(No, it’s not another weblog handbook …)
Looks are everything. That may not be the take-home message of Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, but it’s the philosophy guiding the novel’s myriad of characters.
We first meet Charlotte, a model whose trade is her face — at least until said face is crushed in a car crash and has to be reassembled with the help of 80 titanium screws. Now a woman who was recognizable to complete strangers has to identify herself by name to those she’s known her entire life.
We later meet Moose, a professor hovering over the line of insanity, whose dissertation examined the invention of clear glass. When glass allowed the populace of the middle ages to see into the dirty corners of their homes and view their own visage in mirrors, and Moose argues that the result was a radical cultural transformation as society became abruptly obsessed with appearances.
Nearly everyone else who traipses through the pages of Look At Me illustrates some aspect of image consciousness. A high school student seems to be a normal teen but is actually living a dangerous double life. The identity of a teacher is a complete fraud — in truth he is a cipher with a mysterious past. A husband works as a marketer, inventing stupid products that Americans will impulse-purchase at first sight.
By the midpoint of this book, I was ready to declare it “The best book I’ve read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!” But my enthusiasm waned somewhat from that point on. Egan’s writing is engaging, and she skillfully creates a host characters that come across as both illustrations of her central thesis and as human beings, but after spending the first half of the novel establishing them she doesn’t do a whole lot with them thereafter, with the plot aimlessly zigging and zagging its way to a finale that could have come 100 pages sooner.
But despite these flaws, Look At Me is an excellent book about an fascinating topic, and is, yes, the best book I’ve read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Egan has somehow managed to write a remarkable deep book about the perils of superficiality.
This is a brief and mostly spoiler-free interview with Jennifer Egan.
This Slate article reveals some of major plot points, but does discuss a rather astounding aspect of this book’s timing that I, ever the spoiler-phobe, opted not to mention here.