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Friday
Feb172012

« In Which The Dreams Of Jennifer Egan Come True »

Internal & External

by SARAH LABRIE

Look At Me is a novel by Jennifer Egan about a model named Charlotte who drives her car into a ditch and wakes up with eighty titanium screws in her face. Dropped by her friends and dismissed by her agent, disfigured Charlotte makes a final effort to revive her career and lands a shoot with Italian Vogue. On set at a loft in Soho, she stops mid-pose at the “odd snapping noise” of a man pulling a glove on over his hand.   

      “Hold it,” I said, fighting my way to a standing position in the copious dress. “What’s going on?”
      Startled, Ellis turned to Spiro.
      “He’s going to cut you,” Spiro said, as if this were self-evident.
      “Cut me where?      
      “Your face.”
      “I don’t cut deep at all,” Ellis said softly. “You’ll hardly feel it.”
      “Does it bleed?”
      “Well, of course it bleeds,” Spiro said. “That’s the whole point.”

Egan has a habit of stretching everyday clichés until they circle in on themselves and become something else. If the fashion world is superficial, why not chip at the surface until the models bleed? If modeling is insular and elitist, why not have Charlotte’s understudy be a North Korean refugee? (The new fashion photography trend, Charlotte’s agent tells her, is “People in the news.”) If you’ve read 2011's A Visit from the Goon Squad, you know Egan's fiction sometimes doesn’t read like fiction so much as it does gonzo reporting from a parallel universe. But what separates her from other post-modern satirists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace is that sometimes the impossible situations she dreams up actually, creepily come true.  

The oddest example of Egan’s clairvoyance — and one the author doesn’t tend to bring up very often — involves a different character at the center of Look at Me, a shadowy Islamic fundamentalist working for a Middle Eastern terrorist cell. Pale-skinned  and gifted with accents, Aziz (a.k.a. Z, a.k.a. Michael West) infiltrates Charlotte’s glamorous pre-accident life disguised as a nightclub investor. From a payphone in New Jersey he calls his bosses in Iran to explain why he’s targeting Charlotte: 

“If the collective goal was to be seen — to saturate the airwaves with images of devastation that would serve as both a lesson and a warning — why not strike at the famous people themselves? Were they not at the conspiracy’s very heart, its very instruments? If the goal was symbolism, how could leveling a bridge or a tunnel or even the fucking White House approach the perfect symmetry of this idea?... Witness the World Trade Center fiasco [of 1993]; only seven people dead of the many thousands who worked in those buildings…Structural damage completely underground. In short, nothing to see!” 

Like a lot of people who didn’t live in New York at the time, the thing I remember most about 9/11 is the video footage that played over and over on CNN: the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the smoke rising, the screams. I saw it on so many televisions in so many different rooms that the colors burned themselves into my dreams. But when Nan A. Talese/Doubleday released Look At Me to reviewers in 2001 shortly before September 11, it doesn’t appear many of them gave this passage a second thought.

Oddly, it's difficult today to find an original edition of this novel, which was repackaged and reissued in 2002 by a different Doubleday imprint, Anchor Books. If you search Amazon or wander into a Barnes and Noble, this 2002 version is the one that you will see. I found, and um, okay, stole, my 2001 edition off a bookshelf at an East Village café.

Egan’s political prescience is weird, but her technological prescience is weirder. Into the Manhattan of Look at Me, Egan inserts a countervailing force, a megacorporation that wants to profit from our image obsession instead of using it to destroy us. For the second time, Charlotte finds herself at the heart of a conspiracy looking to use her face as its pivot. Over lunch at a steakhouse that smells like “arugula and money”, a young Berkeley graduate named Thomas Keene explains: "It’s a database," he said. "A database for ordinary Americans. Each one of these folks will have their own home page — we’ll call it a PersonalSpace — devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external."

When Charlotte asks what these PersonalSpaces will look like, Thomas replies: Photographs of the subject and his or her family. Childhood Memories. Dreams. Diary Entries — everyone was required to keep a weekly diary, and daily entries were encouraged. Future Plans/Fantasies. Regrets/Missed Opportunities. And people could add their own categories, too: Things That Make Me Angry. Political Views. Hobbies.

