For a little while I led a double life. By day I was an earnest student, searching alongside my geology professor for life and oxygen in the murky waters of the remote, and aptly named, Lake Lonely. By night I was an anxious, love- struck pixie who craved the indoors, having found deep but illegal love with someone I shouldn't have. I liked living this way, half in the shadows; it made my 19-year-old life sensual, imbued with importance. But as the affair staggered to its inevitable end, I watched my night self pass gradually away. Now I marvel at the evidence that it ever was: notes, photos, a tiny, anatomically correct heart cast in pink plastic I was given as a gift.
Though I thought it was at the time, that double life of mine wasn't so unique. Who doesn't, in some way or another, have a secret self? We adapt and pretend; we have different personas for different occasions; the secret passions and plans we nurture in the long minutes before sleep often seem like those of someone else. So the characters in Jennifer Egan's rich new novel Look at Me–double lifers all–feel sort of familiar, despite the less-than-familiar circumstances that surround them. There's Moose Metcalf, a gentle if unhinged academic whose mental life constantly wars with his material one. There's Charlotte Hauser, Moose's 16-year-old niece, who conducts an illicit affair with a math teacher at night and halfheartedly attends high school during the day. And in the fore there's another, older Charlotte–Charlotte Swenson–an almost-supermodel who, having opted out of a double life early on, is shocked to find herself thrust into another. After surviving both a car crash that shattered every bone in her face and a series of reconstructive surgeries, Charlotte must design a new life, having been given a face that's unrecognizable not only to those from her past, but to her as well.
This Charlotte holds the center of Look at Me. Wryly, she narrates alternating chapters, revealing the day-to-day details of her recovery and a fragmented picture of her past, stringing us along to the novel's denouement–the explanation (and bizarre re-enactment) of Charlotte's car accident just outside her hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Though she declares, on page 1, "The truth is that I don't remember anything," she also lets on that she's not to be trusted. Preparing to meet a private detective who's investigating the disappearance of Z, a man Charlotte knew in her pre-accident days, she explains, "I would lie, of course. I lied a lot…. Telling someone a secret was like storing plutonium inside a sandwich bag; the information would inevitably outlive the friendship or love or trust in which you'd placed it. And then you would have given it away."
As she lazes on her sectional couch in a Manhattan highrise, smoking Merits and drinking before noon, Charlotte fans out the glitter of her spoiled life. "Photographers. 'You've got it!' Cocaine in tiny spoons, in amber vials. Expensive dinners no one touched." Her life full of images, empty of feelings. Still, "it had a lazy, naughty appeal, the allure of skipping dinner and eating a gallon of ice cream instead, of losing a whole weekend prone before the TV set."
But before jumping to conclusions, I'll warn that Look at Me shouldn't be lumped together with the skin-deep works of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Charlotte isn't your average fictional model. To the extent that she's obsessed with appearances, it's only to look for a person's "shadow self," the evidence of a double life, "that caricature that clings to each of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still, staring brazenly from certain bad photographs." Usually, she spots it quickly; "when all else failed," she explains, "I found it by looking at people when they thought they couldn't be seen–when they hadn't arranged themselves for anyone."