The website Ordinary People in Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel Look at Me is an invention of such satirical perfection she should have trademarked it, given how quickly American reality comes to ape its satire (and even outstrip it, as Philip Roth once noted). Egan wasn’t tempted, was she? “No,” she says, laughing, “but I knew it was a good idea. Nothing is easier than to send a lousy idea up there and make fun of it and shoot it down.
To me, the best satire has more weight because the idea is actually good. That’s what makes it so scary.” And Ordinary People is a scarily good idea. Subscribers get access to the lives of hundreds of ordinary – and for premium subscribers, extraordinary – people: an autoworker, a deepsea diver, a pool shark, a Yanomamo warrior in Brazil, a rebel in Sierra Leone.
Each person keeps a page full of photographs, childhood memories, dreams, diary entries, future plans/fantasies, regrets/missed opportunities. As the website’s founder says in the novel, subscribers “can go straight inside a coal miner’s life: kids, house, childhood traumas, what he ate for dinner last night, health problems, dreams… Does a coal miner dream about coal? I’d like to know that!” It’s not only a good idea but one that doesn’t sound so very far removed from Facebook – launched in 2004 – although Egan takes it to ludicrous lengths of monetisation and intrusion even Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t thought of yet.
Yet. During the six years Egan spent writing Look at Me, she repeatedly opened the newspaper and found “things I was writing about in a satiric vein printed as news. It was really uncanny how many times it happened in the course of writing that book. All I can add to Philip Roth’s comment is that if you want to write satire in America you’d better be fast.” She remembers an article “about how Survivor was coming to the States, which in a certain way was an even better idea than mine. And more satirical. But what can you do? I just stayed on my path.
There’s a kind of state I love to achieve in my work … one in which things are completely crazy – lik verifiably mad – and yet totally plausible and even logical.” Look at Me is Egan’s favourite of her books – Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad included. The second selection of the Listener Book Club, in association with Booksellers New Zealand, it’s the story of two Charlottes: one a beautiful 35-year-old fashion model on the slide whose face has been reconstructed after a car accident; the other a plain teenager involved with a mysterious older man.
As the two Charlottes’ stories converge, along with those of a number of other characters, Egan has great fun at the expense of reality TV and what would become social media, as well as the fashion world, and explores themes that range from the social economy of physical appearance to the post-industrialism of the American Midwest.
It’s a novel that has more of a familial resemblance to the books that followed – which also include the 2006 novel The Keep – than those that preceded: the 1995 novel The Invisible Circus and 1996’s Emerald City and Other Stories. It marks the beginning of Egan writing in a different register: looserlimbed, comic, utilising a larger cast across a bigger canvas, technically experimental.
Goon Squad might be more accomplished in its execution but you can see why Egan is so fond of Look at Me. “It was a natural evolution but an uncomfortable one,” she says. “Because I felt a sense of real rupture with what I had done before and found myself really frightened. I was afraid everyone would hate it. And also that somehow I didn’t have the right to do it, given what I had done before. That I was somehow unqualified … It was really exhilarating at moments but also very scary – in a way I really haven’t felt since.
“I feel like it’s been a lot more fun since then. It was something almost like a conversion experience that was inevitably a shock to the system but when I came out the other side I was a happier writer.” She was moving in a direction “I think I have continued to go in of basically not being that interested in a straightforward ‘here we are moving through time following some people through their story’. I seem to be more interested in having that be one element in something larger, whereas before that would be the whole thing.”
Towards the end of Look at Me, characters start to butt into each other’s stories and Egan is changing perspectives within a single paragraph. “I would be scared to do that now in a way,” she says, adding that she feared people would just laugh, think it was dumb, “like a kid trying to play with grown-up tools”. They didn’t. “Comic, richly imagined, and stunningly written … An energetic, unorthodox, quintessentially American vision of America,” said the New Yorker (raising the question of whether you can be both “unorthodox” and “quintessentially American”). “Brilliantly unnerving … A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel,” said the New York Times.
