Racial Dysphoria

Jess Row’s novel explores a world where racial reassignment surgery is becoming commonplace.

Your Face in Mine Illo.

Illustration by Sam Alden

Twenty-four pages into Jess Row’s debut novel Your Face in Mine, the narrator, Kelly Thorndike, catches sight of his reflection in a storefront window, and pauses to remark upon this face of his as it presently appears to him. It is “an ordinary face, I guess you could say, relatively dark-featured, with a close-trimmed beard and thick eyebrows, the gift of my Portuguese great-grandparents. An unremarkable, unhandsome, inoffensive face. A white face. I should add that now.” It’s a strangely disorienting moment, in that it draws attention to how rarely this specific detail—the whiteness of a character’s skin, in a work of fiction by a white writer—is ever remarked upon. Whiteness, it is implied, has no meaningful content; a white face is just a face, unremarkable and unmarked by the conditions of race.

It’s this unremarkableness that Row wants us to start seeing as remarkable, as worth engaging with. In an essay he published last year in the Boston Review, he addressed what he referred to as the “deracination” of fiction over the last 30 years by white American writers, a category to which he himself belongs. He’s interested mostly in the kind of writing that tends to get called “realist,” and which tends to get taught, and reproduced, in creative writing workshops. He’s talking about writers like John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff—writers, all of them, with ordinary and unremarkable faces. Most specifically, he’s talking about Richard Ford, whose prose he describes as one “of ownership, of confidence in its own ontological condition,” reflecting “an unquestionable self-assurance that in our culture and era only white males can have.” Ford, in other words, is the white guy par excellence of contemporary American letters.

He refers to an essay Ford wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 1999, in which he made the following claim: “‘White’ and ‘black’ are not really races to me, and I have no wish to make them be, or to make being white a consideration in knowing me. And so I don’t completely understand why black politics, black culture, black literature, black identity are still so widely sanctified and haven’t become passé in the view of most intelligent people.” When I read this, I immediately thought of Percival Everett, whose ingenious novel Erasure lays out the kind of thing that happens when a writer who has no wish to make his race a consideration in knowing him happens to not be white. Everett’s narrator Thelonious Ellison is, like Everett himself, a black novelist who writes playfully highbrow books, heavily informed by poststructuralist critical theory. One of these books is taken to task by a reviewer in the following sublimely idiotic fashion: “The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.” There’s a flip side, Everett is noting, to the racial dynamic that allows Richard Ford to consider his own whiteness an irrelevance: the implied expectation that black writers will always act as cultural envoys of blackness.

In Your Face in Mine, Row is going for a similar sort of script flipping. The novel’s setup is, in itself, a direct narrative provocation, a willfully grotesque premise that is both openly confrontational and yet strangely resistant to straightforward interpretation. Kelly Thorndike has moved back from Massachusetts to his hometown of Baltimore, still grieving the recent loss of his Chinese wife and their daughter in a car accident. On the novel’s opening page, he is walking back from the grocery store when he crosses paths with a black man he has never seen before, and yet who strikes him as unaccountably familiar. “I’m looking into the face of a black man,” he tells us, in the immediate present tense that is the novel’s dominant narrative mode, “and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before.” When the stranger addresses Kelly by name, he immediately realizes who it is that is standing in front of him. It’s Martin Lipkin, one of his closest friends from school—who was, the last time our narrator encountered him, 19, and Jewish, and unambiguously white.

Courtesy of a cutting-edge but fundamentally dodgy-sounding Bangkok clinic, Lipkin has undergone a series of procedures known as “racial reassignment surgery.” His original identity is now entirely obliterated, and he has been living for some years as Martin Wilkinson, a successful black entrepreneur, married to a black doctor who knows nothing of his past, with whom he has two black children. (These children are adopted. As sophisticated as Row makes it sound, the racial reassignment procedure is basically just cosmetic; there’s no actual tinkering with the genetic source code going on here.) Two questions immediately arise: Why would Martin risk blowing his cover in order to announce himself to a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years? And why has he gone and transformed himself into a black man in the first place?

The former question is answered more or less straight away: Lipkin wants Kelly to provide a full Boswell service—to write a book about him and his life, and about the as-yet unpublicized procedure. He wants him, in other words, to assist him in revealing himself in a controlled and public fashion. The latter question takes at least the remaining 369 pages of the book. I say “at least” because although a great deal of explaining gets done—a great deal of backstory and a great deal of talking—nothing like an unambiguous explanation ever really emerges.

