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Jennifer Egan, author of "Look at Me," talks about her book's prescient depiction of a terrorist sleeper, the perversities of the fashion world and why male novelists get more credit for writing about big ideas.

Published November 14, 2001 10:31PM (EST)

Jennifer Egan's latest novel, "Look at Me" (one of five finalists for the National Book Award for fiction, to be awarded Wednesday night), demonstrates that to those who were truly paying attention, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 could not have come as a complete surprise. Egan, who has published one other novel and a collection of short stories, has crafted a cool, jittery tale of a lonely teenage girl, a fashion model whose face must be reconstructed after a car accident, and the mysterious man who touches both their lives. The man turns out to be a terrorist "sleeper," an emissary from a dusty, rage-filled land intent on wreaking vengeance on America for the vast conspiracy he believes has destroyed and degraded his world. Few recent books have so eloquently demonstrated how often fiction, in its visionary form, speaks of truth. Egan dropped by Salon's offices recently to talk about "Look at Me."

You have a character in "Look at Me" who goes by the nickname Moose, a high school football hero turned kooky professor who's obsessed with the history of technology and capitalism, and with the doom he feels is coming as a result of both. He's someone who's teetering on the brink of insanity, but then again he's not entirely wrong. Do you see him as a prophet without honor in his own land, or as someone with a grain of truth who's just gone over the edge?

Both. He has an apocalyptic vision and feels that the world is going to end. In a sense, that is a feeling that I had a lot while working on this book. I can't really explain it. Maybe it was the sense of being buoyed up on the exalted fat times of the '90s and feeling that somehow it was going to come crashing down, I don't know. But I felt worried about a lot of things as I was working on the book and I think he became the repository of a lot of those worries. But I also raise a lot of legitimate questions about his vision. There's something so analogous about the history of the world to the history of his own personal situation that it's a little suspect. He's smart, he's on to something. At times I agree with him, but at times I think it's a little overdramatic. I think all those things at once.

Another of the characters in your book is a sleeper, a Middle Eastern man who comes to the U.S. with an antagonistic attitude toward American culture and some unclear but threatening plans. He assumes various false identities. Reading that, knowing that you'd written it before the recent terrorist attacks, was pretty spooky for me. It must have been very strange for you after Sept. 11.

It was very freaky. The strangest thing about it was that I researched that character, and what I learned was that the characteristic profile of a suicide bomber -- which is kind of how my guy starts out although he takes a different path -- is fairly naive, young, zealous, unsophisticated, without a lot of choices in their lives. It really wasn't satisfying to me to write about someone like that, nor could I imagine him having the trajectory that I wanted my guy to make in the book. So I decided to make my guy depart from that and I made him more middle-class, someone who comes to radicalism later in his life. He's sophisticated. What I found eeriest is that the ways that I departed from the suicide bomber model are also the ways that a lot of these Sept. 11 guys did.

I find that happens a lot, though. Strangely enough, it seems that often imaginative leaps find their echoes in reality. I'd known I was going to write about a terrorist for many years. I've been collecting stories on Mideast terrorism from the New York Times since 1995. I have the first article where bin Laden is mentioned by name, in a story about how Saudi businessmen seem to be underwriting terrorism. I wanted to include a terrorist because terrorism of this nature is a byproduct of image culture. It's completely dependent on the media. It seemed like a strange, almost funny twist on the idea of a fashion model, whose stock in trade is her image. In a way, what could be more different, and yet the two bizarrely have much in common.

How do you see this kind of terrorism as being dependent on the media?

It's all about the pictures. Typically, these terrorists commit a small act -- although Sept. 11 wasn't a small act -- and that bounces around and reverberates exponentially through the airwaves. And I'm not the first; [Don] DeLillo's written a lot about this. It's such a modern phenomenon, it's such a figment of media-saturated life that it was just inevitable that it would be part of my book. I was also conscious of and interested in the fact that so many people hate America, and that the very things that make our country satisfying to live in for us are the source of a tremendous amount of anger and resentment elsewhere. Terrorism was just part of that picture. It seemed clearly to be a factor that was going to be important, so that's why it was there, but it's not like I saw any of this coming -- my God, I really didn't. But I imagined that it could, that some enormous event could happen.

You did say that you had an apocalyptic feeling writing it.

