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Face coverThough thoroughly dystopian, Joma West’s novella Face isn’t about a boot stamping on a human face forever. Here, the footwear is more of a red-bottomed stiletto pressing ever-so-sexily on the back of humanity’s neck. Humanity kind of likes this dystopia. It’s pretty, and there are any number of bright, fun distractions to be had when you plug into the In, the internet of the future across which social media is entirely pervasive. The In overlays the Out, a perpetual connection that is also perpetual surveillance. Where 1984 was a dystopia of scarcity, Face is a dystopia of plenty. Its characters do not require brutal correction: they correct themselves, or, when failing to do so, blame only themselves for their failures to conform. If they don’t present a good face to the world, they fall down the social ladder, and nothing—not slavery, not ignorance, not the total absence of human connection—is worse than that.

Face is a novella told in the round, each character picking up the same narrative events from a different perspective and pushing them forward or outward ever so slightly. The narratives start with and always—after each other voice is given its turn—return to the Menial named Jake. Jake is ostensibly human, but has been selectively bred and raised to remove as much intelligence and identity as possible so that he will be the perfect slave. Genetic and social chains bind him so tightly there’s no need for physical ones: he knows nothing but service, and has no other options, since he is considered even by himself as property rather than a person. This is a bleak take on class, and certainly a resonant one given the ways in which we see billionaires treating people in our own world. Jake, though, has a secret. He has an inner life, and he has fallen in love with Madeline Burroughs, the matriarch of the family who owns him. His devotion both sustains and distresses him, and his struggle to contain his feelings is the through-line of the book.

The book orbits Madeline like planets orbit a black hole. Her gravity is an empty one, her very vapidity a draw. She’s a beautiful but artless social climber who lucked into a marriage above her social standing—her “facevalue”—and almost every POV character is connected to her in some way. She, however, does not get a POV story. We are meant to sympathize with everyone but her, and it’s a clever take on the ultimate unknowability of the people around whom our culture centers itself.

Instead, the stories begin with Tonia, an acquaintance of Madeline and a woman whose facevalue has plateaued, and who is therefore considering having a baby to enhance her image. “Having” the baby is, in fact, more than apt: the babies of the wealthy are objects to have more than anything else. There is also a strangely postracial twist to the usual debate about designer babies, since couples now select children based solely on aesthetics. All culture and tradition is seemingly lost. There may be a commentary here on celebrities adopting babies who do not share their race, but the commentary is not pointed enough. These babies are crafted and then “bred” by poor surrogate mothers, since childbearing is considered vulgar. I understand that this is in turn a criticism of celebrity use of surrogacy, but—as everyone in one scene raised their champagne in a toast to not being pregnant—I couldn’t help but cringe. Exploitation of poor women for their fertility is bad, but surrogacy itself is a far more complex issue, as is fertility. Queer people who want to become parents may understandably want to consider surrogacy, as would people with genetic issues that either would affect fertility or would be a risk to pass on to a child. I’m one of those people, actually, and while Face seems aimed at the Kardashians, it flattens nuance and produces a lot of collateral damage in order to critique them.

Tonia herself is uncomfortable with the surrogacy arrangements, but because image is everything, she cannot express it. She only breaks down when safely behind the mask she presents to the world, fracturing into panic and despair she can barely understand, since interior lives are liabilities and therefore never discussed. Discussion of vulnerability even sends another character, Schuyler’s daughter Rayna, into a horrified downward spiral when she realizes her father actually has desires beyond the maintenance and advancement of his image, his face. Only outward appearance should matter.

And that’s where Face loses me a bit more. It’s fine to critique the way social media makes us grasp at followers, makes attention for attention’s sake a virtue instead of a waste of time. But that’s not all social media and the internet do. I—along with millions of others—have formed meaningful connections, found amazing new opportunities, and had the world’s knowledge instantaneously available. There are reasons that social media endures despite its dangers, and it’s not because there’s one single ladder uniting us all. There’s a whole web of interconnected reasons and justifications, and Face doesn’t really explore them. There aren’t artists here, no people with passions. We barely see anyone with curiosity, or anyone who refuses to participate in the system. This may be an unsettling future, but it’s not one that I’m particularly afraid will come to pass.

I likewise struggled to suspend my disbelief for the universal taboo against skin-to-skin touch, even between parents and infants. There is no explanation for the rejection of touch. Even a throwaway line about a half-forgotten pandemic or a long-distant trend would have helped, because I just don’t buy that the future of humanity is touchless and celibate. Have you seen humans? We start wars, end marriages, break laws, and incite riots just to touch each other. Even West herself tells us that Menials, designed to lack sexual impulses, are still overwhelmed by the need to touch themselves (and in Jake’s case, touch someone else). Even the immaculate Schuyler Burrows is not immune to desire.

