Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is the sort of book you read while at work. Like tucked inside an important memo. (One of my memories of elementary school is our teacher discovering that Joseph had been hiding a novel behind his math textbook and the teacher went bananas and used a meter stick to hit the book across the room. Which with the benefit of age now seems an unmeasured response. I mean, I can see being annoyed if he had a porn mag tucked in there, but a novel? Oh well. I guess we must Be Respected at all times. I DIGRESS.)
It’s an excellent novel. Really. Go and get it now and start reading. Things I think make it excellent (in no particular order): Continue reading
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.
I resisted posting this image of the interconnection of characters – and chapters – from Jennifer Eagn’s *A Visit From the Goon Squad* because part of what makes the book SO GOOD is its use of form – chapters narrated by different characters, at different points in time, who are all, loosely connected to one another through this odd web – to mirror how we (or me, at least) experience social life and memory. My experience of friendship, family and connection is one of loose recollection that ‘oh yes, I was at a party with so-and-so once’ or ‘I remember you from where exactly?’ but also that there are people who weave in and out of our lives with varying degrees of impact – some who spend short periods and leave (as they say) lasting impressions. And so I don’t want this image because it makes it easier to remember who everyone is and how they are connected than they have any right to be: our memory of these characters *should be* scattered and fragmented and pieced together with glimmers, because that’s how we go about remember people (again, I might be speaking for my own failing memory here).
So too the brilliance of the passage of time in these layered and asynchronous chapters. Midway through the first chapter I had a horrifying thought that perhaps I had started reading a short story collection (the record is quite clear on how I feel about short stories) because the plotting was so dense, the characters so rich and the evocative images, well, evocative. When I realized in the second chapter that no, perhaps these were *linked* short stories, and then as the thematic resonances and character repetitions continued I decided that I was, in fact, reading a novel, what became clear – through the muddy plot and disappearing/reappearing characters – is that our lives and our memories function in much the same way: we have crystallized memories that appear ‘out of time’ but that feel full and colourful, and then there are long blanks of no connection or seeming non-event. What we recollect – the sensational, the exceptional *and* the utterly banal – stays with us for reasons unclear (to me), but stays with us all the same in these sharp moments so beautifully and expertly captured by Egan.
I have nothing but praise for this incredible novel that so beautifully weaves characters together. I loved the questions it raises about what we decide to make of our lives, how we go about making decisions, overcoming grief, regret and our own impetus for self-destruction, how we decide to create *anything* in a world so bent toward massification, how we believe in the possibility of unique individuality in an era that simultaneously promises and scorns such a chance. It is a beautiful novel full of reasonable hope that we might do well with the little, parcelled time we have and that we might impress our lives and our singularity on those around us.
I realize I’ve made it sound overly optimistic or some kind of “audacity of hope” sort of thing. It’s not that. It doesn’t ignore or gloss the failures, the inadequacies, the regrets, but it also doesn’t *dwell* in these spaces, or declare these states to be the de facto position for humanity. It asks whether we might do something different (if not something more) with the little time we’re allotted.
So read it, okay?