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