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Look at Me: A Novel Paperback – October 8, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“Comic, richly imagined, and stunningly written. . . . An energetic, unorthodox, quintessentially American vision of America.” –The New Yorker
“Look at Me is so engrossing, energetic, sharp, and funny, it reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man.” –Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air (NPR)
“Arresting. . . . Look at Me is the real thing–brave, honest, unflinching. [It] is itself a mirror in which we can clearly see the true face of the times in which we live.” –Francine Prose, The New York Observer
“Egan limns the mysteries of human identity and the stranglehold our image-obsessed culture has on us all in this complicated and wildly ambitious novel.” –Newsweek
“Intriguing. . . . An unlikely blend of tabloid luridness and brainy cultural commentary. . . . The novel’s uncanny prescience gives Look at Me a rare urgency.” –Time
“Egan has created some compelling characters and written provocative meditations on our times. . . . [She] has captured our culture in its edge-city awfulness.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Look at Me is a complicated novel . . . but the questions it raises are worth following a lifetime of labyrinths toward the answers.” –Los Angeles Times
“Ambitious, swiftly paced. . . . Egan writes with such shimmering élan that it’s easy to follow her cast on its journey.” –The Wall Street Journal
“Prescient and provocative. . . . The characters . . . jump from the pages and dare you to care about them. . . . The prose is crisp and precise. . . . The pieces fit together at the end with a satisfying click.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“Impressive. . . . Few recent books have so eloquently demonstrated how often fiction, in its visionary form, speaks of truth.” –Salon.com
“Look at Me makes us think about our trust in the images that bombard us, and what we give away in the process.” –Chicago Tribune
“Egan’s rich new novel . . . is about bigger things: double lives; secret selves; the difficulty of really seeing anything in a world so flooded with images.” –The Nation
“Stunning. . . . This is more than a story, it’s a thought-world, a novel of ideas brilliantly cloaked in the skin of characters.” –The Sunday Oregonian
“Egan’s take . . . is surreal and profoundly ironic and exaggerated, but it still rings true. . . . Beneath it all, she finds characters worth saving.” –Hartford Courant
“Breathtaking. . . . Combines the tautness of a good mystery with the measured, exquisitely articulated detail and emotional landscape of the most literary of narratives. . . . Sure to leave readers thinking about these very real characters for some time to come.” –BookPage
“An imaginative, well-paced read with serious questions about the elusiveness of meaning inside the gilded cage. Egan has intelligence to burn but plenty of feeling too.” –People
“Part mystery, part cultural critique, [Look at Me] . . . build[s] to a conclusion that is unexpected and disturbing, and mak[es] an incisive statement about our society’s obsession with fame and glamour.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting. . . . As the book gains momentum, Egan’s writing is both fluid and driven, with wonderful slashes of satire. . . . A remarkable study of our culture . . . and of our palpable need to be known.” –O: The Oprah Magazine
“Egan has created a compelling world. . . . With [her] graceful prose and vivid characterizations, she navigates her plot lines’ churning waters with admirable skill.” –Seattle Weekly
“[A] scintillating inquiry into the complex and profound dynamics of perception. . . . Egan . . . animates a superb cast of intriguing and unpredictable characters, and tells an elegantly structured, emotionally arresting and slyly suspenseful story.” –Newsday
“Dark, hugely ambitious. . . . As riveting as a roadside wreck–and noxiously, scathingly funny.” –Elle
“Intelligent and refreshingly dark, Egan’s eerie tale has the same mesmerizing pull as the culture it skewers.” –Us Weekly
“This masterfully plotted work bears the stamp of a perceptive–if not clairvoyant–writer whose disturbing vision . . . rings all too true.” –SF Weekly
“Egan’s ability to move with ease between sincerity and satire sets Look at Me apart. . . . Her authentic-feeling details give a sense of unusual immediacy.” –Vogue
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If the goal was to include as many metaphors as possible, then goal met.
If this is supposed to be philosophical, 60% of goal met.
A good and interesting read and it is apparent the novel was written over a 6 year period.
Look At Me is a terrific novel, it's only flaw being that sometimes it gets a little too ambitious. It seems at times Egan is trying to communicate a message, but hasn't come up with a concrete way of communicating it. This, however, does not distract from the wonderful and thought provoking story this novel tells. Enjoy.
