Excerpted from Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Egan. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jennifer Egan is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope, All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.
Jennifer Egan is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).
Q: Where did you get the idea for LOOK AT ME?
A: For me, an “idea” for a novel is really a group of ideas that seem to hover together in my mind over time in a way that feels interesting. What tends to set those ideas in motion is the sense of a particular place or places. In the case of Look at Me, those places were Rockford, Illinois, which is my mother’s hometown, and New York, which I’d written about very rarely in my fiction before—only once that I can recall—though I’ve lived here for fourteen years. The inclination toward Rockford was rather a surprise; though I’d had wonderful times there while visiting my grandparents as a child, after they passed away I assumed I would not go back. But I found myself strangely haunted by it—in particular by the sense of outmoded industry that still clings to the place. I had a longing to return, and did, several times, during which many of the characters began to assert themselves in my mind. Over time, a group of elements began to form, all infused with the atmosphere of Rockford or New York, and the tension between them. Here are some elements that I remember being aware of early on: a chameleon character who has had multiple identities; a woman with a damaged face who is no longer recognizable; a mad professor obsessed with the history of his town; the industrial revolution in this country and its contrast to the image-laden information age we now inhabit; a private detective; a journalist; a young girl who has some connection to the chameleon. I was confused for a long time about how such disparate notions could possibly cohere into one story, and finding out the answer took me a long time—six years!
Q: When did you decide on the book’s title? Was it an outgrowth of the reporting and writing you’ve done about the fashion industry and popular culture?
A: The book’s title came to me as I was reading the newspaper one day; I think it was an op-ed piece in the Times. The phrase appeared in the context of some kind of cultural analysis, and I thought, That’s it! My reason for thinking so may well have something to do with my cultural reporting; “Look at me” might as well be our cultural credo, the hunger for an audience is that deep and pervasive. At the same time, the title embodies a paradox, because the cultivation of one’s outward self so often occurs at the expense of any real human connections. From this perspective, “Look at me” is a kind of plea—a desire to be recognized in a deep and human way. Finally, most importantly, “Look at me,” raises the question of who “me” really is; are the images we construct for public consumption really ourselves? And if not, then what is the relationship between those images and our real selves? How can they coexist? How do they interact?
Q: The two female protagonists in LOOK AT ME both share the same first name, Charlotte. Are the two Charlottes in some symbolic way the same person, or does their shared name mean something else entirely? What about the third lead female character, Irene Maitlock? Does she have something in common with the two Charlottes?
A: The connections between the two Charlottes are intentionally oblique, but they do exist: the younger Charlotte is the daughter of the elder Charlotte’s best friend from adolescence, though we don’t know for certain that Ellen (the friend) named her daughter after Charlotte. To some extent, physical appearance is the determining factor in both Charlottes’ lives; Charlotte the model, who is beautiful, has spent her life in pursuit of what she calls “the mirrored room,” a transcendent locus of glamour and celebrity; the younger Charlotte, plain and isolated from her peers, ekes out a secret life on the fringes of the adult world. Most fundamentally, the two Charlottes are linked by a mystery: a man has disappeared from the older Charlotte’s world and appeared, with a new identity, in the younger Charlotte’s. As for Irene Maitlock, she seems at first to have nothing in common with the elder Charlotte, whose life story she is hired to write; she is reticent, intellectual, and generally scornful of the glamourous world where Charlotte has spent her life. But what intrigued me about Irene is that she and Charlotte end up virtually swapping identities over the course of the book—each is drawn into precisely the sort of life she once viewed with disdain. So in a sense it is these two, rather than the two Charlottes, whose identities overlap and comingle in the course of the book.
Q: “Z”, one of the male protagonists of your novel, originally came to America to join a sleeper cell of terrorists in New Jersey with a hazy but hostile agenda. Throughout the novel, Z adopts various disguises while living among unsuspecting Americans. You finished writing LOOK AT ME many months before the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Readers’ reactions to Z have tended to fall into two camps: those who think you are eerily psychic and those who think (wrongly, of course) that you “added Z in” after the attacks. Can you talk a little bit about this character’s creation and your reaction to Z’s reception out in the wide world of readers and critics?
A: Well, as I said earlier, I always knew there would be a chameleon figure in the book, and I decided pretty early on that his point of origin would be the Middle East. I’ve been interested in terrorism for a long time—it plays an even bigger role in my first novel, The Invisible Circus—I think largely because of its relationship to image culture. Modern terrorism would be impossible without the media, which broadcast its acts into world-transfixing phenomena. And image culture is the central preoccupation of this book. With those notions in mind, I began reading the newspaper very carefully with an eye toward Middle Eastern terrorism, particularly against Americans, and over the course of several years, a narrative began to assert itself that made the arrival of terrorism on our shores on a large scale seem inevitable—at least, from my imaginative perspective. That being said, of course I had no idea that something like 9/11 would happen. I interviewed a couple of former FBI agents specializing in counterterrorism, and the impression I got from them was that suicide bombers were fumbling and not especially dangerous. They were described to me as young, poor and unsophisticated, with nothing to lose, and since I wasn’t interested in those qualities, I decided to depart from this profile and make my chameleon older, well educated, someone who came to radicalism later in life. I made these departures with trepidation—I worried that my portrait would be too far out, and would strain credulity to the breaking point. Would that it had been so!