Egan, again, is writing before 2001, years before Facebook taught college students to think of themselves as a bundle of tags, status updates, movie quotations and shares. Still, doesn’t Keene sound wildly Zuckerbergian when he tries to explain to Charlotte exactly why PersonalSpace matters? He says, "I see this product as being for people. I can’t emphasize that enough. I see us contributing to people’s knowledge of one another and connectedness — wearing down that weird divide."

Connectedness is, of course, a means to an end. What Keene really dreams of is book deals, movies, television shows, product placement deals, all based around the lives of Ordinary People. So while Zuckerberg chose Harvard and Stanford and Princeton and Yale as his vanguard, Keene targets early adapters more likely to have interesting lives — "an autoworker, a farmer, a deep-sea diver, a mother of six, a corrections officer, a pool shark."

Charlotte will belong to an upper echelon of Extraordinary PeopleTM, meaning people who are undergoing unusual experiences. The more interesting the lives they construct are, the more money they will make. By taking social networking to its logical corporate media hybrid extreme, Egan also prophecies the rise of the reality star. Or, as Charlotte puts it: "Joe Schmoe gets rich from being Joe Schmoe." "Well, I don’t know about rich," Keene answers. "The thing you really can’t put a price tag on, is how it’ll feel for Joe to know he has an audience, that people care, that they’re interested…I’d put money on the fact that Joe’s life will be enhanced in nonmaterial ways."

Unsurprisingly, Keene’s enterprise turns out to be wildly successful. Charlotte’s PersonalSpace gets its own spinoff in the form of a TV sitcom, a film, a doll, a video game, a book, guest spots on Letterman and The Tonight Show. Charlotte becomes a brand and winds up rich. This is years before anyone knew who Lauren Conrad was, and almost a decade before Bethenny Frankel’s name meant anything. 

Exploiting your own name for fun and profit is a concept that’s been puzzling me lately, mostly because I keep getting Google Alerts for another Sarah LaBrie with a much more active online life than mine. This other Sarah is an erotic hypnotherapist in Florida who recently expanded, I think, into full-on porn. She has a website (www.sarahlabrie.com), a Tumblr (sarahclabrie.tumblr.com) and a Flickr stream, where she promotes her services dressed sometimes like a "fallen angel" and sometimes like a "sexy nurse." Almost every day, I get a new e-mail alert in my inbox for an "intense orgasm mp3 download" by Sarah LaBrie that I, Sarah LaBrie, did not record.

I am admittedly lazy about keeping up my own Internet persona, and I’m beginning to feel a flickery concern about the pretty, perpetually half-naked web personality who shares my name. So last Tuesday, I took the 1 up to Columbia University to see Jennifer Egan speak as part of a lecture series called "Rewiring the Real." It felt important to find out what else she had to say about the future.  

Egan in person resembles a foreign correspondent for CNN, quick, witty, professional, the type of person who can travel long distances on short notice with little luggage. She talks the way professors talk, in full paragraphs that lead always towards surprising but inevitable conclusions. In the first five minutes of her lecture, she drove home points about Proust, nostalgia, the meaning of time, airplanes, cell phones, San Francisco and the rise and fall of punk rock, all ingredients that make up A Visit From the Goon Squad, the novel that last year won her a Pulitzer and turned her into a household name.  

Goon Squad, if you haven’t read it, is a novel made up of short stories about the fading glamour of the recording industry. In another, more important way, it’s about the way time moves in both directions at once, the past and the future both halves of the always unfolding present. Writing the novel, Egan told us, she came up with three rules: "Each chapter had to be about a different person; Each chapter had to have a different texture; Each chapter had to stand on its own." When the moderator suggested that the flicking back and forth between lives in Goon Squad mimicked the experience of using Facebook, a worried look passed over Egan’s face. “Well, no,” she said. “I had never been on Facebook when I wrote that.” 

