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Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
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Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
Paperback $19.00
Oct 08, 2002 | ISBN 9780385721356

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    Oct 08, 2002 | ISBN 9780385721356

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  • Dec 23, 2009 | ISBN 9781400033270

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“Brilliantly unnerving. . . . A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel.” The New York Times

“Comic, richly imagined, and stunningly written. . . . An energetic, unorthodox, quintessentially American vision of America.” –The New Yorker

Look at Me is so engrossing, energetic, sharp, and funny, it reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man.” –Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air (NPR)

“Arresting. . . . Look at Me is the real thing–brave, honest, unflinching. [It] is itself a mirror in which we can clearly see the true face of the times in which we live.” –Francine Prose, The New York Observer

“Egan limns the mysteries of human identity and the stranglehold our image-obsessed culture has on us all in this complicated and wildly ambitious novel.” –Newsweek

“Intriguing. . . . An unlikely blend of tabloid luridness and brainy cultural commentary. . . . The novel’s uncanny prescience gives Look at Me a rare urgency.” –Time

“Egan has created some compelling characters and written provocative meditations on our times. . . . [She] has captured our culture in its edge-city awfulness.” –The Washington Post Book World

Look at Me is a complicated novel . . . but the questions it raises are worth following a lifetime of labyrinths toward the answers.” –Los Angeles Times

“Ambitious, swiftly paced. . . . Egan writes with such shimmering élan that it’s easy to follow her cast on its journey.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Prescient and provocative. . . . The characters . . . jump from the pages and dare you to care about them. . . . The prose is crisp and precise. . . . The pieces fit together at the end with a satisfying click.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“Impressive. . . . Few recent books have so eloquently demonstrated how often fiction, in its visionary form, speaks of truth.” –

Look at Me makes us think about our trust in the images that bombard us, and what we give away in the process.” –Chicago Tribune

“Egan’s rich new novel . . . is about bigger things: double lives; secret selves; the difficulty of really seeing anything in a world so flooded with images.” –The Nation

“Stunning. . . . This is more than a story, it’s a thought-world, a novel of ideas brilliantly cloaked in the skin of characters.” –The Sunday Oregonian

“Egan’s take . . . is surreal and profoundly ironic and exaggerated, but it still rings true. . . . Beneath it all, she finds characters worth saving.” –Hartford Courant

“Breathtaking. . . . Combines the tautness of a good mystery with the measured, exquisitely articulated detail and emotional landscape of the most literary of narratives. . . . Sure to leave readers thinking about these very real characters for some time to come.” –BookPage

“An imaginative, well-paced read with serious questions about the elusiveness of meaning inside the gilded cage. Egan has intelligence to burn but plenty of feeling too.” –People

“Part mystery, part cultural critique, [Look at Me] . . . build[s] to a conclusion that is unexpected and disturbing, and mak[es] an incisive statement about our society’s obsession with fame and glamour.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Riveting. . . . As the book gains momentum, Egan’s writing is both fluid and driven, with wonderful slashes of satire. . . . A remarkable study of our culture . . . and of our palpable need to be known.” –O: The Oprah Magazine

“Egan has created a compelling world. . . . With [her] graceful prose and vivid characterizations, she navigates her plot lines’ churning waters with admirable skill.” –Seattle Weekly

“[A] scintillating inquiry into the complex and profound dynamics of perception. . . . Egan . . . animates a superb cast of intriguing and unpredictable characters, and tells an elegantly structured, emotionally arresting and slyly suspenseful story.” –Newsday

“Dark, hugely ambitious. . . . As riveting as a roadside wreck–and noxiously, scathingly funny.” –Elle

“Intelligent and refreshingly dark, Egan’s eerie tale has the same mesmerizing pull as the culture it skewers.” –Us Weekly

“This masterfully plotted work bears the stamp of a perceptive–if not clairvoyant–writer whose disturbing vision . . . rings all too true.” –SF Weekly

“Egan’s ability to move with ease between sincerity and satire sets Look at Me apart. . . . Her authentic-feeling details give a sense of unusual immediacy.” –Vogue

Author Q&A

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.

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