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.)