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Other Book Reviews:
Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

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Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan

A lot has changed, but maybe it's only now that we can see how many things, in fact, have stayed the same since 9/11. However, one thing we don't suffer gladly is terrorism. Perhaps unfairly, Look at Me suffers for that: a central character is a terrorist, bent on blowing up bits of NYC. It's hard to know how to read this character except with anger-on a micro level for the other fictional characters and on a marco level for ourselves.

Much like her main character Charlotte, Jennifer Egan's book Look at Me has , as they say, "a lot going for it." Unfortunately, like many a troubled teenager with potential, her book never manages to ascend to the next level and is instead concerned only with looking cool. Egan reaches a certain plateau and then, well, coasts, on sheer amounts: a great number of characters, subjects, and themes. Still, though, the story moves along at an easy clip, with the plot (though contrived) slipping comfortably in place like an old coat: not particularly stylish, but nevertheless warm enough for when you're smoking in the parking lot during second period.

Also Reviewed This Month:

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace -
Gore Vidal

Tishomongo Blues -
Elmore Leonard

The War Against Cliche -
by Martin Amis
Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson

There are two intertwining stories to Look at Me: One hightails it with abandon to hole up in a 25th-floor NYC apartment, and the other stays in suburban Illinois in a tangle of emotions, dysfunction, and soul searching. To further widen the scope, a litany of points of views are used, enough to keep Anne Heche's shrink in business for years. But Look at Me hinges on and circles around Charlotte, who tells her story in the first-person. When an author uses the first-person, it must a sign of who's in charge, though why it's her story as opposed to anyone else's is unclear.

Charlotte (the older), a New York fashion model on the descent, has been in a terrible car crash. While recuperating in her mid-Western hometown that she deplores she withdraws into herself. When she finally returns to NYC, with metal pins holding her reconstructed face together, her fast-moving fashion friends don't know what to do with her: they ignore her, shun her, and sometimes fail to even recognize her. Though it's unclear whether she has been disfigured (she has no problem picking up random men in bars), her thoughts regarding her self no doubt have been. Through no fault of her own, Charlotte gets involved with two plot devices: a detective searching for a mysterious man Charlotte used to know named Z; and an Internet start-up that buys Charlotte's story and likeness like a cheap commodity-not a very unsubtle metaphor.

Back in Illinois, Charlotte (the younger-a different character than Charlotte the older), a typically morose teenager and the daughter of Charlotte's (the older) former best friend, develops relationships with two older men who she thinks hold some answers to her inquisitiveness but are merely consumed with rage. One of the novel's few truly emotional scenes occurs when Charlotte's uncle gets in a barroom brawl: It's a fight between old high school friends and is brought on by a battle between change and constancy. The short passage's harrowing portrayal of the disappointments of these stagnant men overshadows much of the other less-effective attempts to garner sympathy for its characters.

The book seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, it has ambitious, intertwining universal themes struggling to raise the tone above specifics-for instance, how one perceives beauty; the economic and industrial rise and fall of a mid-Western town; the stories we tell and how we tell them; and the selling of ourselves. All good stuff. On the other hand, however, it has characters who seem stuck in their own personal B-movie genre stories: a teenage girl who gets involved with an older man; a mysterious stranger; a detective / crime story. These two distinct types combat each other throughout the novel. At one point, a character says, "'People aren't moved by abstract concepts anymore…. They're moved by people's individual struggles. Save the Children-like, what children?"' Yes, perhaps, but we can only care about the individuals if we care about the abstract concepts they are struggling with.

The most resonant theme is the characters' struggles to understand what defines America and Americans, and to see if they themselves fit into its scheme: Charlotte (the younger) studies, under the tutelage of her uncle, her town's bygone impact on science and technological advancement; Charlotte (the older) mines the relationship between self and appearance; and Z, a foreigner, slips in and out of new identities-something only new arrivals to these shores can do, despite the Hollywood hype to the contrary.

Unfortunately, Jennifer Egan's writing is too self-aware to allow the reader to believe in the existence of these characters. Like her character, she thinkis she's onto something cool. Unfortunately, Internet start-ups are so very 1990s and terrorism is definitely not the new black.

Egan's writing is sometimes garbled and confusing, leaving the reader wondering how to take certain passages. For example, Z says the following of Charlotte (the younger): "Who was this girl? He'd met her before, of course-there was no one in the world he hadn't met before, usually many times." Yes, Z had met Charlotte before, briefly, so what does the rest of the passage mean? It would only work as a metaphor if he had not met her before. How are we supposed to take this, if not literally, a level it clearly does not work on. And Egan's faux deep thoughts fall heavy and flat: "How did you end a hug? Who began the ending of it?"

In addition, the characters, specifically Charlotte (the older), are allowed to presuppose too much about others and they simply sound condescending, arrogant. Charlotte is always looking for the "shadow self" (i.e., the true self we hide from others), nullifying any opinion readers have formed on their own. Without asking, or perhaps insisting, that the reader draw conclusions, the book is reduced to a plot with no beauty-a fitting condemnation, I'm afraid.

--Chris Gage

 


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