Here’s a bold statement: reading Your Face in Mine made me want to crack open my long-neglected copy of Derrida (or, perhaps, my less neglected—but no less dense—copy of Judith Butler).
To those who aren’t theory junkies, I say: don’t worry (and I sympathize). It is entirely possible to read and enjoy Jess Row’s debut novel without a background in deconstruction. It is, however, a mark of Row’s strength and ingenuity as a writer that he is able to engage with some very complex philosophical thought while steadily sharpening the novel’s gripping, thriller-like edge.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that Your Face in Mine is a novel about race written by a white man. As you might expect, reviewers have been quick to trumpet Row’s daring.
Truth be told, though, Your Face in Mine is exactly the kind of race-related novel we should expect from a white writer, and that’s not a criticism (note that I said “should” rather than “would”). It is not about what it is like to be black, and that’s probably for the best, since there are plenty of writers who can document that experience firsthand. It’s a novel about the meaning of race—the way that it signifies culturally—and that’s as fraught a question for whites as it is for anyone else.
It’s also a novel that dabbles in the tropes of speculative fiction—not least by opening with the kind of imaginative bang that frequently characterizes twenty-minutes-into-the-future worldbuilding, where everything is as we know it except for that one thing. Your Face in Mine begins when Kelly Thorndike—an academic washout, as well as a bereaved husband and father—runs into his high school friend Martin Lipkin after moving back to Baltimore. Now, however, he is known as Martin Wilkinson—a strategic change made after undergoing something he calls “racial reassignment surgery” in order to pass as black. Martin claims that “racial identity dysphoria” will one day be as culturally acceptable (and surgically rectifiable) as gender dysphoria, and he hopes to enlist Kelly’s help in telling his story to the world. Kelly agrees, but the project dredges up uncomfortable questions about both Martin’s motivations and Kelly’s past.
“Uncomfortable” is, in fact, an apt word for the novel as a whole. Is it really necessary to point out how discomfiting the premise of racial reassignment surgery is? It smacks of cultural appropriation; what does it really mean to say you “feel” black if you haven’t experienced what it means to be black? Of course, Martin himself claims some knowledge of that experience; for several years, he attended a primarily black school and spent his afternoons being parented by the mother of a black friend. Interestingly, though, Row does not give this origin story pride of place. Instead, he makes it clear that it is simply one attempt to narrativize a choice that likely has no single explanation. Identity, in the post-poststructuralist world the novel’s characters inhabit, tends to be thought of as highly malleable—even illusory. As one character says late in the novel:
Is there such a thing as a self before there’s a racial self, a male or female self? It’s one of those classic mind-body questions. If doctors could sustain your brain after your body died, and preserve, say, your optic nerves, so you’d just be a brain and two eyeballs in a jar, capable of seeing the world, capable of consciousness, but otherwise body-less, who would you be? Would you be yourself?
To crudely paraphrase: does reinventing yourself from the outside, and changing the stories you tell about yourself, actually change who you are? Fortunately, Row doesn’t really try to resolve that question, but it is undeniably the case that several of the novel’s characters are eager to exist in a kind of twilight world where identity is a constant work in progress. As Kelly says, after leaving Baltimore for college, “I wanted to be denatured, detached, to luxuriate in my cocoon and emerge an utterly different butterfly.”
There’s an interesting paradox here, especially, perhaps, when the denaturalization takes the form of “racial reassignment.” For Martin, at least, the decision to transition racially is closely allied to capitalistic individualism, and not simply because he hopes to spin his own story for profit. Nor is it even entirely a question of treating blackness as a brand (though Row devotes plenty of attention to that as well). There is instead a more fundamental way in which Martin sees racial reassignment as the next step for American venturesomeness; in searching for potential candidates for surgery, he says, he looks for the “self-made” and “leave[s] the theorizing for later.” As another character puts it, “The future of whiteness is colors.” The ability to recreate oneself becomes the ultimate act of free will.
The problem—ethical and otherwise—is that this kind of self-recreation is essentially parasitic. There is an interesting moment early in the book when Kelly recalls his own flirtation with black culture and, more specifically, the exhilaration he felt when seeing Do the Right Thing:
What did I hear, that first time, when Donald Harrison’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice” ended, and “Fight the Power” roared to life, in a cacophony of scratches, samples, and found noise, before that first deep bass hit, that nearly lifted me out of my char? Something like the screeching of brakes, something like a jet plane taking off: that’s what the Bomb Squad sounded like to a fourteen-year-old in 1989, who was used to the tinny, Casio-looped beats on Eighties rap. Even before the story began, the credits were a body blow—the sheer brightness of the colors, the insistent, defiant, angry sidewalk dancing of Rosie Perez, in a pink miniskirt and tights, in shiny boxer’s trunks, bobbing and weaving. Everything that came after was a little after the fact of that first song.
Kelly, to his credit, realizes that he can only ever approach such things as an outsider: “I, even then, even at fourteen, knew that I was supposed to hate [Mookie], and couldn’t. And wanted to be him, and couldn’t.” Still, he finds a subversive thrill in casting himself as the “blue-eyed devil,” as if it is impossible for him to imagine rebellion except in terms of blackness. Or, as he says a few pages later, “[Mookie] is alone. He doesn’t want to be the Representative Black Man. But he can’t be anything else”—the corollary being, of course, that Kelly can’t see him as anything else. And given that the figure of the Black Man is weighted down by so much cultural baggage, what does it mean for a white man to “choose” blackness? That is, is it really a choice?
One could perhaps argue that the choice is no less meaningful for all its cultural entanglements. In effect, that’s what Martin himself does when talking about Obama; Obama, he says, assumes the “tragic role” of the presidency in a way that’s “artificial and sacred”—constructed, but useful nonetheless. Row himself, though, is more circumspect. Certainly, he suggests that the choice Kelly ultimately comes to regarding his own identity is a fraught one, but the novel as a whole is more interested in inquiry than in condemnation; Your Face in Mine raises many questions and provides few answers, and it is that very ambivalence that makes it so memorable.
Your Face in Mine was published in August 2014 by Riverhead Hardcover, a division of Penguin Group USA.
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