Review: Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is exceptionally talented. As much carping as I’ve done about poorly written books, you’d think I’d curl up with the words of a brilliant author in a ball of contentment. But this book fails in execution. The best example is to compare it to the movie 300: the slow-mo battle sequences are bad@$$ and necessary (how else would you discern every nuance of Leonidas’s awesomeness?), but too many lesser scenes in slo-mo dilute the overall effect. By the time the viewer sees the Queen walking in slo-mo (again) and dipping her hands in a fountain, they cease to be transfixed and begin to ponder that eternal question of the modern cinematic age: How long would 300 be without slo-mo?

The main storyline is Charlotte Swenson putting her life back together after a horrific car accident that left her with 80 titanium screws in her face. As a former model, she’s still beautiful, but no one recognizes her reconstructed face. Early on, she meets the daughter of a childhood friend (also named Charlotte). The lives of the two Charlottes mirror each other in an interesting fashion, but more and more characters are dropped into the narrative. They’re all interlinked, but not in a particularly interesting or clever way. Somehow, everyone in this book is caught in the throes of The Most Pivotal Moment of Their Lives. Taken independently, their stories are interesting, but they detract from one another when placed together. Each of the (by my count) six main characters have their own supporting ensembles, convoluted backstories, and agendas. Since most don’t intersect directly with Charlotte’s situation, they serve nothing to advance the plot, only to advance much navel-gazing masquerading as a deep critique of identity. Who is Charlotte Swenson now that she has lost her face? Who is Ricky now that he’s no longer sick? Who is . . . who is . . . All interesting questions, but there’s not enough momentum to go around. Let me amend that—there’s one character soaking up the momentum: aptly named Moose, he lumbers around in a pseudo-philosophical haze, stoking his obsession with the Industrial Revolution. His scenes are interminable.

Nearly every action in this book is foreshadowed, painstakingly explained, fully supported, and followed up upon. Have you ever seen a person study by highlighting every word in a textbook? When everything is important, nothing is. It’s rare that a character speaks a line without an explanatory paragraph to dissect their mental state and intentions.

Had Egan structured this book as she did her interconnected short stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it would have been amazing! It would have helped her whittle down each of the six main plots to their most essential moments and allow their stories to end naturally. As is, there is an unspeakably clumsy ending in which everyone winds up in a cornfield during Charlotte Swenson’s improbable climax. I felt as though Egan was pressured to bring everything together at the same time. When the answers to the central mysteries of this novel are finally answered, there isn’t much relief in knowing—nothing is changed, and it turns out that Charlotte knew the cause of her car crash the whole time (the only mystery I’d been curious about).

I finished this book to the end only for the writing. Egan is truly gifted. Her ability to describe a common scene and make it extraordinary is unrivaled. Her critique of modern identity and consumerist culture is interesting; she sets up scenes as demonstrations, withholding her own viewpoints to let the viewer draw theirs (heavy-handed preachy types have no business writing fiction). But her characters never truly come to life. They’re demonstrations of people run aground, not actual people.

I usually have a quote for my reviews. Michael West’s first McDonald’s Big Mac is a pretty momentous scene, but I’ve decided to go with the following sentence (Egan tends towards the long, internal stuff when writing Moose). I know I said I wasn’t a fan of the Moose scenes, but I did enjoy his Eureka! moment. (His pendulous uvula brought me back to the good ol’ Saturday morning cartoons.) Not all of her sentences are this long, but it’s a fair sampling of her writing in this novel of which so much is internal.

In Moose’s imagination there was a break, a snap, and then a great many things ensued with a drastic simultaneity that was the hallmark of mental events unfettered by the constraints of physical possibility:  he bellowed (mentally), “Yyyyyeeeeeeeessssss!,” his uvula swinging like a pendulum at the back of his throat, the prolonged, gut-heaving force of his yell loosening the support beams over his head and sending tiny fissures through the walls of Meeker Hall, which widened into cracks and gaps and then gullies, so that shortly the building was collapsing over their heads: desks, computers, books, a hecatomb of didacticism and scholarship and cruelty (toward him) reduced to nonsense by a single yell from the man they’d relegated to the basement, but that wasn’t all – his yell sent shock waves through the soil in whose depths they’d forced him to work, waves that burrowed under those delicately landscaped hills and dales and dells and playing fields, so that the buildings whose halcyon views they enhanced were shaken to their foundations, and by the time he reached the sssss of Yyyyyeeeeeeeesssss, a thunderous general collapse was in progress that threatened to spread indefinitely, his departmental colleagues airborne and whirling like locusts, desks, files, documents intended to effect his dismissal (he knew it! He knew it!), all of these separated and broke and divided until they were blowing in the breeze like the furry seeds of dandelions, and in the silence that seeped over the world following this juggernaut, a silence like the falling of night, Moose stepped from his basement hole and surveyed the wreckage his affirmation had wrought and was pleased, yes, he was satisfied.

Overall: 3.0 (out of 5.0) The writing is good, but the pacing is rubbish. I should rank it lower, because I felt like I was clawing my way through the dense prose of the latter half of the novel, but I really like Jennifer Egan. And she can write. I read The Keep in a single sitting. When she sharpens her focus and doesn’t get bogged down in a half dozen characters and dozens of supporting characters, she’s really, really good. If this book were tighter, it would be stellar. This novel is ambitious and falls short.

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