June 2012 Archives

A Look Back at Look at Me

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When Jennifer Egan completed her final revisions for Look at Me in January of 2001, September 11th was just another date, Facebook wasn't even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, and to tweet was a verb reserved for birds. Yet in her meditation on our collective preoccupation with seeing and being seen, Egan eerily captured the zeitgeist of the decade to come.

Egan's novel revolves around characters with special insights into the power of projected image. There's a fashion model who must remake her career after an accident (and then a plastic surgeon) have remade her face. There's a plain teenager girl who must struggle through the difficulty of having sexual desires in a high-school culture that reserves such things for the made-over. There's an aging high-school-football God derailed by an apocalyptic vision of a future in which people are assembled from parts as machines once were. And there's Z, a would-be terrorist who must disguise himself to infiltrate American society and destroy the "conspiracy"--the way America uses media to tempt the world into remaking itself in its image.

If Z's story is the most frighteningly prescient, it's Charlotte's, the model, whose is the most surprisingly relatable. As someone who is literally paid for her face, she is, as one (academic) character puts it, "a more exaggerated version of everyone's position in a visually based, media-driven culture." In a world where bosses check the Facebook's of interviewees and companies replace full-time employees with case-by-case hires from an online talent pool, self-presentation, especially online, is becoming as much a part of modern work as sending emails or filling in Excel spreadsheets.

This is especially the case once Charlotte tries to re-launch her career with the help of an internet start-up called Ordinary People, a web database of PersonalSpacesTM in which people from all different walks of life share their "Childhood memories. Dreams. Diary Entries," with interested subscribers. Of course, no web service that exists today is exactly like the one Egan imagines. No one (or very few) are paid to set up a Facebook or a Twitter, no one pays to read them, and anyone, not just those chosen as especially interesting, can set up one of these services. Yet it's hard not to identify with Charlotte when she finds herself thinking for her PersonalSpace while walking through the city. "Childhood Memory: Pretending with my sister that our lives were a 24-hour movie. Regret/ Missed Opportunity: I'd forgotten every line of 'The Eve of Saint Agnes.'" At the end of the novel, Charlotte's internet identity becomes such a performance that the real her is no longer needed to inhabit it. She sells her identity to live out her life in secret, under another name, while her computer-generated image becomes the first woman to give birth online. 

In this way she becomes the perfect illustration of the ex-jock's vision of "a disaster in which the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves; whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had once been." That's not so different from what new-media theorist Rob Horning wrote about Facebook in 2011.

 

It implements freedom of self-representative choices as a mode of control; our identities are "unfinished" but contained by the site, which ensures that more of our social energy is invested in self-presentation there--selling objectified fragments of ourselves as though we are consumer goods.

 

But what makes Egan's novel so memorable is not only the accuracy of her insight but also her exploration of the inner lives hidden behind her characters' polished surfaces.  As Charlotte walks the city composing her online profile, she also hates herself for the ease with her thoughts conform to the new medium. In fact Charlotte, used to years of professional looking, develops a habit of searching for shadow selves: "possible selves [people hid] behind the strange rubber masks of their faces. I could nearly always find one, if I looked long enough." So Oscar, her sharp-dressing booker, is secretly sad; Paul Shepard, the World Bank employee she hooks up with one night, hides a calculating shadow self behind his nice, Mid-West exterior. Charlotte, behind her newly-made face, is disillusioned with her own hunger for fame, and Z, behind his near-perfect accent and calm façade, seethes with a rage that is also desire.

Not always flattering, but if there is any comfort to be found in the book, it is in these shadow selves. Egan insists that no matter how much a performance our public lives become, we will never really be factory made. Because once we have turned off the web-cam and logged off of our profile, our shadow self remains, free to confront the shadow self beside us on the couch with indifference, hatred, or even love.

Review by Olivia Rosane

Orphaned Feelings: A Review of Nicole Krauss's Great House

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Cover of "Great House: A Novel"

Nicole Krauss's Great House has avoided the baggage of "women's fiction" pointed out by Meg Wolitzer in a recent New York Times article; unlike other contemporary novels written by women, the jacket of Great House does not deal in domestic clichés, the "laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house" (Wolitzer). Instead, the cover is abstract, textual: a jacket which does not diminish the strong, serious stuff within.  