Top international reviews
The prose is often well written and has some great identifiable moments throughout such as :
"When she thought of herself a year ago she remembered a girl with outsized hopes, a girl who believed the world had made secret arrangements in her favour. Charlotte hated her"
The premise too is a really good one, life beyond disfigurement, an interesting story to be told. Unfortunately this really isn't that story. Though this is the novels central plot, the story of the younger Charlotte has naught to do with this idea. Furthermore it is the younger Charlotte who is the more intriguing and likeable character. Older Charlotte the model is an irritating arrogant character to be in the company of, and the opportunity for psychological reflections on the nature of disfigurement does not take place, so much so that I do wonder if Egan even bothered to consult people who had experienced like tragedies.
In some ways it felt like two separate novels merged, a novel on loss of beauty, and a novel on loss of innocence; as though perhaps originally there had been only one Charlotte and Egan did not know whether to focus on her youth or her adulthood. The storyline involving the mysterious Z who solidifies a link between the two feels completely preposterous and tenuous due to excessive coincidence.
As a character himself Z is less an enigma than a thin sketch, abrupt and confusing, his lack of detail as a character is incredibly frustrating.
It goes on in one strand to make a point about the modern development of individuals who are not famous for their work but are commodities of themselves, brands, like for example Snooki or the Kardashians. Personally I'm getting incredibly bored of novels which shoehorn in some annoying parody of the real world in order to make some kind of redundant pseudo-intellectual contemporary social comment. It's been overdone.
The ultimate problem was that I found that the longer I read this novel, the more I failed to care about it or its characters, so much so that as I approached the end I was page counting. When you end up page counting you know you hate the book.....
Not for me. 5/10
Unfortunately it was a poor comparison. The characters were all so disagreeable and I had no empathy for them which didn't help. It started well, and the theme was brilliant, a beautiful model disfigured in a road accident and her trying without success to come to terms with suddenly not being the centre of attention. But I constantly waited for something to happen. A big scene seemed on the horizon on many occasions, only to fizzle out before any satisfactory conclusion. In fact, a good description of this book would be unsatisfactory.
If you're going to read anything by this author, choose the Goon Squad. Give this a miss.
A crazy fact is that this book was published in 2001 – prior to 9/11. The book is also prior to Facebook and most of the other major social media platforms and yet Egan speaks of terrorism and social networking in ways that are eerily similar to both.
I personally like Egan’s style of writing which I feel is very talented and ambitious though her novels do run out of gas – just a bit – at the end.
This book is stretching at four stars. It is like 3.5 but closer to a four.
As I didn’t enjoy Jennifer Egan’s overwritten and simile-studded style either, I decided to give the rest of the book a miss.
The accident couldn't have happened to a better person since Charlotte was already given to trying to penetrate the masks that others present to the world and also to what others might see in her. One of those others was her lover Hansen, whom she cheated on big time while in Paris for a modelling assignmnet. Despite studying her at length, Hansen didn't see a cheat.
`It was Hansen who first made me aware of shadow selves. He would lie in bed watching me for whole minutes, and I would look back into his eyes and wonder, What does he see? How can he not see the truth? Where is it hidden? It made me ask, when I looked at other people, what possible selves they were hiding behind the strange rubber masks of their faces. I could nearly always find one, if I watched for long enough. It became the only one I was interested in seeing.' (Ch 4)
There are many variations on the theme, but the theme is always there. To take just one example, when growing up in Rockford, Illinois, her best friend had been Ellen, till a shared physical encounter caused their friendship to cool. Some years later Charlotte learned that Ellen had called her own daughter Charlotte, and young Charlotte is no slouch at presenting a face to the world either. Her mother cannot read her at all but Charlotte tries hard to protect her younger brother, Ricky, who was then undergoing chemotherapy.
`No one knows what you feel - no one can see behind your face.'
`You can hide behind your face,' she told him. (Ch 11)
Possibly the most tricky strand of the book concerns a character called `Z'. Z is being sought by a private detective, Anthony Halliday, who contacts Charlotte since she had briefly known him. Later in the book, Charlotte uses an academic called Irene Maitlock to write her autobiography, and Irene tells of a journey Charlotte undertook with Z - the journey that led to the car crash. But Irene is inventive, making much out of little, so the reader cannot count on the accuracy of this narrative.
