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Between surface and depth.

March 14, 2012
Following the success of Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Murdoch Books have re-issued a few titles from this talented US author’s backlist. So while Look at Mehas only recently hit Australian shelves (albeit for the second time), this powerful exploration of identity and the hidden self was first published in 2001, and took Egan six years to write.

Those were six years well spent. Look at Me takes a concept so familiar that it could easily, in the wrong hands, feel hackneyed: the split between appearance and reality, between the masks we show the world and the inner selves we try to conceal. But Egan’s exploration of this popular theme is wildly original and ambitious, and infused with her trademark combination of satire and melancholy.

Look at Me begins when Charlotte Swenson, a model whose career has long slid into underwhelming territory—she appears ‘grinning, hand on hip, inside catalogues that arrive unwanted’ in the mail, or ‘wandering through the background of a tampax commercial’—survives a devastating car crash that breaks every bone in her face.

After several reconstructive operations, Charlotte is still beautiful, but unrecognisable, even to herself: holding up old photographs next to her new face in the mirror, she realises that ‘in addition to not knowing what I looked like now, I had never known. The old pictures were no help; like all good pictures, they hid the truth. I had never kept a bad one.’

Egan handles her protagonist’s predicament with subtlety and pathos. She doesn’t detail how Charlotte’s features have changed: instead, we’re brought face to face (as it were) with the subjectivity of her appearance, privy only to the vague and shifting ways in which others perceive her. In a Manhattan restaurant, those she used to know in the fashion world cast her a ‘quick, ravenous glance that demands beauty or power as its immediate reward. And then they looked away, as if what they had seen were not just unfamiliar, but without possibility.’ The loss of Charlotte’s old face is the loss of her calling card, of ‘what I had to offer to the world where I had spent my life.’

But Charlotte’s possible redemption (and the unfurling of her rather mysterious past) finally presents itself when she is given the opportunity to take part in a bizarre Internet experiment, which involves exposing her daily life—thoughts, memories, and dreams—to a world of curious subscribers. Egan, writing in the 1990s, seemed to predict our present reality of social media and the strange, voyeuristic lure of watching ordinary people’s lives unfold on screen: an obsession that ironically warps ‘authentic’ reality into something as artificial as the fictional creations it so strives to escape. When Charlotte begins her new career as the star of her own life, Egan brilliantly balances satire and tragedy, as the edges of Charlotte’s identity begin to blur: she feels herself becoming ‘picturesque’ and ‘breaking into bits’ as she spectates her own life at the same time as actually living it. ‘I was rarely drunk anymore,’ she confides, noting wryly that ‘it was technically impossible to lose yourself in drink when a breathless narrator was panting into your ear: she was losing herself in drink, the shroud of her alcoholism having obscured all else…It was literally sobering.’

Meanwhile, Charlotte’s tale converges with that of another Charlotte: the daughter of the first Charlotte’s high school best friend, a plain and precocious sixteen-year-old in a Midwestern town that epitomises sleepy middle America. This Charlotte confronts problems that are almost an inversion of those endured by her namesake—while she despairs that anyone will ever desire her, she nurtures ‘a faith that she had forfeited beauty for some extraordinary compensation.’ But Charlotte’s attempts at creating this compensation have dark and unexpected consequences.

There’s a lot more going on in Look at Me; Egan has a large cast of characters who cross paths in a series of fascinating and cleverly interconnecting subplots. She pulls us deep into the lives of both Charlottes, who are worlds apart and yet strikingly similar in their struggle to negotiate the conflict between their inner and outer selves, and to forge and maintain an identity—however constructed or contrived it may be for the benefit of others. Around these two central figures, Egan’s sharply drawn supporting characters endure their own version of this dilemma, and sharpen the contours of the two protagonists’ tales: teenage Charlotte’s Uncle Moose, a reclusive academic, begins tutoring his niece in the vain hope that she will eventually share the epiphany that changed his life years earlier; Charlotte Swenson befriends a troubled private detective on the trail of a mysterious figure named Z.

Egan’s multi-layered approach to her theme brings a poignant complexity to the question of who we are versus what we see. ‘We are what we see,’ Moose tells the teenage Charlotte, but none of Egan’s characters seem capable of reconciling surface and depth. Moose is obsessed with the history of technology, and he envisages a ‘terrible reversal’ of the Industrial Revolution, a world where ‘human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had been once.’

While Charlotte Swenson could almost be an example of this—after her operation, eighty titanium screws hold her face together—in Egan’s world, the lies people tell, the ‘shadow selves’ that lurk beneath their carefully maintained surface, are the parts that make them whole, and that give rise to the emotional and moral conflicts that shape the novel’s narrative.

I won’t lie: Look at Me isn’t a barrel of laughs. But Egan’s wry wit and compelling, well-paced plot—the story is full of mysteries that unravel with measured grace, characters whose pasts unfold to expose the bones of their present weakness and desire—make this as riveting as it is thought provoking. As in A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan’s characters (and their interlocking fates) form a fascinating tapestry of lives that not only entertains us, but asks us to contemplate the ironies and complexities of the human condition. Look at Me is a brilliant exploration of identity, and of our never-ending quest to define it and fulfil the charmed idea that we are, indeed, what we see.

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