The work Jennifer Egan is probably best known for is A Visit from the Goon Squad, her 2010 “novel” that won her the Pulitzer Price. I haven’t read that one yet. But I’m craving for it if it’s as good, or better, than “Look at Me.”
Look at Me is a novel she wrote in 2001. In terms of crafting a theme, it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
The novel is told from various characters’ perspectives, but the clear main character is Charlotte, a former model in her mid-thirties. She recently had an accident in which her face was badly burned. Complex plastic surgery managed to somewhat restore her face, but as the novel begins, Charlotte is still coming to terms with the fact that her career as a model is over.
Another main character is also named Charlotte. That is not a coincidence as she is the daughter of a former high school friend of Charlotte’s and lives in Rockford, Illinois, their rural home town. She is a bookish girl, wearing thick glasses, who feels isolated from her peers and from her family. She begins a relationship with an older man, Michael West, who serves as the third main character. The fourth is young Charlotte’s uncle Moose, who in his youth transformed from popular athlete and business heir to his father into an anguished academic pursuing intellectual paths nobody seems to be able or willing to follow him on. Through happenstance, he believes to recognize his niece as the one person likely to finally share his views. An equally hilarious and intriguing education begins.
While all these plots develop seemingly independently from each other, Egan proves her great art as a narrator by weaving the same themes into all of them. The most prominent of these themes, as far as I can see, are beatury, capitalism and the idea of progress. Charlotte loses her beauty and thus her value as an object in capitalism. However, through the technological progress that Moose examines, she manages to make a comeback. Charlotte suffers from her own lack of attention and goes to extreme lengths to raise her self-worth. Michael West, as a man who has made imitation the core of his being, functions as a sort of meta-narrative character through which the authorial voice comments on the problems discussed by the entire text.
All this may sound a little dry and academic, but let me assure you that dry this text is not, far from it!
Charlotte is likeable and kind of egregious at the same time, while cynically and ironically participating in a bigger, even more cynical game. The nature of this game is one of the questions the text ponders. For one character, the game is a conspiracy, for another, just the reality of things, for a third, it’s an arcane object of study as well as an essential ingredient of life. While the latter two serve as conemplative, theoretical counterpoints, Charlotte’s own plot is full of comical, weird and absurd situations that demonstrate in the best Swiftian tradition the strangeness of a system. The system in this case would be called Beatuy in Capitalism and, consequentially, Capitalism.
Look at Me also is a significant novel, because it anticipates the Social Media Era. It describes a blend between YouTube and Facebook before there was either of them. Even though they are both profoundly different novels, I’d put it right next to Dave Eggers’ more recent The Circle. See my review here.