We’re fat, we’re image obsessed and we hate ourselves. The irony at the heart of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me is that we’re all so busy looking at ourselves and imagining other people looking at us that no one is properly seeing anyone. Obsessions with image and identity collapse under the surfaces, glosses, mirrors and refractions that reveal nothing but continued obfuscation. Impermeable even to – or especially to – themselves, the characters in Egan’s novel complete Odyessian searches (complete with siren calls and tortured transformations) for a core sense of self that might anchor their choices and relationships.
Central to the plot is the New York fashion model Charlotte’s experience of radical physical transformation: after a car accident, her face is reconstructed to such a degree she goes unrecognized by her friends, coworkers, lovers and family. In this way Charlotte enacts the fantasy of beginning again, the chance to re-form an identity without the cumbersome logistics of fleeing to a far off island or buying a fancy car. What she discovers – as do the supporting characters who experience their own sorts of attempts at beginning again and reforming past selves (both in the sense of forming anew and correcting for poor behaviour) – is that without exteriority, the recognition of others, the self-itself collapses: to be unrecognized is to cease to be. In place of “I think therefore I am,” Look at Me posits: “I’m seen, therefore I am.”
While there’s a conceptually rich idea here the pace of the novel and the complexity of the characters and their interaction fall under the weight of the premise. Too busy insisting that the reader “get” this message, the novel misses opportunities to look at many possible layers of spectacle. There are passing nods to the way gender and class shape the way we are viewed, and a fuller exploration of racial politics in the character of Z. Z, we learn, is a would-be terrorist on a mission to destroy the image-obsessed America and who carries out his mission by trying on identities as one tries on bathing suits: not effortlessly or enjoyably, but with a sense of purpose (note the book was written pre-9/11). Yet these treatments feel – perhaps appropriately – cursory and surface, throw-away lines rather than meaningful dialogue.
Which is not to say it’s an arduous slog. Egan writes genius sentences of arresting beauty (I suppose there’s another irony to be found in the lushness of writing that demands the reader stop and re-read (look again) at the marvel of its beauty) and there is enough interest in how the wayward characters will all meet in climactic wonder. Interest, too, in the prescience of Egan who seemed to anticipate both 9/11 and Facebook in one masterful rendering.
All the same it was decidedly not the perfection of A Visit From the Goon Squad, but it is certainly a great book to teach about performativity and metaphor. And the advantageous of a good moisturizing regime. And the perils of binge drinking. And strangers. Except for Egan, we’re all strangers: most particularly to ourselves.