Sunday, April 10, 2011

LOOK AT ME by Jennifer Egan

Look At Me is a good, somewhat underrated American novel. Published in 2001, the same year as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, it deserved at least as much hype and praise as that good but decidedly overrated work. Like Franzen's novel, Egan's is an intelligent, efficient, highly competent example of contemporary American literary fiction. Also like The Corrections, it is disappointingly unoriginal. And pushing the comparison a bit further, we can say that the two novels are, in at least one respect, unoriginal in the same way. Both appear to have been constructed according to the standard recipe for contemporary upmarket literary fiction: Take one or more Joyce Carol Oates-style plots and season to taste with the satirical irony of Don DeLillo. The fact that much of today's most highly-regarded LitFic can be called 'Ironized Oates' (available next to Quaker Oats in the Barnes & Noble cereal aisle) indicates the extent to which this fiction has hardened into genre--a genre with rules almost as transparent as those of the mystery or romance genres. And what are these rules? With apologies to Wallace Stevens, here are a few Notes Toward a Less-Than-Supreme Literary Fiction:
  1. It must be 'realistic.'
  2. It must be contemporary in setting.
  3. It must concern itself with 'the matter of America.'
  4. It must be self-conscious (but not too self-conscious).
  5. It must be ironic (but not too ironic). [This might be called 'Booth's Law' in honor of the late Wayne Booth, American literature's premier irony cop.]
  6. It must criticize contemporary American life (but neither too much nor too blatantly).
  7. It must ultimately validate the middle-of-the-road liberalism that most American readers bring to it. (Reading, a potentially self-critical act, is thus reduced to an exercise in self-congratulation.)
  8. It must depict strategies for 'coping' with contemporary American life as rational and necessary.
  9. It must depict strategies of resistance to contemporary American life as naive and/or insane.
  10. It must bite the corporate hand that publishes it (but only with the foam rubber teeth of irony).
  11. It must contain within itself its own ironic self-criticism (thus short-circuiting anything Michiko Kakutani might say).
Those are the rules of LitFic Road, but this road, despite its trendy reputation, is looking very old today. It's paved with cobblestones, and its bed, 19th-century realism, is older than Edison. This fact points toward one of the major problems with Look At Me (a novel that adheres, more or less, to all the generic 'rules' listed above): this novel that is so au courant, that so knowingly deploys the techniques of postmodernism and so chillingly describes the world and people technology is producing even as we read, this ultramodern novel is, rather bizarrely, built according to blueprints borrowed from the Joyce Carol Oates Construction Company. Egan fails to invent a form equal to her subject, and thus she falls back on what the history of the novel has bequeathed to her: a plot dependent upon some truly unbelievable coincidences. To be fair, however, I probably shouldn't fault Egan for failing to invent a new form here. Formal invention is the most difficult thing a writer can do, and this was only her second novel. There is some very good stuff in Look At Me, enough to make it worth reading (I'm thinking of the face-cutting photo shoot, Charlotte Swenson's suicidal leap to her downstairs neighbor's balcony; the characterization of Edmund 'Moose' Metcalf, a character complex and interesting enough to have to have been the center of his own novel, like Kate Gompert in Infinite Jest), but not enough to lift it far above the pack. There's also another problem: Egan's prose is not too many cuts above the horrid novelese of her character Irene Maitlock. This is probably because Egan also writes in novelese, but hers is a more upper-class, country club dialect of the language--a distinction that suggests a largely unnoted (because invisible to bourgeois critics?) bourgeois bias in American literary fiction. It's getting late, so I'll wrap this post up with a bottom line: Look At Me is good, better in many ways than The Corrections, but it's not a great novel.

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