Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

"Look at Me" by Jennifer Egan (Picador, 2002)

It begins

After the accident, I became less visible. I don't mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.
In my memory, the accident has acquired a harsh, dazzling beauty: white sunlight, a slow loop through space like being on the Tilt-A-Whirl (always a favorite of mine) ...
The truth is that I don't remember anything

which is fast-paced, with twists and asides. It takes a long while to recover that pace. It didn't pick up for me until Michael was introduced.

Charlotte Swenson, a model we meet in the first-person, has an accident and her face reconstructed until she's unrecognisable. She sleeps with Anthony Halliday, a detective. She gets involved with a Reality website which requires her life to be written up and filmed. Irene, who's not really a reporter but an academic, writes her life up. By p.329 Charlotte mixes her thoughts with the anticipated write-up.
Charlotte Hauser, a schoolgirl, initiates an affair with a teacher, Michael. Later she introduces herself as "Melanie" to an ex-lover.
Moose, Charlotte's uncle, has had a personality change (nervous breakdown). Charlotte chooses to have private lessons with him about local history. On p.293 he thinks back to what caused his breakdown.
Charlotte's Hauser's mother has had an affair and is gently rebuffed when she tries to restart it. I'm not sure why she's there, except that she used to know Charlotte Swenson.

The theme is transformation. "You seem different", says Abby to Michael (p.301), but just about everyone's changing - looks, identity or personality. People are curious about the causes and nature of the changes (internal or external) that they and others undergo. On p.308 Michael recounts a film plot idea that picks up many of the hints we've been given about him. On p.342, Michael thinks about Aziz. I suspected the Michael/Aziz/Z connection fairly early. At the end I thought Moose was going to crash at the place where the initial crash was being recreated. I liked the final chapter.

Schematically it works. The transformation theme links with a visibility theme. The main character's a model whose life depends on being visible (hence the title) but after the accident she wants people to look and not recognise her. She wants a new start. In the end she gets it. Charlotte Hauser wants to be noticed by boys. She too wants a new start and changes schools. Aziz's organisation wants to be noticed. He undergoes several transformations.

The pace quickens but I think the first 100 pages are too slow. Throughout there are some neat turns of phrase (sometimes from unexpected - perhaps inappropriate - personae)

  • "I careened from my apartment at midnight, leaving behind a Daliesque assortment of clothing sliding from lamps and furniture, along with a skyline of empty bottles" (p.152)
  • "After a few remarks on how well it had gone, we lapsed into silence, our camaraderie loosening, falling away as it doing did in the absence of other people, replaced by a mutual knowledge that was deep, but not warm" (p.331)

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