inhabitants storming the mausoleum of her house. "I'd rather call him," I said. "What'sa good time?"
She hesitated. "There's no way he can call you?"
"Look," I said. "If he wants to reach"
"He's, ah ... in the hospital," she said quickly.
I laughedmy first real laugh since the accident. It made my throat ache. "Tell him that makes two of us," I cackled. "Too bad we're not in the same hospital, we could just meet in the hallway."
She laughed uneasily."I think I wasn't supposed to say that, about the hospital."
"There's no shame in hospitalization," I assured her heartily, "as long as it's not a mental hospital..."
From the Trade Paperback edition.