LOOK AT ME
by Jennifer Egan (Doubleday, $24.95) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 31
LOSING FACE—it's an unpleasant thought, but really no more than a figurative turn of phrase. For 28-year-old (35 actually, but who's checking?) Charlotte, whose face is her livelihood, it becomes a literal nightmare; a second-tier model once on the cusp of greatness, she's already begun sliding down that steep slope of catalogs and Sears circulars. As Jennifer Egan's second novel, Look at Me, opens, one fiery instant on a lonely Illinois back road has just altered Charlotte's fate forever. From these intriguing, yet somewhat pedestrian, beginnings unfolds a sprawling tale of four major protagonists, far-flung characters brought together (somewhat belaboredly) into one cosmically connected whole. The results have already earned Egan a National Book Award nomination.
Charlotte's surgery and subsequent recovery leave her with a face that's perfectly presentable, even attractive, but no longer her own. Her agent, her doorman, her friends (this term is used loosely; Charlotte's circle consists of little more than club-hopping, jet-setting acquaintances)—no one recognizes the oddly altered visage that was once her meal ticket. Untethered and unemployed, Charlotte soon falls into drink, and becomes intrigued by a private investigator who contacts her for information on a man named Z. The mono-lettered club impresario—who has suddenly disappeared, along with a sizable amount of other people's money—is indeed connected to Charlotte, but through Egan's omniscient lens we come to know just how little she, and other characters soon introduced, really know about him. Charlotte the elder's story is soon interwoven not only with Z's but with a Charlotte the younger, a gawky, brainy adolescent who also happens to be the daughter of her childhood best friend. The teenage Charlotte soon leads readers to Moose, her own mentally disturbed uncle and model Charlotte's ex-lover, as well as a mysterious schoolteacher who is, of course, more than he appears.
Confused yet? With Egan's graceful prose and vivid characterizations, she navigates her plot lines' churning waters with admirable skill, though all the commentary on modern Internet culture and the cult of beauty is a bit sledgehammered at times. A terrorist-related subplot is eerily prescient, and somewhat uncomfortable to read given recent events. Though approximately half of her main protagonists are downright unlikable, and their motives often murky, Egan has created a compelling world within Look at Me, one whose titular command is worth obeying.
by Stephen King and Peter Straub (Random House, $28.95)
FOR DEVOTEES of The Talisman, the 1984 collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub, the long wait is over. With Black House, the two authors renew their collaboration and reacquaint readers with Jack Sawyer, their earlier book's 12-year-old hero.
More than two decades have passed since the events of The Talisman, and the grown-up Jack remembers nothing of his youthful adventures. Haunted by a mysterious on-the-job incident, he has quit his position as a hotshot Los Angeles police detective and moved to a small Wisconsin town. It isn't a quiet retirement: A nasty serial cannibal nicknamed "The Fisherman" has also taken up residence and is busy killing and eating the town's children. The embattled local police chief naturally turns to Jack for help.
What follows is a sprawling fantasy tale reintroducing the reader to the world of The Talisman and ending in (wouldn't you know it) a battle in which the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
There's a lot to like in Black House. Thanks to an anonymous narrator, the plot unravels a bit awkwardly at first, but Straub and King use constant forward-moving action to grab your attention and speed the story along. They also create some fascinating characters (if a few too many) along the way. Curiously, the weak link is the protagonist himself. Although outwardly perfect (uncannily intuitive, incredibly handsome, and rich enough to retire at age 35), Jack is too much of a brooding cipher to generate much reader affection. The story's real stars turn out to be Henry, a blind radio DJ and Jack's best friend, and a posse of philosophy-reading, beer-brewing bikers.
The journey also proves more satisfying than the ending: The final battle's a bit anticlimactic, and the tacked-on epilogue unnecessary. But a blind man could see what's coming next—another sequel. Let's hope it doesn't take 17 years this time.