I did, although Z, which is one of the names the character uses, says some things to Charlotte that I think I found more eerie than the part in the book where he reminisces about the first World Trade Center bombing. He says these things that really freaked me out when I went back and reread them. He says, "Things won't go on as they have," meaning life in America. He says something like, "It will end in an explosion of violence you can't possibly imagine, sheltered and spoiled as you are."

I was just imagining. I also think many people wondered and worried when this effervescent moment would end, and for me that's the form that it took, maybe because I was already interested in terrorism, maybe because I was doing all this research on terrorism. My research consisted mostly of reading the newspaper really, really carefully over many years. And there was no escaping the refrain, which was these people hate us, they're gathering resources, there are tons of them here already. And sooner or later, they're going to get it together. Certainly people who had reason to know that knew that. Little things would bubble to the surface now and then. But I was not trying to predict anything, believe me. And let's remember that my terrorist doesn't remain a terrorist at all. He's somewhat won over by American life, although it's more complicated than that. He no longer believes in the conspiracy that he thought existed here and that he came here to destroy. He winds up embracing American life.

That's something that seems to have surprised a lot of Americans, that the terrorist sleepers who pulled off the Sept. 11 attack could live here among us and not be seduced by American life.

I find that idea so nutty. The logic is, "But they went to Wal-Mart! How could they still want to kill Americans?" I feel more like, they went to Wal-Mart and guess what? I don't mean to be flip about it, I'm just saying that the idea that visits to some fast food restaurants and a couple of lap dances is going to be enough to wrest someone away from what was clearly a consuming and complex network of action and belief with which they'd been intertwined for so long, that seems really simplistic and having a little too much faith in the power of our way of life.

Still, people in other cultures have been complaining for years that their young people have abandoned all traditions for Michael Jackson and Adidas, that American culture is too seductive. And foreign correspondents will talk about how someone overseas will curse America with one breath and in the next talk about how he wants to move here.

All those things were things that interested me with this book, the way that the rage and the desire are so commingled. They're really two sides of the same coin, the desire for American life and the resentment of that desire that then hardens into hatred. The sense that there's so much here, but one is excluded from it, so the desire to have it winds up turning on itself. The big difference between those guys and mine is that mine is on his own. He's not part of a network of anything anymore. He's a lone agent, and that makes it harder for him to sustain the zealous commitment that these people had to sustain. For them, they were in our world, but they weren't really. And I think what you might call the co-optation, the seduction of American culture is part of what they're so enraged about. So I think their defenses against that would be really high. They feel that the impact of American culture and the seductiveness of it have ruined other cultures. They also have each other to answer to. I wouldn't think that defections would be taken lightly.

You must have worked hard to project yourself into the mind of someone like that.

That was the way that it made me feel guilty. I felt sullied by the time I had spent in the brain of someone who might have liked to see this happen. As a fiction writer, you wind up imagining the perspective of all kinds of people who we might call demented or perverse. That's the job of a fiction writer, to be able to imagine anything, but suddenly the imaginative exercise of it seemed really moot in light of all this. I wished that the perspective of such a person were less available to me than it felt at that moment. I thought, Oh my God, this is what he was thinking of, the kind of thing he's hoping for.

Where did you get the idea for "Look at Me," the notion of a model whose face is destroyed and then rebuilt?

I started more with a collection of ideas, which is usually how it works for me, and also a sense of place. The first thing that I knew about this book is that it would take place in New York and in Rockford, Ill., which is my mother's hometown. It doesn't have a lot to recommend it except that my grandparents lived there. I found that after they passed away, when I was in my 20s, I kept having this urge to go back to Rockford. It was just nagging at me so I finally did.

I also knew that I wanted to write about someone in the New York fashion world because I was so interested in image culture. That's a lot of what the book is about and that seemed like an irresistible way to explore that. But I couldn't figure out how this woman and these nascent Rockford people would intersect. I went back to Rockford again and I was driving in a huge rainstorm from O'Hare into Rockford and traffic was stopped and I had this idea of the car swinging off the road and this woman's face being damaged and unrecognizable. It all came out of Rockford, oddly.

What about Rockford in particular was compelling you to go back and to write about it?

I was interested in the counterpoint between Rockford and New York. New York is really the image-making city and where so much of the media is located, and Rockford is really so apart from that. It's much more like a lot of America in that it always feels so very far from New York. I had a sense of wanting to somehow include both of those worlds in some way. What I found myself thinking about in Rockford, which is not something I had noticed as a kid, was the depressed, faded industry of it. The old dilapidated factory buildings by the river. It has this old kind of crummy downtown where no one goes anymore. I was interested in it as a place that had once been teeming with something but events had moved on and left this shell in a sense. There's a feeling of it being in the midst of an aftermath, and that fascinated me.