Face feels like a dystopia imagined many decades ago, with echoes of Alphaville (1965) or 1984 (1949), where love and human connection are forbidden. But in those settings, connection is restricted by an outside force. In Face, everyone polices themselves, if such policing is even necessary. Naomi reflects that masturbation simply isn’t that interesting to her, let alone sex with another person. We could state the obvious: there is no touch because there is no intimacy in this world; people only care how they appear, not how they or anyone else feels. But this is too much in the realm of metaphor. West may be making a sharp commentary on digital isolation, but at the end of the day she’s written a book about people—and while I can appreciate its treatment of them, I still don’t buy it.

I can also appreciate the literary tack West was taking by showing the same conversations from each participant’s point of view, but the move does not bear so much repeating. The conversations simply aren’t compelling enough to reread verbatim, especially since we get very little new information out of them the second time around. Ironically, West is too good at dialogue: almost everything she wanted to convey was there the first time, so why the belaboring? It’s a bit of a fanfiction move, actually (and I do not mean that pejoratively), to get the same take on the same events from two people’s perspectives for the simple pleasure of spending time with beloved characters. But I barely know these characters, and don’t like most of them. And okay, yes: let’s talk about likability. It’s true that I don’t have to like characters to either root for them or want to hear their stories. I recently adored A Certain Hunger (2020), a book about an unrepentant cannibal serial killer. Hell, I played Untitled Goose Game (2019) a few times through—I was the anserine menace and I cackled to wreak my fowl will upon the village. The problem here is that West wants us to like these characters. She wants to G. R. R. Martin this novella and give us Cersei as a villain before we get Cersei as a POV character with understandable feelings and motivations. She wants us to have contempt for characters like Rayna, Madeline and Schuyler’s “perfect” and cold daughter, before we come to understand her.

Like most of West’s characters, Rayna is a little bit more interesting once you get to know her, but even she is mostly an object of pity. She’s also a victim of West’s tendency toward repetition, parroting the phrase “better In than Out” like a talisman against her mind collapsing in on itself. This eventually becomes tedious to read. Most of the characters are a little bit more something once we spend some time with them, but there just isn’t enough time in a novella to rotate this quickly through an ensemble cast. Nobody’s story feels complete, nobody’s personality is fully fleshed out. Ironically, the book itself hesitates to provide too much intimacy.

This repetitive tactic also kills the forward momentum of the narrative. It feels like padding, only Face shouldn’t need padding. It has several really compelling directions it’s pulling in, but because there’s so much rehashing it doesn’t get very far in any of these directions. Almost nothing is resolved by the end of the book. Not Naomi’s curiosity about Menials, not Vidya’s moral qualms, not even Tam’s ascent. Schuyler’s rebellious revelation and Jake’s impulsive act of comfort may provide something of a resolution, but we never—for example—see whether the former’s sudden turn away from Tonia and toward Eduardo is reciprocated. Similarly, we can assume that Jake’s fulfillment is short-lived and that he’s disposed of, but we don’t know for sure. In other words, we don’t see either consequences or rewards, and so the emotional climax crumbles into ambiguity.

If West’s point is to be bleak, then the book ends on a weirdly triumphant note, when the great Schuyler Burrows leaves his perfect face behind to pursue a physical relationship and emotionally attached parenting. But this only feels like an acknowledgement of reality. The real question isn’t why he leaves; of course he leaves. The question I’m left with is: why doesn’t everybody leave? West hasn’t convincingly answered that question. She hasn’t sufficiently conveyed the allure of the In, which mostly seems like a VR hybrid of Google Maps and Instagram. That doesn’t interest or scare me enough to give up privacy, love, and human touch.

Face as a whole doesn’t quite know if it wants to frighten you or fascinate you. And the frustrating thing is that it’s good at both! The plight of the Menials and the iron grip of the monitors—shadowy figures who intercede when people threaten the status quo—is genuinely unnerving. And then Tam, the pitiless social climber, is interesting in a way I haven’t seen since Genevieve Valentine’s criminally underrated Persona (2015) and Icon (2016), about celebrity-politicians who represent their countries in sort of the way celebrities currently represent brands or studios. Those books were about truly vicious social battlefields, and Face could have done the same. Does do the same, but really only for a chapter. Then it flips back to Jake. Despite the novel’s excellent writing and strong characterization, the whiplash in tone and expectation is eventually exhausting. Face wants to comment on everything, but in so attempting, reduces complex issues to a singular diatribe against social media. It’s good to be wary of brands disguised as people, but I’m not quitting the internet just yet.

Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian. She lives in Boston. She tweets using the handle @OLaddieGirl.
Current Issue
25 Sep 2023

People who live in glass houses are surrounded by dirt birds
After a century, the first colony / of bluebirds flew out of my mouth.
Over and over the virulent water / beat my flame down to ash
In this episode of  Critical Friends , the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan talk to critic and poet Catherine Rockwood about how reviewing and criticism feed into creative practice. Also, pirates.
Writing authentic stories may require you to make the same sacrifice. This is not a question of whether or not you are ready to write indigenous literature, but whether you are willing to do so. Whatever your decision, continue to be kind to indigenous writers. Do not ask us why we are not famous or complain about why we are not getting support for our work. There can only be one answer to that: people are too busy to care. At least you care, and that should be enough to keep my culture alive.
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