At the start of this edgy and ambitiously multilayered novel, 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.
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 fiance 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 information is "a world constructed from the outside in." The Buddha said it better. National advertising; author tour. (Sept. 18)and Harper's, and The Invisible Circus was recently made into a film featuring Cameron Diaz.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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October 07, 2002
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Excerpt from Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
Chapter One 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 fr