Question: How do the two Charlottes change the meaning of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me?
The first Charlotte is a teenager. Her brother is battling leukemia and she is battling the natural urges of a teenager: to be seen and to be desired. Things come full-circle with the second Charlotte, who is a model-turned-medical-procedure somewhat shunned by her former vapid lifestyle.
I found this book to be effective because I didn’t have to read about how glitzy and awesome it is to be a model. It is no more interesting on a page than it is in real life: these people are beautiful, they drink, they do drugs, they have sex with other beautiful people, the end. Instead, the book is framed with the perfect chunk missing. The reader doesn’t know what the lifestyle is like, save for young Charlotte’s yearnings and older Charlotte’s longing to return. It’s sort of like how Bilbo wants to keep the ring while Frodo becomes consumed with its lure on his seventeen-year trip to Mount Doom, only if Bilbo and Frodo were the same person.
This book is both tragic and funny because the young Charlotte lives with the delusions of what the beautiful life is, while the older Charlotte knows exactly how hollow that life is; yet, they both want the same thing. The reader always pictures a hero whom is determined to be the perfect force for a story, someone who spits in the face of resignation. But when Charlotte won’t give up her pursuit post-accident, the heroic trait is turned pathetic.
Young Charlotte exploring her pubescence with a brother sick at home also serves as a harbinger of older Charlotte who has to live with her facial tragedy every day of her life. It’s as though the accident is the only way to wake her up from the spell of glamour and to remind her of the importance of relationships. Even that doesn’t work.
One might wonder what her eerily accurate predictions of the digital age have to do with these two characters when, in fact, the two Charlottes are inextricable from the Internet. What happens when you have chased after beauty, when you have lived with beauty, when you have been stripped of your beauty, and when none of the three lifestyles were satisfing? A new frontier for beauty must be created. On the Internet, beauty is completely redefined. You can subscribe to the objectifications of pornstars or you can become a different sensation. You can hide behind false profile pictures, you can hide behind text, you can hide behind anonymous usernames.
Or, you might not have to change at all. Take the prediction of the rise of web cams for instance. In the modeling world there is a universal beauty, more or less. On the Internet, a ‘hideousness’ like metal screws in one’s face might be beautiful in a fetishized subgenre, perverted or non.
The Charlottes became an Everyman that became the Internet. The non-existence of fulfillment in the real world has led to the addiction of the Internet where our words and portrayals can be edited, deleted, touched-up, or even raw. Like those dudes from The Social Network said, there are no bouncers. We are our own nightclub promoters on the Internet. No one can tell us that we’re not beautiful enough; if they do, it’s just a virtual presence saying that anyway. The fact that none of it’s real isn’t even important because the ‘real beauty’ of the outside world isn’t all that substantial.
I will address one criticism of the book which is unfortunately true but essential to the overall meaning. Critics have said that the book is occasionally too flowery for its own good, especially considering the stark style of Goon Squad. I ask them if that is not by design. Are not these Charlottes trying to convince the reader that outer beauty exists past the point of believability? Shouldn’t the language come off as contrived and artificial? Isn’t that what made The Great Gatsby what it is – that Nick Carraway’s account of Gatsby was so romanticized and in the end, he’s there by the Sound with Gatsby and the American Dream dead in the pool? If a novel is trying to be perfect, that’s usually a sign of things at their worst.