Jennifer Egan
photo of Jennifer Egan   Look at Me  


As a fiction writer, I tend to stay away from my own life. The impulse to write fiction requires, for me, the prospect of discovery, and this feels unavailable along the familiar byways of my own experience. I'm similarly uninspired by the notion of reproducing the textures of contemporary life, so I save my straight reportage for journalism. My first novel, The Invisible Circus, took place in a prior era. My new book, Look at Me, while set in an unspecified recent past, depicts an exaggerated, slightly futuristic portrait. Lately, though, I've watched reality bend to conform to my fictional worlds in unnerving ways.

The protagonist of The Invisible Circus is a girl whose father died of leukemia when she was a child, and whose older sister later commits suicide. When I published the book, I was taken aback to learn that its details were assumed to be my own; I received letters from women whose sisters had committed suicide, and a few times I met people who assumed we had this trauma in common. I was obliged to tell them that I had no older siblings—no deaths at all in my immediate family. These disclosures gave me a sense of guilty flight, of being lifted above a sadness I could imagine just well enough to know that I was lucky not to feel it.

When the father in The Invisible Circus is first diagnosed with leukemia, I wrote, "He was dead within the year." The July before last, my stepfather, who raised me, learned that he had leukemia. He went into remission after his first round of chemo, and we believed his prognosis was good. He made plans to take a boat trip the following summer, after he'd recovered from his treatments. But last March, eight months after his diagnosis, he died of fungal pneumonia.

What can one say about such things? If you're skeptical of prophecy, as I am, there is very little to say. Chance. Coincidence. Whatever it's called, it occasions some peculiar thoughts. I've caught myself musing over the fact that finally I know how they felt--"they" being characters in a book I wrote many years ago--forced to watch their father succumb to a devouring disease long before I did.

To render the experience and then to have it: I imagine most writers must know this phenomenon, at least slightly. Unless we stick to straight autobiography, we end up dramatizing things that haven't yet happened to us, but may still at some point. During the years I spent working on my new novel, Look At me, reality seemed to parrot my imagination with a consistency that at times verged on comedy. These echoes were cultural, not personal. Were I slightly crazier, I would have suspected an omnipotent of using the New York Times to send me messages, so often did I find elements of my novel writ large upon its pages.

The book has several plot lines, but the central one involves a woman whose face must be rebuilt after a car accident, and who finds that she cannot be recognized. Floating through New York in the strange aftermath of this metamorphosis, she becomes transfixed by the old painted signs on brick buildings, faded remnants of the Industrial Revolution. "It's a sign," she thinks, seeing one. "A sign in the form of a sign." Shortly after writing those words, I was startled to find, on the front page of the Times' Metro Section, a large article about an exhibit of photographs of exactly such old painted signs, opening at the New York Historical Society. It's a sign, I thought. A sign in the form of an exhibit of signs.

If it was a sign, it signified the appearance of more such signs. In desperation to make money, my protagonist joins an online startup called Ordinary People, which packages the lives of average Americans for consumption on the internet. "Ordinaries" and "Extraordinaries" record their dreams, keep diaries, and can be observed via live video. I concocted this idea in 1996, before I had ever been online; I intended it to be satire. Then on New Year's Eve, 1998, I heard someone describing Jennycam: a woman who had installed a webcam in her apartment and was broadcasting her daily life online. This news frightened me; it was my idea, I thought, and now people will think I got it from her. Still, I reminded myself, lone exhibitionism was not the same as institutional packaging of "reality" as mass entertainment. But in January 2000, I opened the Times to a front page article about several soon-to-be imported "reality" TV shows, including one that involved stranding people on a desert island. That's impossible, I thought. It's a joke--it's my joke. But of course it was a very real joke, and a very profitable one.

The most unsettling parallel did not emerge until a week before my novel appeared in stores. It involved a strand of the plot that had worried me most: a terrorist who comes to Jersey City from Lebanon, via an array of other countries. He prowls the streets of New York in a lather of envy and outrage at the "American conspiracy." He bemoans the "fiasco" of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which resulted in so few deaths and no dramatic photographs. His own plan to derail America involves striking at its famous people, whom he sees as oppressors. Eventually he moves to the Midwest, where he works as a math teacher and blends, almost imperceptibly, into the America around him.

Though my research told me that this character's story was at least vaguely plausible, I feared that it would seem too farfetched, out of synch with the rest of the book. Who would believe that a terrorist could work as a math teacher in the Midwest undetected? But like so many unimaginable things, that possibility has come, since September 11th, to seem almost self evident. I even saw a small headline in the Times warning that terrorists might strike at Hollywood studios.

I'm not sure where, exactly, all of this leaves me. Recently I began a short story about a mother of young children who is struggling with cancer, then found myself hesitant to go on. After all, I'm the mother of a young child. I was forced to deliver a very firm talk to myself: Leukemia is a fairly common disease. The reality thing was in the air, you just weren't fast enough to get there first. Same with the terrorism--we should have seen it coming, everyone says that now. The warning signs were all around us.

Still, I lost interest in the cancer story, and put it aside.

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