Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Keep, and I think her short story in the form of tweets, “Black Box,” is one of the more brilliant feats of creative writing.
After reading a recent article that captured a great conversation between Egan and George Saunders (“Choose Your Own Adventure”), I grabbed a copy of one of her earlier books, Look at Me, that I had never read before.
Published in 2001 but written over six years during the 1990s, Look at Me is a jarringly predictive novel — not only about the role of the internet and the way in which self-image is influenced by technology and social media, but also about terrorists, both foreign and domestic born, in America.
The novel, which was released before 9-11, is uncanny in the way it imagines and comments on the world as we have known it since 2001. I kept wondering as I read, how could she have possibly known the things she seemed to have known?
In her conversation with Saunders, Egan said that she had no inkling of what was yet to come. She thought Look at Me would be far-fetched, even funny. “I had never been online when I imagined a lot of that novel, and I was projecting forward into what I thought was extreme, goofy satire.” But, she said, she “took a long time to write Look at Me, and some of what I imagined as wacky hypotheticals — for example, a type of self-branding reality-TV-ish website I called Ordinary People — had already started to come try by the time I published it.”
Of the character, Z, who comes to America to destroy it from the inside, Egan wrote in the afterword to the book, “Z had always worried me the most. I was afraid no one would find him credible … [W]hile it may be nearly impossible to read about Z outside the context of September 11, 2001, I concocted his history and his actions at a time when the events of that day were still unthinkable.” She concedes, “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress in the fall of 2001, I would have had to reconceive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.”
Whether or not we arrive at every terminus predicted in fiction is not the point. As long as we have the freedom to imagine the future, we may also have the power to shape it.