The Short Version: After a terrible car accident, model Charlotte Swenson returns to her life unrecognizable – where she’d once been instantly noticed. As she begins to pick up the pieces and discover this brave new world, her path intersects with several other people trying to define their own brave new worlds: her niece, coming into her sexuality as a high school girl; a private detective searching for a mysterious man; Michael West, a shadowy math teacher; Moose, Charlotte’s hometown best friend’s older brother; and several others.
The Review: I was going to open with a statement something like “Look at Me is the more intellectual sister novel to Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama” but I realized as the novel rocketed towards its uncertain conclusion that it’s really much much more. I mean, yes, superficially, it’s a kindred novel – and Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters is the scrappy younger brother, perhaps, if we’re making a family out of it. But there’s also a strong parallel to Mrs. Dalloway and a strong precognition of Facebook, of the way our lives are led now – despite the book having been written nearly 15 years ago. There’s so much packed into this book that it can’t just be summed up in a single comparison or reference.
Actually, the precognition of Ms. Egan doesn’t just lend itself to the Facebook/internet-life thing – to consider that this book was written, as she puts it in the afterword, in a “more innocent time” is startling. She’s talking about — SPOILERS are coming, sorry. We passed the statute of limitations on this one, plus the back cover blurb sort of implies it anyway.
She’s talking about Z/Michael West, of course: that he’s an Islamic fundamentalist, come to America on the orders of shadowy higher-ups who have tasked him (and several others) to destroy America! There’s a reference to the 1993 WTC bombing, how unsuccessful it was… and the eerie fact that this book was released on September 18, 2001…
So, yes, this book is an artifact of a different time – when that sort of action could be comfortably imagined and then perhaps even staved off by the pervasive (although still degrading) culture we broadcast 24/7/365. Of course, you can’t look at this book the same way and I wonder what that does to the book itself. To’ve read this in that “more innocent time” would be quite the curious thought experiment.
Of course, it would’ve been different in another way, too. How many times did I interrupt my reading to look at my phone, use the internet, take a call, send a text, parcel out another piece of my life for viewers technologically? We’re talking YEARS before Facebook – Zuckerberg was still in high school – and yet Egan imagines something not entirely unlike what Facebook has become today. The idea of the “Ordinaries” and “Extraordinaries” – the thing that she missed, of course, was that everyone would want one, it wouldn’t just be this thing where a handful of people got to do it and everyone else watched – feels exactly like a combination of… well, everything: Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube. All of it, mashed together in a single product and available for you to see. You could create a life from scratch, essentially – there are several references to “all you need is a birth certificate” to start anew, but even as she’s writing that, you get the sense that that’s about to no longer be true.
Charlotte gets this free pass of being able to, effectively, start again – and then start again, over the course of the novel. Few people get to do that – we see Aziz/Z/Michael West do it too – but even moreso in today’s world. An enigma like Jack White (who created his own mythology and even now there are pieces of his history that are in question) is the exception that proves the rule: you either have to stick to the old ways to do it or so wholeheartedly embrace technology that your life is no longer your own and something else runs it. I loved the idea of the “shadow selves” that Charlotte is so adept at seeing: the people behing the facade we all throw up in public. We all have them, they come out at certain moments. I guess you might call them the ‘soul’, in a way – but regardless, isn’t that what we’re killing as we move into a more technological age? Our selves posted across the world for people to see… do we then bury our ‘shadow’ selves even deeper? We aren’t alone anymore almost ever, so when do those selves have time to grow?
I’m getting philosophical and that spurs me to return to the novel at hand: it’s the sort of novel that makes you want to write papers again. It raises questions, it ties things together in interesting ways, it captures so perfectly American society at a time when everything seemed perfect – and manages, whether it was intentional or not, to display the rot that was building inside even in the late 90s. The rise-and-mostly-fall of Moose is a terrific example: a high school hero, the guy everyone either wanted to bone or be, spirals into mental illness and tries, desperately, to break through this veil in his head in order to see where it all went wrong (he’s talking about his hometown, how it never became a major city – but it’s also, I mean, it’s about himself too). (ed. note: He’s the Septimus here – sort of, anyway. I was convinced that he was going to kill himself and then I was going to draw several parallels to the rest of the characters being Dalloways and so on… but that didn’t happen, thankfully.)
But for all the intellectual stimulation of this novel, I found it lacked the punch of Egan’s succeeding two novels. The Keep was full of trickery and scares and Goon Squad is still probably the best novel of this century so far – and this just doesn’t have the power that either of those novels had. I suppose that has something to do with the fact that, well, it is an earlier novel. You can see her exceptional mind working and questioning but the novel itself, the writing, sometimes struggles to keep up with the thoughts. That isn’t the case in her later books. This is not to say that this is bad or even poorly written: it isn’t. Full stop. It is exceptional – just not as exceptional as what I now know would come later.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I think the issue was that it felt a little too stuffed with moments and ideas and characters and there wasn’t ever quite the satisfactory resolution the reader expected. Everything converges, sort of – but even then, it doesn’t. This feels like it was mostly Charlotte’s story (and even then, her story is tweaked and changed in the midst of the telling) but with these other characters pushed in, I questioned the first-person/third-person device. Of course, on Ms. Egan’s site, she says that this story was meant to look at felt connections, not explicit or seen ones. And on that level, she succeeded: she felt the connections of our modern world long before there was anything to see.