That backstory is concerned, largely, with Kelly and Martin’s friendship as teenagers, during which time they played in a moderately successful art-punk trio called L’Arc en Ciel. (It may or may not be a sly meta-jape on Row’s part, what with his book’s thematic concern with masks and doubles and cultural appropriation, to have given the band the same name as an oppressively mawkish Japanese pop-rock outfit. The L’Arc en Ciel in the book is heavily informed by American post-hardcore acts like the Jesus Lizard and Fugazi.) The circumstances surrounding the death by drug overdose of the band’s waywardly talented guitarist Alan are what lead to the dissolution of Kelly and Martin’s friendship—as well as, in a much vaguer sense, Martin’s subsequent disappearance and racial switcheroo.

Row is reckoning with unwieldy and difficult themes here, and his approach to them is both disarmingly direct (occasionally to the point of didacticism) and strangely oblique. He’s self-consciously drawing on a polemical tradition in American art—in literature, music, and film that addresses the complexities and conflicts of race. (In the acknowledgements, he thanks Spike Lee for Do the Right Thing, David Simon and others for The Wire, as well as James Baldwin “for his words to white Americans, in anger and love.”) The book is jagged with references to significant cultural touchstones. “My education in blackness,” Kelly says, “in the experience of black people in America, began one hot summer afternoon in 1989, in sticky-floored Theater C at the Chestnut Hill Mall 13, with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing”—and thereby Public Enemy. In college, an acquaintance ridicules his heavily rap-based music collection (“Who are you supposed to be, homeboy?”), and he promptly reinvents himself along more stereotypically white cultural lines. He dumps all his cassettes in a box and shifts allegiances—to Pavement, Stereolab, John Ashbery, expensive coffee—as though switching cellphone providers for a package that better suits his needs. “I tore my Illmatic poster off my bedroom wall,” he tells us, “and used the back for calligraphy practice.”  The book is bluntly insistent about its equation of identification with identity, but this seems an unaccountably hysterical reversal of cultural affinity. (And neither does it quite fit the profile of a kid who plays drums in a post-punk band, and is presumably well versed in the back catalogue of Dischord Records.)

There are quite a few of these kinds of moments in the book, where you’re left wondering about a character’s motivations for some or other drastic action. And the central drastic action here, obviously, is Martin’s racial reassignment surgery. It’s a deeply uncomfortable idea, not just because it immediately hits you on a visceral level as a grotesque reductio ad absurdum of the logic of cultural appropriation, as a kind of holistic minstrel routine. Row also seems to want his invented procedure to demand consideration alongside gender reassignment surgery, and within the broader postmodern context of the fluidity of identity and selfhood.

Jess Row
Jess Row.

Photo by Sarah Shatz

The linguistic frame around the procedure is such that this comparison basically can’t be avoided; the condition Martin claims to be suffering from—or rather to have found a cure for—is called “Racial Dysphoria,” which clearly invokes the recognized condition of gender dysphoria. The book presents the liberal reader, in this sense, with a political double bind, whereby if you accept the idea that a person can be born with the “wrong” gender, then you have to at least entertain the idea that a person might equally be born with the “wrong” race, which deposits you straight into some very murky political waters. But Row is as interested in the cultural economics of consumer choice as he is in the politics of identity. Here’s how one character, a Korean academic named Julie-san who is undergoing surgery to make herself appear western, puts it: “No, it wasn’t biological. I wasn’t born in the wrong body. Whatever that means. Will I survive how I am? Of course. But why settle for survival? We’re talking about choice. Conscious, adult, rational choice.”  

The brilliance of the novel’s central idea is in its combination of Swiftian grotesquery and creepy plausibility. There’s no real qualitative difference, that is, between the procedure at the center of Your Face in Mine and procedures that people, most prominently (but not exclusively) young Asian women, are already undergoing. Why wouldn’t people get surgery to “become” black, if such a thing were possible? (Because it’s an utterly abhorrent idea? Yeah, sure, like that’s ever stopped people doing anything.) A little later, Julie-san frames racial reassignment as the next phase of a rapidly metastasizing consumer culture:

It’s another commodity fetish, in the end. Body mod. I mean, that’s the logical endpoint of the world we live in, isn’t it? In Korea now, every other girl I know has had ssangkkeopul susul. That’s the double-eyelid surgery … One of these days we’ll wake up and there’ll be two kinds of human beings, the mods and the plains. The done and the unwashed undone. Yeah, race will disappear, blah, blah, blah. It’ll stop being the smoke screen it’s always been. Frankly, it’s the last barrier to a world run purely on money. The future of whiteness is colors.  

