Model, Teen and Terrorist Face a Culture of Appearances

Look at Me , by Jennifer Egan. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 415 pages, $24.95

Given the sorry state of so much current fiction, the appearance of a novel with a narrative style that seems fresh, accurate, clear and inventive-especially when combined with a gift for observation and the delineation of character-is truly an occasion for calling up one’s friends to announce that the novel has once again survived the latest dire predictions of its demise. I felt that way about Jennifer Egan’s second novel, Look at Me, which opens with the description of a fiery car wreck in an Illinois cornfield. The accident catapults the narrator, Charlotte Swenson, through the windshield, breaking the bones in her face but-after extensive plastic surgery-leaving her with no visible scars. What immediately catches one’s attention, as much as the novel’s arresting premise, is the manner in which it’s presented: The vocabulary, the crisp, graceful sentences, the intelligence of tone, all suggest that behind the narrative is a consciousness, and, behind the consciousness a writer who knows what she’s doing. “I might have been decapitated, adding insult to injury, you might say …. I owe my life to what is known as a ‘Good Samaritan’ … who laid me gently on the perimeter of the cornfield, called an ambulance, described my location with some precision, and then, with a self-effacement that strikes me as perverse, not to mention un-American, chose to slink away rather than take credit for these sterling deeds.” Ms. Egan’s painstaking construction of an individual voice builds sentence by sentence, as certain words (“un-American,” “sterling”) and phrases (“adding insult to injury, you might say”) give off a slightly harsh, metallic light that illuminates the smart, world-weary, reflexively arch quality of Charlotte’s personality.

Back in New York after her auto wreck, Charlotte discovers that having a new face is not doing much to revive a modeling career that was half-dead even before the accident: Although she can’t quite pinpoint how her looks have changed, former acquaintances now look right through her. She flirts with depression, alcoholism and a private detective on the trail of a suspected terrorist. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, a teenage girl named Charlotte (the daughter of the older Charlotte’s former best friend) initiates a scary romance of quasi-religious intensity with a mysterious foreigner who blows into town and winds up teaching math. As one might expect in a novel about a fashion model with a reconstructed face and a teenage girl in love with an enigmatic stranger, this one has a lively interest in the world of appearances, in the confusions between substance and surface, between publicity and privacy, and the ways in which our culture exploits those confusions for cash.

Ms. Egan’s characters are painfully conscious of euphemism, propaganda and the fakery that the misuse of language both promotes and conceals. The New York Charlotte listens to the doctors who attend to her after her accident describe “a golden time” before “the grotesque swelling would set in” and warn of an “angry healing phase.” And Charlotte’s successful modeling agent, Oscar, deals with the requisite disloyalties of the fashion business by affecting a leisurely shorthand in which he customarily speaks of himself in the third person. “‘Twenty-three is too old,’ Oscar said, exhaling smoke. ‘And you don’t look twenty-three, dear, much as Oscar loves you.'” But what’s even more unusual than Ms. Egan’s unsettling reports from the frontiers of jargon is the extent to which this linguistic slippage-the murkiness of thought that follows from murkiness of language, the smooth-talking seductions of our increasingly inauthentic culture-becomes the novel’s subject matter.

After her return to New York, Charlotte’s precarious financial situation makes her realize that every player has a gimmick, an impeccably well-rehearsed method of persuading us that the latest idea is the best one, and that the attempt to hang on to some core of conviction, dignity or even simple good taste is old-fashioned and self-defeating. In one of the novel’s most hilarious scenes, Charlotte thinks she’s gotten her big break-a fashion job for Italian Vogue-but suddenly realizes that the photographer plans to achieve his effects by cutting the models with razor blades. When Charlotte suggests using fake blood instead: “The word ‘fake’ induced a collective flinch, as if I’d used a racial slur.” The idea of authenticity has itself become a marketing tool: “‘Fake is fake,’ Spiro said dismissively. ‘I’m trying to get at some kind of truth, here, in this phony, sick, ludicrous world. Something pure. Releasing blood is a sacrifice. It’s the most real thing there is.'” It’s a measure of Ms. Egan’s skill and control that she can allow us to see past Charlotte’s sensible reservations to register the insidious persuasiveness of invitations to participate in our own debasement. Even when our heroine walks off the shoot, we feel a little shudder of misgiving, a premonition of the danger of leaving the warm lights behind.

The scope of Look at Me is wide enough to include those who see themselves as forever shut out of the bright, hot center of things-who, in fact, define themselves against it, feeding on their hatred of its symbols. The young Charlotte’s beloved math teacher is, in fact, a Middle Easterner named Aziz, a terrorist stranded in the heartland, testing his resolve against such quotidian seductions as a Big Mac: “His first thought was that it didn’t look big enough, it was squashed, pelletlike, the meat gray and incidental; was this really a Big Mac or had they given him something inferior? Then his own thoughts sickened him-greed, individualism-and he lifted the thing to his mouth and jammed it half inside.” Though isolation has intensified Aziz’s struggle, its terms were established the minute he set foot on our shores and came to live with a group of fellow immigrants in an overcrowded apartment in New Jersey. “At night, Aziz and his gaunt compatriots would gather on the foam-rubber couch to watch TV: They huddled like pigeons, craving the anesthesia that issued from that screen, the tranquilizing rays: cars animate as human faces; breakfast cereals adrift in the whitest milk Aziz had ever seen; juice erupting from phosphorescent oranges …. And even as the anesthesia worked upon Aziz, even as his mouth fell open, eyelids splayed helplessly to admit these sights, hands curled like an infant’s, he was aware of the rage waving like a flag near his heart, reminding him that this hypnosis was a conspiracy at work, whereby a seed of longing was implanted forever in one’s mind …. If fighting the conspiracy had reduced him, that loss merely strengthened his grim and patient will to destroy it.” (Ms. Egan felt the need, after the Sept. 11 attack, to explain herself in Slate: “I didn’t see anything coming. I made it up.”)

Ms. Egan’s America has its share of cynics and sinister visionaries, but for most of her Americans, the world is more sympathetic, nuanced and complex. Both Charlottes suffer, and are made to suffer, because they see too much, think too clearly, ask too many questions. Worse, they are unable or unwilling to conceal what, Ms. Egan suggests, people in general and women in particular would be wiser to keep hidden: their sexuality, their brains, their integrity. In the end, Ms. Egan refuses to let us off the hook by suggesting that the authentic and intelligent will ultimately triumph over the fraudulent and the fanatical. The bleakness of the landscape she depicts seems scarily like our own: a culture that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the fresh and the tired, between incisiveness and obfuscation, and which seems to prefer the simulacrum to the real thing. Happily, Look at Me is the real thing-brave, honest, unflinching. Jennifer Egan’s novel, so concerned with accurate and false reflections, is itself a mirror in which we can clearly see the true face of the times in which we live.

Francine Prose’s most recent novel is Blue Angel (HarperCollins).