Look at Me

Look at Me

by Jennifer Egan

Anne Ferber (09/03/11): Since I SO enjoyed A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, I thought I might like some earlier works by the same author. This novel was written during the 1990s and,yes,Ms. Egan has outdone herself, depicting the dawning of a new era: Lets call it Reality TV. Just get yourself an agent, ghost writer and maybe a webcam, be willing to sell your identity, and, hey! Youre a star!!!

The actual storyline is fascinating as well. Charlotte Swenson was a successful NY model. Not quite supermodel status, but she was living the lifestyle, until she crashes her car and her face smashes against the windshield. The plastic surgery requires 80 tiny titanium bolts to hold her face together. Although the surgery is successful, she is no longer recognizable. The main plot line follows the obstacles facing Charlotte in her attempt to continue her career once she has physically healed. Mentally, she is tortured by the world she lives in; a world totally controlled by artifice, the latest thing, one day you're in, the next day you're out. She knows its all contrived and hates the rules, but at the same time its the only world she knows or finds attractive. At the age of thirty-five, she is definitely on the way out and that, coupled with the soothing effects of alcohol, points to a downward spiral that is quite steep.

Suddenly a powerful PR person, Victoria, attracted by the idea of her having a new face, introduces Charlotte to Thomas Keene, who is producing a new kind of TV show which focuses on ordinary people telling their life story. The key word here is producing; and the object is to get the public and, therefore, corporations, to love and sponsor the subject, eventually selling your identity to the highest bidders and reaping profits galore!! Does this sound at all familiar? Anyone can become a celebrity! The fact that all the characters are quite intelligent and sympathetic makes this a fascinating read in spite of the sleazy subject matter.

There are four sub-plots that show different versions of people going through life changes with varying degrees of success: 1) Moose a high school hero who has a vision at 21 which causes a complete mental breakdown. He survives on meds but is tortured by the way American values are changing. 2) Z, a Lebanese terrorist infiltrating this country, planning a revolt against the American conspiracy to take over the world through cultural devices such as McDonalds 3) A young girl, 15, also named Charlotte, whos looks are quite plain, conceives a drastic plan to make herself popular and 4) Ricky, her beautiful younger brother who is in remission from leukemia, lives on the edge to prove he is not sick.

Ms. Egan has a keen sense of humor and all of these human afflictions are treated at once with seriousness and hilarity. This book was completed in January 2001 and, as the author writes in an afterward, would have been reconceived after 9/11. Instead it remains an artifact of a more innocent time.
Rating: *****

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