Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $24.95). Egan's moving but circumscribed first novel, "The Invisible Circus," in no way prepared readers for the millennial ambitions of her second--a comic, richly imagined, and stunningly written exploration of the American obsession with self-invention. The rebirth of Charlotte Swenson, a model, takes place in a cornfield outside of her detested home town, Rockford, Illinois, when she's pulled from the fiery wreckage of her car. A plastic surgeon painstakingly re-creates her face, but now both friends and strangers pass her on the street without a second glance. While Charlotte tries to "reposition" herself in New York, her namesake, the plain and unnervingly direct teen-age daughter of her best friend in high school, struggles to slip the snares of her confining life in Rockford; ostracized by her peers, she switches schools and initiates an affair with a secretive stranger. Egan's novel broadly and brightly satirizes the grid of power and celebrity as its older heroine negotiates Manhattan's brave new world of Internet entrepreneurs and razor-wielding fashion photographers. But the author is also attentive to those who live in the shadowy interstices of American life: a kid skateboarder with cancer; an alcoholic private eye; a mad professor obsessed with a time when our industries produced things instead of images. Egan's portrait of the younger Charlotte's lover, a rage-choked terrorist nestling into the heartland, is particularly chilling. And yet her novel is also an antidote for the ills it describes--an energetic, unorthodox, quintessentially American vision of America.

Common Prayer, by Ramie Targoff (Chicago; $17). What could be more private than prayer? In fact, internal devotion and visible worship have long been inextricable, as this remarkable study of early modern England shows. …

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