These are interesting ideas, but Row never quite succeeds in making the novel as provocative as its premise. Largely, this is because he doesn’t deliver a convincing psychological account of why Martin would want to do what he has done. He’s an extremely smart man—calculatedly rational and (given the extremity of his life choices) nowhere near as eccentric as you’d expect him to be. We are provided with a lot of background detail on his early life, which is interesting on its own terms and largely justified by the plot device of Kelly’s writing a book about him. (The public front for this is that Kelly is researching a piece for The New Yorker about black entrepreneurs in Baltimore, focusing on Martin and his “grey market” technology firm—which black-and-white metaphor clearly reflects Row’s larger themes. Why a guy who’d just left a career in public radio, and who has never worked at all in print journalism, would be on assignment for The New Yorker is something neither author nor characters seem that bothered about clearing up.)

Martin spent his early childhood in a hippie commune; his mother ran away, leaving him in the care of his father, an agoraphobic gay Jew who seemed affably unconcerned with his son’s welfare, and who eventually died of AIDS. He went to school in a black neighborhood of Baltimore, and had various black surrogate parental figures. Later, after the death of Alan and of his friendship with Kelly, there is an extended and financially productive interlude in the drug underworld, which leads to a criminal conviction.

The conceit of the biographer/subject relationship forms the novel’s organizing narrative principle, in such a way that the story’s subtexts are always being brought to the surface in the form of spoken exchanges between Row’s characters. This sometimes recalls Dostoevsky, in the sense that a book like The Brothers Karamazov presents a kind of moral dialectic, a set of ideas embodied and advanced by its characters. Your Face in Mine is similarly talky; Row’s formal decision to withhold quotation marks, or any other textual framing of direct speech, has the effect of elevating the dialogue to a status equal to that of the rest of the prose. But with the characters doing so much of the heavy thematic lifting in their spoken exchanges, the novel can sometimes feel like the transcript of a symposium on its own themes, in which Row’s intellectual concerns are somehow both overexposed and underexplored. And so an intellectual figure like Julie-san, say, with her cultural studies rationale for her own bizarre choices, seems like an unsubtle envoy of a particular position—less a person than a discursive device.

Late in the book, Kelly is at a party with Martin and his wife, and he sees a little girl who reminds him of his own lost daughter. “She’s half,” as he puts it, “I can see that in a second, all Chinese features around the eyes and the mouth, but with an extra broadness in the nose and warm peach tones in her skin.” The girl asks him to take a photo of her with her parents, which he does; after the little girl and her father have left the room, he turns to the mother, who is Chinese, and says of his own daughter, “wo nu’er jiao Meimei.” And then we get this reflection on the ambiguity of tenses in Chinese:

Conjugating verbs in Chinese is much looser than in English, and depends much more on context. In English you would have to say my daughter’s name was. Or my daughter’s name is. In Chinese the verb by itself seldom has so much power. To be technically correct I should have said, wo nu’er jiao Meimei le, the le indicating a finished action, or, even more unbearably, zhiqian wo you jiao Meimei de nu’er, danshi yinian qian ta sile. I had a daughter named Meimei, but she died two years ago. But you don’t introduce yourself to a stranger this way in any language. Much less the parent of a young child, whose body hasn’t yet acquired the solidity, the independent gravity, the fixed status of a separate human being; who is still for all intents and purposes an extension of your own body, an extra limb.  

In the context of a book I often found frustrating for its combination of didacticism and evasiveness, I was taken aback by this moving passage, with its delicate explication of the ways in which language can simultaneously reveal and elide painful truths. It resonated in its quiet way throughout the home stretch of the Your Face in Mine, and it called attention to qualities otherwise largely absent in the writing. The moment was both emotionally direct and intellectually delicate, that is, and it seemed to speak directly from a core of loss and confusion at the center of a real and autonomous character. A character who seemed fully present, and present in service of something more than an artful conceit. He seemed more, in that instant, than the authorized biographer of his creator’s provocative ideas.

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row. Riverhead.

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