LOOK AT ME, By Jennifer Egan, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 406 pp., $24.95
Jennifer Egan is moving in exactly the direction you want a writer to go: richer, deeper prose, deeper characters, better detail and more imagination. “Look at Me” is a complicated novel, sometimes too complicated, but the questions it raises are worth following a lifetime of labyrinths toward the answers. How can we live so that what is inside of us is more important than what is on the outside? How does falling in love relate proportionally to the rest of a person’s life: family, career, interests, friends. Whom can you trust?
Charlotte Swenson is a fashion model. After a car accident that hurls her through the windshield, her face must be reconstructed using 80 titanium screws. While recovering in her home town of Rockford, Ill., she meets the teenage daughter of her closest childhood friend, also Charlotte, who is teetering on the brink of unhealthy isolation from friends and family, spending way too much time with a math teacher she has seduced and a slightly deranged, if profound, uncle. Egan’s women almost always do the seducing. They have a toughness that many of us wish we could pull off, until, that is, they hit a wall, something bigger and tougher than they are, like death or a dangerous person.
Swenson returns to her apartment in New York. She meets a detective looking for a mysterious and dangerous playboy named Z, an ex-boyfriend of Swenson’s, a man with several identities, including math teacher in Rockford, Ill.
The writing in this novel is more complete than in Egan’s first two. She takes time here to describe places, for example, Manhattan: “I walked Oscar west ... along streets that might as well have been photographed in black and white, so empty were they of color. Car alarms went off in whooping succession, birdcalls in a strange, mechanical forest.”
SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education, Edited by Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton, Beacon Press: 234 pp., $35
American parents are so used to bemoaning the state of public education, so wary of each new thing, so defensive and protective and invested in their children’s education that they rarely if ever look back to see if any of the questions they are asking have been asked in the past. They reinvent the wheel (looking more like the hamster caught in the cycle than the inventor with a solution). The great issues in public education--desegregation, gender discrimination, religious issues, bilingual issues--have been argued and fought over and sometimes resolved one step at a time across the country since the mid-19th century, when local property taxes were first used to fund free schools (common schools) for white children (girls were originally allowed to go for only three years). Several chapters are devoted to the great figures in education: Frederick Douglass (instrumental in the desegregation of schools), Horace Mann (the first secretary of education in Massachusetts and the man who insisted on chairs with backs, blackboards and textbooks) and John Dewey (father of progressive education). It is all too easy to forget that the public schools were first and foremost “instruments of democracy.” In the last 50 years, writes David Tyack, “the history of school governance is in large part the story of efforts to breach the buffers erected around schools during the first half of the 20th century to protect them from participatory democracy.” Is education, he asks, “a consumer good or a common good?”
RED DOG, By Louis de Bernieres, Pantheon Books: 128 pp., $21
Louis de Bernieres, gentle author of “Corelli’s Mandolin,” has here written a fable based on a statue. De Bernieres first saw the statue of Red Dog in an Australian town in 1998. The real Red Dog was born in 1971 and died in 1979. He was by all accounts (townspeople with memories and two previous books about Red Dog) a wanderer, an ace manipulator of Homo sapiens and a stinker. He had many names and many custodians, but the man he trusted most was a half-Maori bus driver names John. “It was lucky for him [Red Dog] that the town was so full of lonely men. There had been a few aborigines and fewer white people ... but just recently a massive and rapid development had begun to take place .... When the miners turned up to take their big yellow bus to work they found John sitting in the driver’s seat and Red Dog sitting in the seat behind him.” Red Dog was a film dog, not a train dog and not a dog to suffer snobs like whippets and poodles. When he was laid to rest, the tag on his collar read Bluey on one side and “I’ve been everywhere, mate” on the other. Sweet tale, part bedtime story, part lullaby.