Nicholas is dead. His older brother has come to start cleaning out his New York apartment, but everything around him holds memories of the dead man. Through this brother, who remains nameless throughout the story, we learn about Nicholas and his life.
From a very early age, Nicholas is aware of his extraordinary good looks, and the leeway it buys him. He quickly becomes accustomed to accepting favors from men, and even comes to see it as his due. Already well-to-do, he doesn’t see any need for his life to have any purpose other than to be the object of adoration. In short, he is a narcissist.
“I Look Divine” is considered by some to be a modern classic, and for once I have to agree. The writing is amazingly evocative, while being very easy to read. It’s writing that pulls off that seemingly impossible task of making a very unlikable person likable. Well, a little more likable than he should be. Nicholas is one of those characters with practically no redeeming values, yet you almost can’t help but like him on some level, and pity him as well. Yes, he is in love with himself, but he sees his value only in what other men are willing to give him to be with them. And when his looks begin to fade, as they inevitably must sooner or later, Nicholas seems to think his own value has faded to nil.
With the book having been published more than 25 years ago, it’s interesting to think how times have changed, or not. Men like Nicholas have always existed, but in the 1980s it was unlikely that you or I would know about them. Now, in the internet age, with Twitter and Facebook and Youtube, chances are we could name a dozen or more young men like Nicholas, who were famous, or thought they were, just for being pretty.
One of the things that struck me after I finished was how much I had started to think about the words the author chose. Early on, we’re told how Nicholas tended to favor certain words over others as part of his overall affectations. It seems like just one of his many eccentricities, but then you might realize that the words he chooses have some deeper meaning in the context. Coe makes you think about the words you’re reading in a very subtle way that I found quite fascinating.