In this ambitiously multilayered novel from the acclaimed and award-winning writer Jennifer Egan, 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.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Anchor Books Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
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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 night I 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..."
Reading Group Guide
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
"A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel." —THE NEW YORK TIMES
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Look at Me, a coolly mesmerizing intellectual thriller that traces the aftereffects of a devastating car accident on one model’s career.
1. “I was not Rockford—I was its opposite, whatever that might be,” Charlotte declares. In Charlotte’s mind, what does Rockford represent? How is her chosen path a reaction to her place of birth? Is her return to Rockford at the end of the book merely circumstantial, or does it represent a symbolic shift in her perception of her hometown?
2. Charlotte describes her notion of the shadow self as, “that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly from certain bad photographs.” Why does this concept interest Charlotte, and what does that reveal about her character? What do you imagine Charlotte’s shadow self looks like? Does it change after her accident?
3. Many of the characters in Look at Me undergo major transformations—whether during the course of the novel or before it begins. In what specific ways do the characters change, and how do these changes affect their lives? Which transformations do you find most surprising? How is the idea of transformation linked to the novel’s larger thematic concerns about identity and self?
4. Discuss Z/Michael West. For what is he searching, and what does he find? How does his personal journey mirror Charlotte Swenson’s?
5. While recuperating from her accident and subsequent surgery, Charlotte allows none of her friends or acquaintances to see her. Once people see you in a weakened state, she claims, they’ll never forget, “and long after you’ve regained your vitality, after you yourself have forgotten these exhibits of your weakness, they’ll look at you and still see them.” How does this statement reflect Charlotte’s worldview at the beginning of the book? Is she right? Is her perspective borne out over the course of the novel, or does it evolve?
6. Misperceptions and misunderstandings play a crucial role in the plot of Look at Me; characters often reach for something they believe they see in one another, only to find that they were mistaken, or even purposely deceived. Identify some of these misunderstandings and talk about their significance to the novel as a whole.
7. Charlotte says, “information was not a thing—it was colorless, odorless, shapeless, and therefore indestructible. There was no way to retrieve or void it, no way to halt its proliferation.” Compare this statement to Moose’s idea that “now the world’s blindness came from too much sight, appearances disjoined from anything real, afloat upon nothing, in the service of nothing, cut off from every source of blood and life.” What is the connection between these two statements? Do they present differing views of the world or simply different interpretations of the same problem? In the end, does Look at Me seem to sanction them or call them into question?
8. Despite his apparent instability, there is a peculiar beauty in Moose’s striving for vision and in his efforts to communicate that vision to the young Charlotte. For what is he looking? Define, if you can, his odd emotional and spiritual response to industrial and historical events. When Moose experiences his vision once again at the end of the novel, what exactly do you think he sees?
9. Discuss Charlotte’s relationship with Irene Maitlock. What is it about Irene that draws Charlotte to her? Do you see any connection between this relationship and Charlotte’s friendship with Ellen Metcalf? How does Charlotte and Irene’s relationship change over the course of the book?
10. All of the characters in Egan’s novel deal differently with the concept of memory: Michael West allows himself just one memory a day, Charlotte shuns her memories, and Moose exists in a world saturated by memories of his own life, along with imagined recollections of an earlier historical time. What connection does the novel suggest between personal memory and cultural memory? How do you suppose the young Charlotte might feel about her memories twenty years down the road?
11. Look at Me begins by recounting Charlotte Swenson and Ellen Metcalf’s girlhood sexual misadventures. At the end of the novel, Charlotte and Ellen meet again, in very different circumstances. Talk about both women’s experiences in the interim, and about the significance of their last meeting. Did it satisfy you?
12. At the end of the novel, Charlotte demurs, “As for myself, I’d rather not say very much.” Indeed, the novel seems intentionally to leave us without a clear sense of what the future holds for its characters. Why do you think Egan has chosen to end her book so ambiguously? What sorts of lives will the Charlottes, Ellen Metcalf/Hauser, Z, Moose, Ricky, and Irene Maitlock go on to live?
13. Do you feel that Look at Me, with its depiction of how behind-the-scenes events contribute in the making of public images, will have any impact on the way you perceive celebrities?
14. Do you consider Look at Me—in particular, its brutal portrayal of the modeling world—a futuristic novel? Or can it be read it as a fairly accurate look at our present, evolving world? Might there be some way of escaping some of the disturbing scenes Egan describes?