You read certain books like you down that sixth beer or the oversized slice of cheesecake, so delighted in the moment, but soon thereafter the nagging doubt: "was it worth it? was it really all that?" Or maybe there's less hangover or doubt than readerly transformation: that one book, that one
book, that meant so
much, that time you read it? Yeah, it ain't all that. Your tastes improved (your younger self really liked Strohs?), or maybe just changed (no kick left, for you, in champagne). Often for me, re-reading can be an extended act of self-recrimination, a painful engagement with the limits of my own judgment.
Yeah. Egan's book is not one of those.
I picked up Look at Me
with trepidation, lo these 8 years after my initial outsized appreciation, and it is even more dazzling, more prescient, more powerful, funnier, more furiously alive and enlivening. Egan had the misfortune to publish this a scant week after 9/11, and a few months after Jonathan Franzen began busily seducing critics (and dissing Oprah) and generally chest-beating as the newly-appointed 800-lb. gorilla of contemporary American fiction. Laura Miller, in Salon, after raving about Egan's novel, published a very interesting interview which underscored such contextual noise, and this sent me hurriedly to the local bookstore. And then... well, see above. Drunkenness ensued, and I was in love.
(I had felt the same about Franzen. But, while I still find The Corrections
brutally funny, it reads as far less capacious, far more constipated in its vision, than I'd recalled. Whereas Egan's novel seems to open up on so many threads of contemporary life, seems some time on so in touch with the things that mattered in this last decade.)
It is a novel concerned with appearances, yes, and the deceptive distances between perceptions and truths. It is a novel where a character has gone half-mad at our displacement from material history, driven to furious distraction by the way we have lost touch with things, can only engage with ideas, the brisk whir of Information decontextualizing, dehumanizing. But it is also a novel embedded in material contexts, in the busy messy day-to-day confusions of desire and need and human relationships; even as it reaches for big Ideas, it remains beautifully grounded in its study of these characters. And vice versa. (When George Eliot gets a little hat-tip in the novel, I thought, this second time, that it's no stretch to see Egan not just a fan but a peer to that great writer.)
And it is a novel of lovely surfaces, too--Egan's prose often beautiful, funny, perfect. When one of the protagonists engages with a p.r. agent about marketing her new life, she finds herself annoyed by the obsequious French cultural-studies scholar "scribbl[ing:] madly" after each comment, "his catcher's mitt face" receiving the different possible 'pitches' for her life-story: "first pity, then pity; now pity. I felt like kicking him."
This novel is a kick. Almost ten years on, I would say it's one of the best I've ever read.