"The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves."
-- Daniel Boorstin, The Image, 1961
Novelist Jennifer Egan, recently nominated for a National Book Award for her second novel, Look at Me, is well acquainted with the power of the image in contemporary society. As a journalist for New York Times Magazine, she explored the world of high-fashion modeling and the young girls who inhabit it, sacrificing home and self for a packaged identity that sells.
Translating the theme of manufactured identity to fiction, Egan has created a cast of characters in search of themselves and their place in the world. The protagonists of Look at Me are Charlotte, a model who has lost her face in a car accident; younger Charlotte, a confused teenager who hides from her parents as she searches for her self; Moose, a community college professor with a dark and violent past; and Z/Michael West, a Midwestern high-school math teacher hiding his real identity as a Middle Eastern terrorist.
Underlying all their experiences is the desire to be seen, the craving for attention, a peculiarly American phenomenon, says Egan, created in large part by the media.
"Of course it has spread to other places," said Egan in a recent telephone interview, "but I feel that the desire to be seen is, to some degree, connected to the media, and is distinctly American. It's the sense that one must be perceived by others in order to exist."
Reflected to an absurd degree by "reality TV," the American craving for attention has reached a zenith of sorts, eerily predicted in Look at Me when Charlotte becomes part of a multimedia scheme to capture and recreate real lives, ordinary and extraordinary, on the Internet for distribution to television and movies. Egan shrugs off the relevance of her invention, pointing out that in the six years it took her to complete the book, her creation became old news.
"I made that up in 1996, before the reality television series came on," she said. "I meant it as rich satire. It reads now as immediate social commentary."
Also prescient in an especially eerie way is Egan's creation of Z, the terrorist who moves stealthily across America and settles in Rockford, Illinois as high-school math teacher Michael West:
"Tell me about the conspiracy," I said.
Z turned to look at me. In his eyes I saw something alive for the very first time. Pain.
"It's a dream," he said. ...
We plunged into the night. His disappointment was so intense and embittered it felt like hate. ...
"It won't be allowed to go on," he said. He was watching the window. "The people will rise up and throw off these dreams you've used to imprison them. ...
"It will end," he said. "It will end with fire. And the artifice will burn away, and the truth will be left. ...
"It will end without you, without me. An explosion of violence you can't possibly imagine, sheltered and spoiled as you are."
West is quick to point out that her terrorist, unlike those who piloted jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, gives up "the dream" as he is assimilated into American culture.
"In the aftermath of his zealotry," she said, "he is trying to find a reason to live. When a guy has been motivated by rage and desire, what happens when that rage disappears? That's the question that interests me."
A resident of New York, Egan was shocked and sickened by the attacks, but not necessarily surprised.
"Did I think terrorism was going to be a part of our future? Of course, and everyone should have seen it," she said. "It's just like global warming. Eventually a city is going to fall into the ocean and then we'll do something about it.
"If I, as a novelist, sitting in my office writing, could dream this stuff up, it just shows how heavily it permeates the air. It's a matter of reading the newspaper carefully. In the New York Times, every day, there's a story about someone who got caught building a bomb in his apartment."
Ultimately, both novel and novelist are hopeful about our ability to see beyond the image to a genuine experience of being human.
"Yes, I think this need to be perceived by others, this cultural craving for attention is destructive," said Egan. "But where I land is that the human spirit refuses to be broken in this way. It will feign and dart and try to be revealed at all costs.
"Unfortunately, [our response to the terrorist attack on America] is kind of the way human nature works -- we don't respond to pending disaster until something catastrophic has happened."