Book Of A Lifetime: Look at Me, By Jennifer Egan


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The Independent Culture

I devoured three brilliant novels by Jennifer Egan last year: the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', 'Look at Me' and 'The Keep'. It was a weird time. I'd just been on a year's maternity leave with my son; my father died; and I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.

I felt pulled between optimism and pessimism, hope and dread. And when I read Egan's novels, I could barely believe how much they chimed with my ambivalent state of mind. 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', the most perfect of the three, combines faith in the human capacity for empathy and renewal with a dystopian vision of our technological and environmental destiny. The parts set in the all-too-near future document a nightmarish world in which infants are referred to as "pointers" because those who are old enough to point are addicted to mobile phones. New Yorkers watch the sunset from the top of a "water wall" protecting the city from rising sea levels.

But it was 'Look at Me', first published in 2001, that I found particularly resonant. The novel's sprawling plot involves two characters called Charlotte: one a thirtysomething New York model who is horribly injured in a car crash and attempts, with picaresque tragicomedy, to reconstruct her face and life; the other a wayward small-town teenager tutored by an eccentric professor uncle named Moose. Moose is obsessed with the transformation of his home town in Illinois from rust-and-grease industrial heartland to strip-mall and parking-lot wasteland. It's a microcosm of the epochal shift from an age when people made stuff with their hands and with machines to the post-modern age of Starbucks and commodity markets.

'Look at Me' skilfully juxtaposes this process of "everything solid melting into air", to paraphrase Marx, with an analogous transformation in the older Charlotte's life. Realising that a return to modelling is impossible, Charlotte is courted by a dotcom startup, "Ordinary People™", which buys 24-hour access to individuals' lives via webcam and touched-up "testimony". If you thought the old-media world of celebrity photo-shoots and magazine gossip was vacuous, this novel brilliantly implies, the commodification of human life online is much worse.

The way the internet appears to offer realness – through blogs, Twitter and Facebook profiles – blinds us to the insubstantial, deracinated world it is rapidly creating.

I wanted things to work out for Charlotte; but it was Moose I couldn't get out of my head. He feels he has glimpsed a terrible truth about where we're headed that can't be put back into its box. That's the pessimism I felt while writing my book, 'Get Real', about the iniquities of the modern world and the delusions we live under. Moose finds redemption through his relationship with his long-suffering wife. And I got over myself too, and realised there's a lot to be optimistic about; that we can improve and even save our world. But as Egan's novels darkly remind us, that isn't a done deal.

Eliane Glaser's 'Get Real' is published by Fourth Estate