Great House is most remarkable in its central structuring device--it is anchored by the heft of an old, somewhat monstrous desk, a desk which connects the four otherwise disparate narrators weaving their dark tales. The first is a female novelist who holds onto it for a Chilean poet who then disappears from her life. The desk roots her to her apartment for decades and guides the writing of each of her novels: "One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now . . . had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life" (16). The preoccupations of this narrator as she gives her life story to another character, a judge in a hospital bed, revolve around this desk--her memories of it, her grief--now that it has been retrieved by another of the characters on behalf of the missing poet. Another narrator has given his life to the pursuit of furniture that had been lost by the Jews in the Holocaust. The novel, in some sense, is a lineage of the desk. 

Virginia Woolf wrote that a novel should have a vertical line going through it as an organizing principle--the chiming of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway and the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse --as though such a work is not a linear thing, moving ahead chronologically, but a circling one, rippling outwards from a solid centre. Though Great House spans full lifetimes, covering failed relationships of all kinds and the mysteries people are to one another, it does so anchored, always, by the enormous, ownerless desk.

The lineage of the desk is, of course, fraught. Its owners have led tragic lives, filled with secrets. The desk itself has a locked drawer: "The drawer had been locked for as long as I could remember . . . . I always instinctively reached for it first, awakening a kind of fleeting unhappiness, a kind of orphaned feeling that I knew had nothing to do with the drawer but had somehow come to live there" (21). All of the feelings--the loneliness, confusion, rage, and unhappiness shared by the characters--are orphans: we never truly understand their origins and neither do the characters. Instead, we grope in the darkness of a novel evocative of terror and refusing to explain. 

Besides the structure, one other remarkable thing about Great House is these evocations of terror: it is filled with imagery that works to create both mood and suspense but never becomes properly symbolic. Images and objects are not translated in a direct way into ideas; instead, they communicate pain and terror without making their meaning clearly known. The characters, similarly, are groping and do not share their secrets with the reader. There is a story of a mother who burns herself and her children to death. Furniture begins to seem like decomposing bodies, and the first narrator's life turns edgy with depression and anxiety when the desk is finally taken from her. Another character is described by his narrator, his father, as nonhuman, as strange: "There was a little moonlight, and from what I could see the stick figure looked like neither a man nor a woman, and not a child either. An animal, maybe. A wolf, or a wild dog" (63). Most secretive, most traumatized is the character of Lotte Berg, who tells her husband nothing of her experience during the war--the loss of her parents and her home--and who takes daily swims in the "swimming hole" that gives one of the chapters its title: "She'd approach the water's edge. For a moment she would stand completely still. God knows what she thought about. Up until last she was a mystery to me. . . . And then, in a flash, she'd disappear into the darkness" (77). Characters are ghostly, beastly, being swallowed up. Most fearsome of all is the titular great house, a Victorian which has "gone to seed" (110). Like something in a nineteenth-century Gothic, its inhabitants trap themselves miserably there, a sister, a brother, and a difficult, obsessive father who leaves to seek furniture lost during the Second World War: "Leah remembered the arrival of certain of these long-lost pieces . . . , tense and somber events that had terrified her so much as a small child she would sometimes hide in the kitchen when the crates were pried open, in case what popped out were the blackened faces of her dead grandparents" (115). 

Great House is haunted by history. The repetition of all of these dark images, these secrets, as well as the looming furniture and houses haunted not by literal ghosts but by family pain, did make it feel to me like a Gothic novel. The atmosphere is thick and eerie; the frightening mood and insinuation of secrets enough in themselves to propel the narrative. Suspense is strong, but, like everything in the book, somehow mysterious; I lapped the pages up eagerly without understanding why I was so curious about the life of the desk and its owners. The narrators take us through the long stories of their lives and we follow willingly, afraid for and compelled by the secret darkness at their heart.  

Of course, the novel is about alienation, about loss, about secrets, and all of these images and stories--the monstrous furniture and terrible deeds, the swimming holes and locked drawers, the blackened faces and wolfish children--do some symbolic work. But I think that this is not, primarily, how they function. Any such symbolism is interrupted and indeterminate. Instead, they compel us to feel as the characters do, to grope like they do, and to feel their fear. Objects first give life texture, keep us company with their heft, their  physical presence. The desks that anchor our lives do so first actually and then symbolically--first by being present and then by receiving the whole confusion of meaning we wish to pour into them. 

 Review by Liz Harmer

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