Your Face in Mine: A Novel by Jess Row

Your Face in Mine: A Novel BY Jess Row. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 384 pages. $27.
The cover of Your Face in Mine: A Novel

In reviews of works of fiction, the word “Chekhovian” tends to lie somewhere between “subtle,” “nonviolent,” and “boring.” If a story collection isn’t funny, it’s Chekhovian. If it’s wistful and no one smashes anything, it’s Chekhovian. Hearing the word makes one think that somewhere out there must be a hugely influential writer, Bill Chekhov, who lives in a constant state of lowkey sadness.

That said, the stories in Jess Row’s second collection, Nobody Ever Gets Lost (FiveChapters Books, 2011), recall one aspect of actual Chekhov. As with Chekhov, the more we know about Row’s characters, the more we feel the impossibility of knowing them fully. Often, their own thoughts or actions surprise them. In “The World In Flames,” a young female backpacker hopes for casual sex with an expat, only to discover he’s a Christian terrorist. Using a shocking, unChekhovian tactic, she thwarts his violent plans. As she does this, she feels not a rush of triumph, but the raw provisionality of her prior self. In Row’s stories, identities always expire.

Row pairs this fluid brand of characterization with a heated sense of Bush-era global politics. The result is strange and powerful. Nobody Ever Gets Lost is haunted by global jihad, but never oppressively topical. It trades in private pain, but the kind that happens in countries with economies.

In a number of his stories, Row writes in the voices of women, or members of minority groups to which he doesn’t belong. These days, this isn’t unusual. Yet Row wears his masks with humble rigor. In “Amritsar,” an Indian man frets over the assimilation of his adult son. The story’s narrator thinks nostalgically about India, but its lone “exotic” scene occurs in America, when he baits a hook with an “iridescent jelly” worm. No matter how far they venture, Row’s stories feature no morally flawless grandmas, no Michael Jordans of the ethnic real. His writing doesn’t act out a crisis of authenticity; it explores one.

Row’s brilliant new novel, Your Face in Mine, pursues a bold and roomy premise: What if you could change your race? Not superficially, with makeup and a wig, but by cosmetic surgery? This book feels fresh not only because it inverts and biologizes racial passing, but also because it takes seriously the last few decades of identity politics. In Roth’s The Human Stain and Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, race is merely a roadblock to a true, American self. In Your Face in Mine, race is the road, for black and white alike.

The book starts when a white man, the novel’s narrator, sees a black stranger on the street and feels a “shock of recognition.” As he combs his brain for a “forgotten slight,” a “stray remark,” or a “door slammed in a black man’s face,” the stranger addresses the narrator by name. He turns out to be the narrator’s friend Martin, from high school. Back then, both of them were white.

Martin coolly explains to Kelly that he has undergone racial reassignment surgery. Minutes later, he offers Kelly a job. Martin plans to be the Steve Jobs of transracial procedures, to grow hugely rich and famous through the marketing of racial reassignment. He wants Kelly to be a cross between his “Boswell” and his communications director. By writing Martin’s story, New Yorker-style, explaining “the emotional logic of the whole thing,” Kelly will spread the word about racial reassignment. “In a hundred years,” Martin says, “this’ll be as common as a nose job.”

Meanwhile, Kelly is awash in grief. He has lost his wife and child in a car accident six months before. His wife, Wendy, was Chinese, and almost as soon as we meet him, we find Kelly shopping at an Asian market, as if on her behalf. At home alone, he speaks with her. Quietly, half-consciously, he longs to change his life, to be anything but the husk of grief he feels himself to be.

Row scrutinizes Kelly’s strong identification with Chinese culture, but his bond with his Chinese wife, Wendy, never seems in doubt. Kelly’s tender picture of their marriage clears a tiny, perhaps the novel’s only, space of hope. Your Face in Mine shows love as one aspect of identity that’s painfully, reassuringly tough to shake.

As Kelly mulls over Martin’s stated reason for his racial conversion—“Racial Identity Dysphoria”—the public radio station Kelly runs loses its funding. Ready to take any road that leads away from his recent trauma, Kelly immerses himself in Martin’s shadowy world. This sets in motion a surprising, evocative plot that calls to mind Murakami or Dick as much as The Great Gatsby. Initially, Kelly envies Martin’s money and the familial love he enjoys. But the more involved he gets in Martin’s life, the more tenuous it seems.

Meanwhile, being around his newly black friend, and being back in his hometown, Baltimore, leads him to a string of frank meditations on his own racial history. Taken together, they might be called The Miseducation of a White Liberal. One chapter charts Kelly’s racial consciousness from the first time he saw Do the Right Thing to the murder of a black man he knew from a volunteer program. In earnest, but not without humor, he seeks the logic of his own identitarian choices—was there some deep reason he went from Nas to John Ashbery in college? Specific questions like this lead him to see the ways that whiteness shapes a life. This line of thought brings him to the limits of his white liberal understanding:

I lived in white dreamtime…And the problem with dreaming, the epistemological problem, is: when you think you’ve woken up, have you really? Is this waking, or a deeper, more profound state of sleep, the state of the most vivid and palpable dreams?

One can imagine many contexts and tones that might render such a passage unreadable. Row gracefully evades them. In part, because he seems to yearn to know, to be actually asking: What has his whiteness spared him?

Alexander Benaim is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry and a writer.