It was a book of the year in Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, and a National Book Award finalist. Egan, however, believes the novel might have disappeared were it not for another prophetic element – its inclusion of a Middle Eastern sleeper terrorist – and its being published shortly after 9/11. “Initially, the book, like all fiction of that moment, just vanished. Reviews didn’t run. A whole season of books vanished without a trace. That’s what started out happening. Then people who had read it started to think, ‘Wait a minute, wasn’t there something oddly along these lines in Look at Me?’ So it got a second wave of attention because of that element.
In that sense, it was to the book’s advantage, in the sense that it at least kept it in the mix. “I’m not sure I would have got a National Book Award nomination if it weren’t for that terrorist element, because I’m not sure it would have stayed in the mix enough that people would have even noticed it. I hadn’t published a book in a long time. I was not a big name. It came out at the heaviest time, fall. There was just no reason for anyone to care. But I think the eeriness of that echo did resonate with some people who had read it.”
The echo was entirely accidental. “I often don’t know that much when I start a first draft. I knew I had a person who was a kind of cypher. I have always been interested in those characters. The kind of quasi-sociopathic person who can just be all things to all people and the question of who that person is really. I knew I had a person who had disappeared from one world and had appeared in another. I knew he was a man but I didn’t know what his actual history would be.”
So she asked a detective she was talking to about another strand of the novel involving a private eye. He suggested the character might be in a terrorist cell. “I remember I said, ‘Really, that seems completely out of left field to me.’ But in fact it wasn’t at all because these people were all over the place. And people like this detective and the counterterrorism people I ended up interviewing later all knew that. The only problem was they all thought they were incredibly stupid. They’d spoken about these Islamic radicals in really disparaging and contemptuous terms that tended to presume they would never be sophisticated enough to do anything much.”
Egan remembers after 9/11 feeling “this strange sense of complicity or guilt because I had imagined strenuously the point of view of the guy wanting to blow up the World Trade Center and sort of wishing that on us and feeling we deserved it. So I felt compromised by having imagined that point of view so zealously.” After the success of Goon Squad, Egan is in no danger of being out of “the mix” again. But because of that success we are going to have to wait a while for another novel – Egan having been kept busy for the past 18 months talking (now about even older novels like Look at Me).
Her philosophy remains the same post- Pulitzer as before. “Which is to try with each book to do something I’ve never done before and that I feel genuinely unqualified to do … to write something that really feels fresh and exciting to me. I feel like I don’t know what more I can do than that. I feel that if I can keep doing that book by book and keep getting better I’ll accomplish what I hope to. If I can’t, I guess I’ll always wonder whether winning this [prize] paralysed me. But I have to say honestly I’ll be surprised if that happens …” She has a long short story in the New Yorker’s June fiction issue that she’s “pretty excited about” and that is “formally pretty radical and I think goes in another interesting direction”.
For the novel, one of the directions she’ll be going is into the past. “For the first time, I’m really interested in writing about a period before my lifetime: New York in the 1940s. I’m really interested in that moment when America first became a superpower and what that felt like. There are a lot of things I don’t know about the book yet but I feel it’s kind of out there waiting for me. Hopefully I’m right.”
And will it be set in the single time period? “I doubt it. I can’t imagine just placing people in the past and saying, ‘Okay, here we are and now here’s the story.’ I would be amazed if it were that way.” Me, too.
LOOK AT ME, by Jennifer Egan (Corsair, $24.99).
To join the Listener Book Club conversation about Look at Me, visit the Book Club section of our website, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub and hashtag #nzlbookclub, or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. Over the next four weeks, you will find a podcast discussion with three booksellers, a book group’s verdict and more besides. Most of all, though, we want to know what you think, and will be posting your comments from our website and social media at the end of month, when back here in the magazine you will also find reviewer Craig Ranapia’s take on Look at Me, along with an announcement of next month’s book.