Midway through Jennifer Egan's novel "Look at Me," a climax so cataclysmic occurs that walls crumble, ceilings fall and waves of understanding undulate through the earth. That the crash and tumble is happening in one character's imagination -- that the "Yyyyyeeeeeesssss ... YYYYEEEEEEESSSS" is "bellowed (mentally) ... 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 ... which widened into cracks and gaps and then gullies" -- makes it no less tremendous.
It is the moment that Egan, not much for subtlety, makes the point she's been getting at all along. American culture has replaced identity with image -- true beauty with the idea of beauty or fashion, real nourishment with its Happy Meal equivalent -- the way paper money has replaced gold coins.
"Don't look at yourself through their eyes -- don't," that same character pleads earlier. "Or they will have won, because ... because we are what we see." And if we become our reflected image, we all but cease to exist.
Egan's message is carried by a tale of two Charlottes. The elder Charlotte is a Manhattan fashion model longing to live her life in "the mirrored room," surrounded by refracted images of herself. The book begins with a car crash -- just outside her hometown, Rockford, Ill. -- that alters Charlotte's appearance. Though not disfigured, her face is unrecognizable to the fashionable set that has populated her world. "After the accident," she says in the book's opening lines, "I became less visible."
Though she remembers nothing of the actual accident, Charlotte returns to New York and finds that, without her old image, she must begin the search for a new identity. Along the way, she becomes embroiled in a hunt for a mysterious man named Z, meets a handsome gumshoe and peddles her story to an Internet service called "Ordinary People," though she herself has been deemed "Extraordinary." Eventually, she finds that she must choose between this newly created image of herself and her true self.
Meanwhile, Charlotte's young namesake, the teenage daughter of a childhood friend, is also plagued by the way others see her. By frankly embracing and acting on her own sexual yearnings -- and by failing to present to the world an acceptable facade -- Charlotte has rendered herself something of a pariah in her Rockford, Ill., high school. Disapproval of her plainness of purpose is compounded by distaste for her plain looks; unlike her girlfriends, young Charlotte has no interest in fashion and artifice. On one hand, she longs to re-create herself in the socially acceptable image of her friends. On the other, she finds herself attracted to a mysterious math teacher and to the eye-opening teachings of her nutty Uncle Moose.
Egan flips back and forth between the worlds of each Charlotte, juxtaposing Rockford and Manhattan, youth and experience, love and empty lust, innocence and jadedness -- yet illuminating the struggles common to each.
Less pedantic than its message would indicate, the book reads like both a mystery and a romance novel, like a Raymond Chandler detective story and, at times, a Judy Blume teenage-problem book. Propelled by plot, peppered with insights, enlivened by quirkily astute characterizations, and displaying an impressive prescience about our newly altered world, "Look at Me" is more nuanced than it first appears. Ultimately, it takes us beyond what we see and hints at truths we have only just begun to understand.