Saturday, March 10, 2007

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

"We had ridden in silence before. Top down. A brimming, windy silence.
This one was vacant. It roused in me an urgent need for talk: "Road." "Signs." "Sky." "How was?" "Where were?" "Radio." "Temperature." Forced conversation hovering over a void.
Z listened to my efforts with a dazed look. With each word, I was becoming less the person he imagined.
I saw this clearly. But I couldn't stop."
--Jennifer Egan, Look at Me, page 392

This novel is full of concise, gut-wrenchingly recognizable scenes like the one above. This scene is amazing to me. There isn't much going on there, but there's more tension and emotion than the action-packed scenes in other books where someone is being held at gunpoint, someone is mourning, a mother is frantically searching for her missing child, something of even greater importance is being lost. This scene falls into place with a thud. It lodged in my chest when I read it. I, too, talk to much! (Last night Danilanh mentioned that men say an average of 7,000 words a day, and women say 20,000 - almost three times as much!) Jennifer Egan gives these smallest of moments drama and tragedy. Bravo.

There are four main characters in Look at Me:

1) Charlotte, a 35-year-old model who is in a horrible car accident in her home town (Rockford, IL), and has so much reconstructive surgery, and so many titanium screw in her face (80), that (though she is still beautiful) her booking agent and other friends no longer recognize her.

2) Charlotte, 17-year-old daughter of Ellen; Ellen was (35)Charlotte's best friend growing up. Even though Ellen was gorgeous as a teen, (17)Charlotte is homely. I was initially disappointed with this fact - everyone else in the novel lived in New York and were unbelievably beautiful and sheik and savvy, and now we have to hear about an awkward teen in the town that (35)Charlotte so despises (Rockford, IL)? But (17)Charlotte grew on me. Big time.

3) Moose. He is (17)Charlotte's uncle. (35)Charlotte and Moose went to school together. Moose was really hot, and still is, but this is dampened by his growing craziness. Ever since his epiphany about the nature of sight (which he wrote a couple of academic books on) he has become reclusive, studying the history of his home town (Rockford, IL, where he now lives). He tries to mentor (17)Charlotte

4) Z / Michael West. His identity is elusive. In New York, he was known as Z, and was one of (35)Charlotte's lovers. He was part of the celebrity club scene, and then vanished with a bunch of money that wasn't his. No one knows where he went. Private Detective Anthony Halliday is trying to find him, and squeezes information from (35)Charlotte. She allegedly doesn't know anything, but as the book progresses, we suspect that he was involved in her accident. Meanwhile, the reader realizes that Z is living as Michael West, a math teacher in Rockford, IL, with whom (17)Charlotte begins an affair.

Whew! Do you see the way that everyone is connected, and it all comes down to Rockford? And how themes of sight and invisibility and beauty are running rampant, just in that summary? It's a tangled, tangled web, and one that I didn't even come close to unravelling, but Egan presents it very well (if with a heavy hand), and it was cool how there wasn't really one main character in the novel, but four. We start with (35)Charlotte, then we get (17)Charlotte, then we get Moose, then Michael West. We get snippets from other characters too - Anthony Halliday, Irene (a reporter who interviews (35)Charlotte about her accident), Ellen ((17)Charlotte's mother and (35)Charlotte's high school friend), and many more. Egan moves in and out of her many characters thoughts seamlessly, which continually impressed me (no simple skill). The point of view is complex and ever-changing, but not all confusing. Egan has total control.

What's less impressive is her handling of the male characters. While I loved the two Charlottes', and found them completely real and believable, I had trouble believing Z/Michael West and Moose. When Moose's sections came up, I found myself groaning a bit, "augh, him again?" Moose does a lot of thinking in the novel, and spends more than two pages justifying to himself his spur-of-the-moment decision to drive to Chicago. If Danilanh is right, and guys say only 1/3 of the words that girls do, does this mean guys think 1/3 of the thoughts that girls do? I don't know. But Moose's inner-monologue was working triple time. I got bored.

I think Egan put Moose in the book to hammer home her point about sight and perceptions. He's one of those characters who is supposed to represent a type of person, or an idea. I hate it when authors do this. It makes for books with really strong themes, but this device robbed Moose of whatever it is that makes characters in books come alive for readers. I didn't get him, but not only that, it didn't feel like Egan "got" him either. She didn't empathize with him. Or if she did, it didn't come out on the page. The effect was like reading A Confederacy of Dunces: the author spends the whole book making fun of his main character, Ignatius. Even though I enjoyed A Confederacy of Dunces for a lot of reasons, (it's really funny and clever, but at all the jokes are at Ignatius' expense). But as an author, why center your book around a character that you think is absolutely ridiculous? I mean, just look at this cover art:

To get back to what I liked about Look at Me; I read it on the heels of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Both novels have characters with leukemia, and both employ over four main characters' points of views. Picoult uses chapter breaks and different fonts to her distinguish six different characters' povs. Egan uses chapter breaks too, at first, but as the novel progresses, she switches back and forth between each pov. It works really well when she switches between two of the characters who live in Rockford, like from (17)Charlotte to Moose, or Michael West. The two characters will be together in the same scene, and Egan will leave one's head and hop into the other's. I admired how well she pulled this off.

Overall, I'm not sure I'd recommend Look at Me to friends. I was hoping for a stronger and more structured plot. You think that all the characters are going to collide in the end, (the two Charlottes (they do) Moose and Z / Michael West (they don't) and we'll get answers about Charlotte's accident that way. But that doesn't happen. The cause of her accident is revealed in the most static way possible - through her inner thoughts. Why didn't she just think this earlier? She has enough opportunity - we hear her thoughts constantly throughout her sections.

I read Look at Me quickly, and was engrossed, but I had been told it was a "literary thriller" by two people, and it's called an "intellectual thriller" on the back of the book (what is an "intellectual thriller" anyhow? I guess when the main character just decides to "think" the answer to the main mystery?), but the "thrilling" parts that were full of tension and anticipation all had to do with character development, or emotions running rampant, or insightful exchanges of dialog. I was, in part, on the edge of my proverbial seat reading Look at Me, waiting for something big to happen that never did.


Brian said...

Just a quick factual correction: the story of Charlotte's accident isn't revealed through her internal thoughts, it's revealed through Irene Maitlock's unreliable account of the accident for the Extra/ website.

JSaremi said...

I wouldn't characterize this novel as any type of thriller. It's a story about people... maybe you could call it a mystery of personalities? At any rate, my favorite part of this novel was how the characters grew. The painful process of self-discovery that the two Charlottes experienced made this a very satisfying read. And because of this, I would recommend Egan's book.

Juju Khoury said...

I just finished this book and decided to google, out of curiosity, the purpose of Moose's presence in this novel. Apparently, I'm not the only one who was blinded to this. Anyhow, Look At Me certainly leaves you feeling like you're still waiting for something to happen, denying the fact that it's over.