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“Look At Me”

I discovered the novelist Jennifer Egan about 15 years ago, by noticing her novel titled “Look at Me” on a table in a bookstore. I might have perused it first, and then bought and read it. She wrote very well, with literate, and sometimes corruscating, sentences and paragraphs. The plot of the novel followed several characters, and was initially taut, but then meandered, as if she did not know how to end it. The last few chapters were a rather unsatisfying ending. But to me, she showed great promise.

Then I read her earlier book “The Invisible Circus, ” which had an interesting premise, and again flashes of insight, and fluid writing, but the narrative flattened out, and became rather tedious, I thought. I read some of her book of short stories, which I did not like; they were mostly in the genre of “magical realism.” Then another novel, “The Keep,” which started very well, was mysterious, and then again disappointed as it progressed, and left some of the mysteries as inconsistencies, or as some more magical realism. I decided that Egan certainly was a talented writer of sentences, but that at least in my opinion, she did not create interesting characters. She seemed to have an affinity for male rebels and “bad boys”; she certainly favored the unconventional characters, but rarely made them compelling.

Then she wrote “A Visit from The Goon Squad.” The title seems to be a mix of a William S. Burroughs quote and an Elvis Costello song. I stopped halfway through. which I rarely do. I found the characters very uninteresting, and the fragmented plot jumping around with different characters and times, to be more of a self-indulgent exercise, than anything meaningful. She isn’t in the same league as Faulkner, who is famed for that technique. And yet, amazingly to me, the novel was awarded the Pulitizer Prize, which upset me, as such things do. I thought it was, like some of the recent Academy Awards, voters choosing surface style over depth and substance. I would not recommend this book to anyone, but it made Egan famous.

One could certainly disagree with me, and think that I don’t sufficiently appreciate Egan’s great writing, but I am convinced that this novel is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It is sort of fun to read wildly disparate reviews of it, some loving it, some hating it. After that, she wrote another book, “Manhattan Beach,” which I only learned about yesterday, while looking up her list of works. I have no idea if I would like it, but probably I would not.

Actually, this post is not really so much about Egan’s stature as a writer. She will always have that Pulitizer Prize, even though it makes me cringe, because there have been vastly better books and writers which do not. But she does have an impressive ability to perceive social trends, before they become so pervasive. “Look at Me,” was ostensibly about a female model who had been in a devastating accident, and had to have her face surgically restored. But I saw it as an underlying indictment of a society where everyone seems to be trying to stand out and be noticed. “Look at me.” I always remember that phrase when I see something going on which embodies it.

I am far from knowledgeable about computers and the social media. But it certainly seems as if there are literally millions of people, at least in this country, who are now desperately striving for attention. Whether it is videos, instagram pictures, or Twitter bon mots, everyone wants to be a star, in the way that they never could be before. They may have pseudonyms, but those can become famous, too. I realize that much of it is just out of a wish to share, show pictures of their pets and family. But there is also a part of it which shows an awareness that this is an age where anyone can pop up and become well known, and have many people notice them and listen to them.

At one time, there were “celebrities,” and there were “regular people.” That didn’t make celebrities more interesting, or smarter, or better people, of course. But there was this distinction. Now, it seems as if almost everybody is striving for celebrity, and it is attainable.

Do something heroic, or outrageous, or even ignominious, and you will be noticed. And once you have a lot of people’s attention, you can capitalize on it, in terms of money, greater exposure, a chance to invent yourself as a guru, or Life Coach, or Influencer. What do any of those words actually mean?. But people often seem to choose the most unlikely and most shallow individuals to follow, or admire, or want to hear more from. It seems as if the Kardashians are the most obvious example of people who somehow are a source of fascination for tens of millions of other people, even though they don’t know much about anything more than marketing themselves.

No one seems to just want to be part of any group that would have them as a member. They want to be sui generis, their own genre. Or they want to be part of a new, breakout group. Notice how many voters now prefer to identify as ‘Independents.” I don’t even know what it means, other than that they think it is too bland to be a Democrat or Republican, and they would prefer to cast themselves as more nuanced and discerning than those “sheep” who identify as one of those conventional categories .They are independent! They are not locked into boxes, they break out and vote for whomever they think is best! They voted for Reagan, then Clinton, then Bushes, then Obama, then Trump. That this is inane in any policy-oriented sense, is not how they see it. They see it as bold and smart and always adaptable to different situations.

Pretty soon, “Independent” will become too bland, too, so they will have to re-identify themselves. “I used to be an Independent, now I am a Seeker, never wanting to be part of any political group. I move with the shifting winds of change. I am also a life coach, and an Influencer, influencing anyone who actually chooses to listen to me.”