What made you want to write about people in the fashion industry? Was it the journalism you've done about it?

I took an assignment from the New York Times magazine in 1996 to write about the modeling industry and to talk about the way that our culture was totally obsessed with it at that point and specifically what goes on with these very young girls who move to New York, often with no education, to live essentially as adults and to pose as much older women in photographs. I was leery of taking that one because I'd done almost no journalism and who knew how long this was going to take and whether I'll even succeed at it, but I also knew that I wanted to write about someone in that world. I'd even made tentative forays into getting fashion people to let me hang out with them so I could do research: forget it. There are people in this world who are willing to help a struggling novelist, but the fashion people are not among them. This assignment seemed like the perfect solution. As it turned out, I liked journalism and have continued to enjoy doing it and that led to a whole series of articles.

I had know for a while that I wanted to write about fashion. I was interested in the evolution of media saturation to the intense point that we can all agree that it reached in the late 20th century and probably continues to proliferate although I think now there's a little feeling of maybe things settling down. Somehow there seemed to be no better way to look at that world than to look at a woman whose stock in trade is literally her image. In a symbolic, archetypal way it's always interested me, and my work for the Times only cemented that feeling. I was totally fascinated to learn that millions of girls all over the country really want to do this. This is what they dream of. It just felt important, something I wanted to look at very closely, both in itself and as an extreme version of a way of life I think we've all had to develop, which is a consciousness of our images and an ability to maneuver them successfully in order to function in this world we live in.

It sounds as though you experience your work as very idea-driven. Is that something you've been moving toward, or something you feel you've been doing all along?

I think all along. I'm not sure my first novel reads that way, exactly. It's a much more emotional story, more straightforward, but it was totally idea-driven. I was fascinated by the fact that image culture was born in the '60s. Todd Gitlin's book "The Whole World Is Watching" about the interplay between SDS and the media is something I read in college and that really interested me. I could talk very theoretically about that book, but most people would say, "What are you talking about? This is a book about two girls and a girl whose older sister has committed suicide." But I think the ideas are pretty palpable in it. For me a story is just not interesting if there isn't a philosophical query along with it.

Do you feel that's an unusual position to be in when writing American fiction? Has it been hard for you to have that aspect of your work appreciated?

I was frustrated that my first novel wasn't read in that way very often. I don't know if that's because I'm a woman and it was a story about sisters so there was an immediate assumption that there certainly couldn't be anything very intellectual going on there -- or whether the ideas that drove me to write it don't appear in the book to the extent that I think they do. I don't know. It was so important to me, the "thought" part of it, that just having people respond to the emotions of the story was satisfying, sure -- I want to feel things when I read, don't get me wrong -- but that seemed to come at the exclusion of the other.

I also feel sometimes that I'm not sure exactly what tradition I'm part of. I hate about myself the fact that I tend to model myself consciously after male writers. And I think that's because again there's this association that I'm very suspicious of that somehow men take on the big topics more than women do, which I don't think is necessarily true. But I sometimes fall prey to that supposition myself, and I sometimes feel a bit confused about what I fit into. But what I'm trying to do in the work itself, that seems clear to me, and I think that's what's most important.

Who are those male writers you model yourself after? The idea that there's a split between male and female writers in America is something people have been talking about lately because of Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections."

That whole thing is so interesting because so much was made of the fact that he wrote about a family, as if this were some kind of revelatory notion. I imagine that reading a headline like that about a book by a woman would be laughable -- because the presumption is of course that it would be about a family. Yet this was seen as a really unusual thing to do for a brainy male writer. It's almost a clichi to say it but like so many people of my generation, I've really soaked up my DeLillo and find him extremely compelling as a model. Robert Stone is someone I've read and enjoyed a lot. I'd call them both fairly global in their perspective and quite idea-driven.

I haven't had the sense that Jonathan Franzen clearly has that there's some kind of crisis in American fiction, but I've read with interest his remarks. I agree with his goal of wanting to fuse the emotional with the intellectual. When I read that in the New York Times, I thought, yes, that's exactly what my goal has been this whole time. He said it beautifully and I entirely agree. Still, reading something that falls more to one side than the other can be extremely satisfying. It doesn't have to be both. A book that is strong emotionally and resonates always seems to resonate beyond the story it's telling, even in an intellectual way.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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