Jennifer Egan's new novel, Look at Me, plumbs the depths of America's obsession with appearance, exploring the interplay between what is real and what is merely perceived.
In a terrible car accident outside her hometown of Rockford, Illinois, Charlotte Swenson is thrown against her windshield, shattering the bones of her face. After surgery, titanium screws support a new face, which looks nothing like the original. Back in New York, Charlotte's life as a fading fashion model, her apartment on the East River, her club-going, artificial lifestyle and her search for the elusive mirrored room of celebrity await the return of a virtual stranger.
As Charlotte attempts to remake (or escape) her life, seeing with the fractured vision of someone straddling two realities, we follow her through a labyrinth of highs and lows, bizarre encounters and unexpected twists that leave her, and us, anticipating what lies around the next corner. She is simultaneously pulled into a detective's search for her missing friend, Z, and coaxed into an Internet venture that presents the lives of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, with the hope of capitalizing on the voyeurism of the American public. Meanwhile, back in Rockford, another struggle is underway one that is, along with the people involved, enigmatically linked with Charlotte's.
Look at Me combines the tautness of a good mystery with the measured, exquisitely articulated detail and emotional landscape of the most literary of narratives. Egan, author of The Invisible Circus, creates distinct voices and interweaves them with a dexterity that makes the suspense feel effortlessly created. Her characters a middle-aged high school star buckling under the weight of his view of the world; a plain teenager searching for anything extraordinary; a decent college professor shocked by her ability to deceive, among others assemble on the page like guests at a masquerade party and don their masks (concealing their shadow selves, as Charlotte terms them). As figurative as these disguises can be, Egan is not afraid of being literal a fashion model is, after all, the center of this story about the implications of seeing and being seen.
The characters' lives graze each other and interact with breathtaking electricity and depth. As the novel progresses, a story common to all the characters begins to emerge, moving steadily forward on its course with all the inevitability of Rockford's change from thriving industrial town to Anytown, USA, complete with chain stores and acres of parking lot. This underlying story, call it a kind of progress, involves not only the characters before us; it implicates all people in the modern world.
There is ample food for thought here, and Egan's musings on human identity and its inner scaffolding blossom into a compelling read, sure to leave readers thinking about these very real characters for some time to come.
Sarah Goodrum is a writer and editor in Nashville.