In real life Egan is a Luddite, it seems, her interest in new media just an extension of her fascination with words, like a photographer’s interest in light. She doesn’t use Twitter and she bought an iPhone only recently, sick of going home all the time to check her e-mail. She writes in longhand, like Proust, reclined. The most famous chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad is written from the POV of a little girl creating a PowerPoint presentation. But when she wrote it, Egan has said, didn’t know what PowerPoint was. She’d only heard about the program thanks to a few corporate friends and her sister, an executive at Bain. She drew out the slides manually, tracing rectangles and pie charts and bullet points on a yellow legal pad by hand. 

What Egan is interested in, she says, is the question of whether or not “the impulse to construct ourselves from the outside in” — that is, as a collection of Tweets and Tumbls and Flickrs and Facebook profiles — “has changed the way we see ourselves and who are.” The conclusion Egan came to after writing two critically-acclaimed novels on the subject, is  “no, of course not.”  

In the epilogue of Look at Me, Charlotte is a reclusive millionaire, happily divorced from her online persona (maintained now by a team of animators), and paid well for her time. I sold Charlotte Swenson for a sum that will keep myself and two or three others comfortable for the remainder of our lives, although not (I’m told) for nearly what she was worth. I dyed my hair, changed my name and walked out the door of my twenty-fifth floor apartment for the very last time.

Charlotte has the privilege of starting life under a new name, financed by profits she earned by allowing a social networking company to use her. While all of this is nice for her, the rest of us won’t be so lucky. Later this year when Facebook goes public, Zuckerberg stands to make five billion dollars in salary (plus twenty-three billion in stock) off the data we give him for free. Meanwhile the rest of us will keep using fb to stalk our high school frenemies and procrastinate at office jobs we sometimes don’t like and never get paid enough to do. The fact that Facebook makes some people rich but doesn’t seem to make anybody (besides Zuckerberg and his execs) happy is old news, written about before here and here. Less written about is a different problem, an issue Egan touches on in Look at Me, but never fully explores.  

There is another central character in Look at Me, the older brother of Charlotte’s childhood best friend, whose name is Moose. Moose starts out as a popular teenager but grows up into a fanatical academic who may not suffer from schizophrenia. His psychotic break manifests in the form of “visions”, like this one: Moose had sense that a terrible reversal was in progress, a technological disaster whereby 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 been once.

At first, this paragraph reads like your typical paranoid robot uprising wolf cry, but if you look closer, it dissolves into something else. I mean, what are Tumblr posts and YouTube uploads and status updates and Flickr albums and texts and Gchat conversations and Facebook messages and E-mails and Tweets and Wall Postings and Blogspot blogs and Comments and Notes if not pieces of ourselves? And what makes this fragmentation possible if not the machine descendants of the Industrial Revolution?  

Rachel Silverman explains in the WSJ that there's no need for resumes because employers at some companies would rather Google you, and decide whether or not to hire you based on the results; what the Internet has to say about you now carries more weight than what you have to say about yourself. This worries me, and not just because I'm pretty sure Sarah LaBrie the erotic hypnotherapist and I have vastly different professional goals. 

Egan might be right that our "creating our selves from the outside in," doesn’t have any fundamental impact on who we are. But what she didn’t bring up is whether "who we are as people" will matter anymore when employers (not to mention banks and mortgage companies) are this deeply concerned with our Google search results. What if, as Moose suspects, rather than us determining the parts, soon it will be the parts that determine who we are? What if this is already the case, a result of decisions made on our behalf by the companies with whom we feel increasingly compelled to share all our basic personal information

Last week I got rid of my iPhone, unfollowed all the people on Tumblr whose feelings I didn’t think would be hurt, and locked myself out of Facebook. I wrote the first draft of this essay out long hand, leaving my laptop at home so I wouldn’t be tempted by the screen. I wrote in the 8th floor quiet reading room in the NYU library, taking breaks to stare through the picture window at the view of Washington Square Park. The buzzy static in my brain receded and left behind a clarity I hadn’t experienced since high school. On the F train home I thought about two things: how lovely it felt to be free for a day, and how strange it was that this feeling had become so unfamiliar. 

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Rubber. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"The Rainbow" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Time Will Save the Day" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Justify Me" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

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