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Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me: The Two Charlottes

1721 words - 7 pages

The industrial revolution rapidly altered the rate of human achievement. Steam trains were first used in the 1820’s and remained the primary mode of modern transport for the next one hundred years. The Wright Brothers arrived at human flight in 1903, and space flight was accomplished only 60 years later. The exponential curve grew even steeper with the technological revolution of the 20th Century; new technologies rendered obsolete as soon as they are taken off the assembly line (a stubborn remnant of the industrial era). Despite these advances, there was a terse atmosphere of stagnation as America drifted into the 21st century. Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me explores this malaise. By examining the transience of personal identity in an age of branding, the commoditization of character, and our cultures’ preoccupancy with violence Egan uses Michael West and Moose as examples America’s fabrication of meaning in a culture with few real hardships, while the two Charlottes illustrate the inherent struggle to find even those fabricated meanings.

Charlotte is on the cusp of adulthood in a difficult time. The “poor thing—looked nothing like her mother,” Ellen Metcalf described by the narrator as pretty and exotic (24). Like her mother young Charlotte doesn’t belong in Rockford, or perhaps anywhere. Her eccentric interests in exotic fish help little with peer acceptance, and when after a sexual encounter her sophomore year she was an untouchable, “no one came near her” (49). Her father uses their small town of Rockford, IL as a benchmark for mediocrity in his market research. Aside from her few eccentricities, Charlotte is quite mediocre. Like her mother, Charlotte is not interested in boys her age, and unlike her father, Charlotte does not appear to have any interest in brands. Charlotte has little regard for what is cool; she pedals from whim to whim, preferring the comfort of conversations with strangers than her friends from her old school, or making connections at her new school.

Charlotte Swenson’s life, however, was built upon the foundation of cool, a jet setting, and beautiful-people lifestyle in the planet’s chief exporter of culture, New York City. As a young woman she realized that she too did not belong in Rockford. The party in the mirrored room that Swenson aspires to join is the embodiment of the modern American dream of fame, but after a career that peaked early, she is quick to label herself within the confines of catalog model. After the accident Charlotte Swenson is freed from these aspirations. She is no longer needed as a professional beauty, and is separated from her identity through that violent act. Swenson refers to these remnants of severances to former identity as “shadow faces,” and has no problem with reinvention because she had never been too attached to any of her former selves. A crucial element of the shadow self is a violent past, and perhaps it was the violence of the car crash that...

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