Q: If someone were taking LOOK AT ME on vacation, what book would you recommend they take along to read after your novel as a companion volume?
A: Hmmm. Interesting question. One possibility would be Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (a great favorite of mine) which brings into play some of the same elements as Look at Me—the struggle between exterior images and inner life, particularly in women; the social pressures at work in turn-of-the-century New York. Of course, a different century was turning, and the technological differences between the two cultures are immense. Some of those contrasts could be thought provoking and fun.
1. “I was not Rockford—I was its opposite, whatever that might be,” Charlotte declares. In Charlotte’s mind, what does Rockford represent? How is her chosen path a reaction to her place of birth? Is her return to Rockford at the end of the book merely circumstantial, or does it represent a symbolic shift in her perception of her hometown?
2. Charlotte describes her notion of the shadow self as, “that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly from certain bad photographs.” Why does this concept interest Charlotte, and what does that reveal about her character? What do you imagine Charlotte’s shadow self looks like? Does it change after her accident?
3. Many of the characters in Look at Me undergo major transformations—whether during the course of the novel or before it begins. In what specific ways do the characters change, and how do these changes affect their lives? Which transformations do you find most surprising? How is the idea of transformation linked to the novel’s larger thematic concerns about identity and self?
4. Discuss Z/Michael West. For what is he searching, and what does he find? How does his personal journey mirror Charlotte Swenson’s?
5. While recuperating from her accident and subsequent surgery, Charlotte allows none of her friends or acquaintances to see her. Once people see you in a weakened state, she claims, they’ll never forget, “and long after you’ve regained your vitality, after you yourself have forgotten these exhibits of your weakness, they’ll look at you and still see them.” How does this statement reflect Charlotte’s worldview at the beginning of the book? Is she right? Is her perspective borne out over the course of the novel, or does it evolve?
6. Misperceptions and misunderstandings play a crucial role in the plot of Look at Me; characters often reach for something they believe they see in one another, only to find that they were mistaken, or even purposely deceived. Identify some of these misunderstandings and talk about their significance to the novel as a whole.
7. Charlotte says, “information was not a thing—it was colorless, odorless, shapeless, and therefore indestructible. There was no way to retrieve or void it, no way to halt its proliferation.” Compare this statement to Moose’s idea that “now the world’s blindness came from too much sight, appearances disjoined from anything real, afloat upon nothing, in the service of nothing, cut off from every source of blood and life.” What is the connection between these two statements? Do they present differing views of the world or simply different interpretations of the same problem? In the end, does Look at Me seem to sanction them or call them into question?
8. Despite his apparent instability, there is a peculiar beauty in Moose’s striving for vision and in his efforts to communicate that vision to the young Charlotte. For what is he looking? Define, if you can, his odd emotional and spiritual response to industrial and historical events. When Moose experiences his vision once again at the end of the novel, what exactly do you think he sees?
9. Discuss Charlotte’s relationship with Irene Maitlock. What is it about Irene that draws Charlotte to her? Do you see any connection between this relationship and Charlotte’s friendship with Ellen Metcalf? How does Charlotte and Irene’s relationship change over the course of the book?
10. All of the characters in Egan’s novel deal differently with the concept of memory: Michael West allows himself just one memory a day, Charlotte shuns her memories, and Moose exists in a world saturated by memories of his own life, along with imagined recollections of an earlier historical time. What connection does the novel suggest between personal memory and cultural memory? How do you suppose the young Charlotte might feel about her memories twenty years down the road?
11. Look at Me begins by recounting Charlotte Swenson and Ellen Metcalf’s girlhood sexual misadventures. At the end of the novel, Charlotte and Ellen meet again, in very different circumstances. Talk about both women’s experiences in the interim, and about the significance of their last meeting. Did it satisfy you?
12. At the end of the novel, Charlotte demurs, “As for myself, I’d rather not say very much.” Indeed, the novel seems intentionally to leave us without a clear sense of what the future holds for its characters. Why do you think Egan has chosen to end her book so ambiguously? What sorts of lives will the Charlottes, Ellen Metcalf/Hauser, Z, Moose, Ricky, and Irene Maitlock go on to live?
13. Do you feel that Look at Me, with its depiction of how behind-the-scenes events contribute in the making of public images, will have any impact on the way you perceive celebrities?
14. Do you consider Look at Me—in particular, its brutal portrayal of the modeling world—a futuristic novel? Or can it be read it as a fairly accurate look at our present, evolving world? Might there be some way of escaping some of the disturbing scenes Egan describes?