Z is a man of terrorist tendencies. He is full of anger and believes that the way people live their lives in the United States is the result of a conspiracy. He morphs into Michael West, teaching maths in a local high school. Young Charlotte first meets him on a river bank with his arm in a sling (possibly corroborating part of Irene's story) and pursues him relentlessly till they become lovers, or at least have regular sex. When he tires of being Michael West he moves west, having a suddenly acquired desire to be in the movies. He says goodbye to young Charlotte, but since she is sleeping at the time it doesn't help her much.
There is an excellent analysis of West's character in chapter six which includes the following thought attributed to him: `People were vines awaiting their chance to cling'. When he leaves Rockford, Halliday gives up the chase. By this time he has fallen for Charlotte, whom he later marries.
Michael West isn't the only person harbouring critical thoughts about the United States. The same could be said of his creator, since large sections of the book are satirical. Two examples. When Charlotte is trying to get back into the modelling business, she finds herself at a shoot which not only involves fetching but penniless young models brought in from overseas but the artistic cutting of their faces in the interest of arresting pictures. This is not made clear to Charlotte by her agent, who reasons she would not have turned up if she had known. After all, she had already been subjected to serious work on her face.
Then there is the website devoted to people's lives, both ordinary people and celebrities. Charlotte becomes involved in this since she has a story to tell. Her ghost writer, Irene, though hostile to the idea, becomes sucked into the project because it pays and her husband's career is failing. The author takes this idea as far as it will go, namely, extreme intrusion (webcam in the bedroom) combined with ready invention to improve on the facts.
Ellen's brother Edmund, known as Moose, once a popular and out-going person, is now introverted and anti-social. This seems to result from a `vision' he had, in the sense of suddenly seeing something clearly. He is now researching the industrial past of Rockford.
`It was all right there, the narrative of industrial America told in these glyphs: a tale that began with the rationalization of objects through standardization, abstraction and mass production, and concluded with the rationalization of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin.' (Chapter 9)
There is a clear connection between this analysis and the web-site Charlotte becomes involved with, which is all about marketing, public relations and spin. So to the reader may feel that the various strands in the book are neatly stitched together.
It is unclear to me whether Thomas, the man behind the website, really believes his own publicity. Perhaps he did at the outset but is gradually taken over by a project which acquires a commercial momentum of its own. Whatever the truth of it, he has one thing in common with Irene, who makes so much of the little Charlotte gives her: they share a knowledge and appreciation of literature to the extent that Charlotte feels left out whenever they refer to it.
I think the author may be implying that both, for their different reasons, have not only bought into this bold, new money-making scheme but, in so doing, have sold out on their true values. Both become increasingly dishonest. Charlotte, on the other hand, with her passing knowledge of The Eve of St Agnes and the Rape of the Lock, is ultimately more principled than either and uses a clause in her contract to buy herself out and return to anonymity. Some may not take to Charlotte, but I did. It seems to me that, whatever her failings, she usually sees things clearly and is often usefully frank in her exchanges with others. Her native honesty wins out in the end. She is true to herself.
The book is ambitious in its scope and largely successful. Jennifer Egan writes well and there are many telling images (though the unfortunate Moose is troubled by metaphor, which therefore becomes another subject of the book). This example concerns the effect which the web site developer, Thomas, has on Charlotte when he is in persuasive mode.
`Now he turned to me, aiming his attention so fully upon me that I felt my spine extend like a charmed snake.'
There is also one strange statement which seems to have strayed out of Finnegan's Wake. `My mind gyred harriedly' (Chapter 13). I have studied English for a few years now but cannot get my brain round this one.
[It seems there may be no copyright in titles since `Look at Me' is also the title of an earlier novel by Anita Brookner which, I think, is one of her best.]
Unfortunately I just couldn't really get into it. The characters left me cold, and I simply wasn't interested in what happened to them!
I can well understand why it's got a range of differing reviews here. What I would suggest is - download the sample and read that (if you're reading on a kindle), or read the first few pages in the bookshop. If it grabs you, great, you may well enjoy it. If your response is more along the lines of "meh, but wonder if I should give it a go (possibly based on the back of her "visit from the good squad", which has such good reviews, but which I have not read), I'd suggest don't - there is no dramatic improvement.
I'm glad I bought it when it was the kindle deal of the day, or I'd probably have been very disappointed. Shame it's now put me off trying her other stuff.