Wanting to appear special or even unique, is the goal. Each of us is unique. And conformity, and wanting to fit in, went out with the 1950’s, which was probably generally a good thing. “Be yourself,” or the older, “Do your own thing,” are useful slogans. But there is a value in working together for a common goal. For example a political party needs almost everyone pulling in the same direction, to use another cliche.

The Democrats have had that problem. Too many diverse forces each wanting something, or being unhappy with not getting this policy or this candidate. Republicans always fall in line, which is not good, either, particularly given what their line is. But Democrats too often have engaged in internecine battles which may have cost them the general election. 1968 is a prime example, though the anger was very warranted. 1992 had Jerry Brown, whom I like, but not so much then, yelling at Bill Clinton about “being bought and paid for.” But we won, anyway.

In 2000, Bill Bradley ran against Gore for no discernible reason than an ego trip, and he did cause damage. In 2016 we had Bernie Sanders and his enthralled followers throwing dollar bills at Hillary, calling her every derogatory name in the world, and undoubtedly costing her a few million votes, because he could not stand to leave the race, he was too much in love with his new stature, and ability to draw audiences.

People are certainly entitled to strong political views and intense battles among candidates. But there is a wing of the Democratic Party which has trashed every national candidate since 1968, except for 1972, where they nominated an unelectable candidate; 1988, where they did the same thing, albeit a better one; and then the Obama romance. At least enough of them woke up enough to grudgingly support Biden in 2020. I think that it is reasonable to think that some of the “Look at Me” needs of people, have been part of it.

What happens, is that things move so quickly in our shrinking world of interconnected media, that the “nouvelle vague” quickly becomes passe’. So someone who wants attention, has to desperately search around for some new identity, or philosophy, or shtick. Fame is ever more fleeting, sometimes less than Warhol’s famous comment about fifteen minutes. However, f you can manage to get a TV gig, as a “Contributor,” or even anchor, you can last. And of course then you write a book, everyone writes a book. Then maybe when your presence fades, you do TV commercials for non-stick pans, annuities or reverse mortgages. Just so you stay noticed, and keep getting paid.

I have no real answer to any of this, except to say that it gets very tiresome to see someone get publicity just because he or she is loud, or obnoxious, or has some event which they can use to vault into visibility. People get on a TV reality show; and now they don’t have to win to become household names, they can do it by claiming bias on someone else’s part, or having a new identity. It would be unfair to say that this is behind all of it, but the effect is such that one almost thinks so.

No one seems to want to be just another person in a large group, also-ran contestants in the so-called game of life. They want to win! And the broadcast and social media provides a variety of ways to win, at least for enough time that you can cash in on it, in one way or another. “Look at Me! I’ve got something to say and I demand your attention!.” The media is so anxious to fill their time, and to have the next big story, that they are willing accomplices in it.

It is not that I am specifically jealous of any one of them, but I do generally resent some of the attention various people are given, which amounts to a distraction, and makes people potentially dangerous, in that they use their burst of fame or notoriety, to push for things which make money for them, but do not help anyone else.

Some of them run for public office. What qualifications does Caitlyn Jenner have, other than a penchant for getting media attention? It may be very fulfilling to such people, but it does not help most of the rest of us. She will not be elected, but she is being used by very dangerous Right-Wing billionaires like Peter Thiel, to try to siphon enough votes to get Gavin Newsom recalled. They did that to Grey Davis, and got Arnold Schwarzenegger elected, someone who is better than Jenner, but was a bad governor who almost bankrupted California. They’ll try to do it again, too, using her or someone else to put the Republicans back in charge, so they can cut social programs, let the environment be wrecked, and make more billions for themselves in tax cuts.

Jenner also sees Trump, and figures that if he can do it, so can she. There will be more like this, particularly on the Right, which would nominate a refrigerator, if they thought they could market it to the voters as something new and anti-liberal.

So it is not just an entertaining spectacle, all this preening and self-aggrandizement for the insatiable media. I read that Elon Musk was the host of”Saturday Night Live,” this last weekend. He is an egomaniac: I would guess a right-wing libertarian type, who got one of his cars launched into outer space, where it will at least visually pollute the universe, by circling around for a hundred years or more, as space junk. But the people can’t get enough of someone like this, it seems, so he is now an entertainment star. I wish that they would somehow get tired of it, because the growing cult of instantaneous celebrity is seeking to fill up every precious second of public attention.