A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2012 to study how nonlinear plots work and enjoyed it very much. This earlier book, her second novel, is a bit more traditional although she does some very interesting things like presenting the main character’s chapters by way of first person but the rest of the chapters in third person; she also cuts, rotating quickly from one character’s point of view (omnisciently) to the next in one of the final chapters, to sustain suspense and perhaps coalesce their views into one. It would seem that the basic plot is that one Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful young fashion model is involved in a car accident, and the surgeon who puts her face back together does so (and I find this hard to believe) with eighty titanium screws just beneath the skin. Her face is still beautiful, but it is no longer her face. People don’t recognize her. She is invisible.
But Charlotte is not without curiosity, a certain inventiveness, to keep her life interesting after losing her livelihood (her booker can no longer get her any modeling jobs)—including a festive sex life. By her own recognizance she can identify what she calls the shadow self of almost any person with whom she comes in contact. Later in the novel, she encounters a man who will now direct a television special about her accident and recovery, in which she plays herself. Even though outwardly he is somewhat fit and sophisticated, she limns his shadow self as an insecure fat kid, the one lurking just beneath the surface of his life, his skin. Though Charlotte’s character is flawed, she leads us to believe she is an astute judge of character, and we tend to believe her.
As with any fine novel, there is a lot going on here. Egan weaves together the story that Charlotte and two other characters are destined to tell, along with a cast of supporting characters, who, in themselves, are fascinating: for one, Z, a young Middle Eastern would-be terrorist who seems to adapt to America quite well; also, a recently recovered alcoholic detective; a mysterious teacher who is seduced by a young female pupil (one of the three main characters) and has also come from some distant or foreign background (one almost thinks that he and Z could be one, but no, ‘tis not true). Jennifer Egan is one of those novelists who meticulously create plot, who meticulously create believable characters to carry it out, all in the service of larger literary themes which are also captured by a title as apt as Look at Me.
By the way, this is an “Advance Reading Copy” that claims it is “Not for Sale.” However, I paid twelve dollars for it at a used book store, and I wuz robbed. I can now see at least one good reason publishers do not want readers to see this sort of copy sold. It had (I always mark them) a variety of twenty-one typos, averaging more than one per chapter. And those are just the ones I caught.
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