This book is a warning to sad folk like me who watch Big Brother and sneer, yet fantasise (only briefly, you understand) about being ‘in the house’. Real people, cautions Egan, can only tolerate so much so-called reality. To be seen, or fully known, comes at a price: for ‘look at me’ is a cry always accompanied by an unspoken demand only for approbation.
Charlotte Swenson is a droll, nearly-made-it model whose career descent into the unglamorous realm of catalogues and adverts is abruptly halted by a car accident en route to her home town of Rockford, Illinois. When her face has been rebuilt to the extent that even her agent fails to recognise her, the life of an alcoholic recluse beckons, until an apparently chance meeting with aspiring ‘meeja-mogul’ Thomas offers Charlotte a new image – as the star of his Orwellian 24-hour reality Internet site, which ‘showcases’ (as in ‘manipulates’) the real lives of ordinary people. With Irene, a New York Post journalist, in tow to ghost-write her Web diary, Charlotte embarks on what she imagines is a variant of her erstwhile career: controlled exposure of her identity before an admiring audience. Her realisation that Irene is not all she seems only presages Charlotte’s gradual discovery of the emotional price to be paid for courting that audience.
The structure of Egan’s book gradually inverts its theme, so that what starts out as a painfully sharp satire on the vacuity of modern life evolves into a deeper meditation on truth and authenticity, refracted through its sub-plots as if through shards of glass. Each character is attempting to uncover