This review is terribly late. It was commissioned almost a year ago. And I am only now able to imagine writing it. What follows accounts for why it took so long.
The best reviews, the most generous reviews, have absorbed the useful elements of New Criticism: focus on the work, give it your energy, invite others to share it. I can teach others how to do this, but it's not what I do.
Here, instead, is how I have lived—am living—with this book.
When a reviews editor at Strange Horizons asked if I'd be interested in reviewing Jess Row's Your Face in Mine, I thought it might be interesting. It was set in Baltimore, my favorite city in the U.S.; it focused on race as technology and so spoke to my intellectual interests; and it was SF, a genre that I've been trying to think with as particularly important for the minoritized. I started reading it and, according to my Kindle, read 48% of it, and then I put it down and walked away. It felt impossible.
The book kept pushing me out.
Martin Lipkin, born in a commune to a gay white non-practicing Jewish father and a white mother he barely remembers has undergone Racial Reassignment Surgery to become Martin Wilkinson, a successful black business man in Baltimore. He runs into a former schoolmate, Kelly Thorndike, a white widower with graduate degrees in Chinese (literatures and languages) who works in public radio, and hires Kelly to tell the story of racial reassignment. Kelly is the first-person narrator—grieving, self-aware, ironic, self-reflexive, liberal, but scathing of liberalism: a white man unafraid to face his demons. Later, Kelly discovers that he has been recruited not only to write Martin's story, but to undergo Racial Reassignment Surgery himself: to be changed from white to Chinese.
The wager, as one character puts it:
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 done. 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.
What if post-race became technologically possible and what counted was choice? Choose how you want to be.
HUE is on the leading edge of the most exciting health and lifestyle technology of the twenty-first century: high-impact, permanent physical redesign of the body based on desirable ethnic characteristics. Using a combination of existing procedures and new patented and patent-pending technologies, HUE is positioned to be the first company in the field to offer a streamlined, comprehensive, globally marketed treatment for clients seeking a markedly different physical appearance.
Jess Row writes beautiful prose, the kind you're proud to tell your friends you are reading, the kind you tweet to demonstrate that you read good books, the kind that you envy and try to emulate, the kind that makes you want to study craft and write fiction. Take, for instance, the opening to Your Face in Mine:
It doesn't seem possible, even now, that it could begin the way it begins, in the blank light of a Sunday afternoon in February, crossing the parking lot at the Mondawmin Mall on the way to Lee's Asian Grocery, my jacket in my hand, because it's warm, the sudden, bleary, half-withheld breath of spring one gets in late winter in Baltimore, and a black man comes from the opposite direction, alone, my age or younger, still bundled in a black lambswool coat with the hood up, and as he draws nearer I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition.
For those trained to read Frantz Fanon, this scene is familiar: the encounter with the black man that slices through a day, as the "blank light of a Sunday afternoon" is interrupted by a "black man . . . from the opposite direction." While Row's narrator will later name himself as white, that naming is unnecessary for those trained to read racialization. Recent history makes this opening even more poignant, for the black man in a hoodie now has its own history of "recognition."
Row's prose is finely calibrated—I'm tempted to say choreographed. Long sentences can often seem breathless, as though the writer needs to rush through something difficult without stopping. They can also seem choppy, marked by too many pauses, too many commas or semicolons, as though they must continually interrupt themselves. Row's opening guides the eye and directs the body. You find yourself pausing at that "half-withheld breath," noticing your own breathing, and, as the sentence comes to a close with that "shock of recognition," you are caught by the familiarity of that shock.
Elsewhere, little sentences offer themselves as Tweets or notes in the journals that all aspiring writers claim to carry:
Grief makes you temporarily invisible: a fugitive in your own place, in your own time.
I wanted to be denatured, detached, to luxuriate in my cocoon and emerge an utterly different butterfly.
The worst thing you can do is blame yourself for what you're not feeling.
The house felt loose and creaky underfoot, full of odd drafts, barely inhabited.
This is our polite visit in the museum of our friendship.
And even the most simple examples—"I need a narrative"—offer themselves as finely crafted. One reads Row with the sense that what he has written could not have been written otherwise.
Jess Row's engagement with race-craft—the making of race through technology—speaks to recent scholarship by Dorothy Roberts (Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century ); Harriet Washington (Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present ); and Alondra Nelson (The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome ). Race-craft or, more precisely, being-craft, has its own long history in fiction, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), to H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), to George Schuyler's Black No More (1931), to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn , Adulthood Rites , Imago ).
As some of these citations should indicate, the idea of race as technology is not new, but, importantly, in our digital age, technology has become a vernacular through which to apprehend our now and ourselves. Perhaps thinking of race as technology is more powerful than previous descriptions of race as "fictional," "unreal," or "historically constructed." On this, there is much more to be said, but not now.
Some roadblocks are more onerous than others.
Black No More
I trained as a scholar of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century black diasporic literature and culture. My first love was the Harlem Renaissance, that glorious flowering of black artistic and intellectual production in the early decades of the twentieth century. When I'm being presumptuous, I start from Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells in the late nineteenth century and end with Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1930s. While several books in that span of time take on racial passing (Charles Chesnutt's House Behind the Cedars , Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood [1902-1903], James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man , Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun , Nella Larsen's Passing ) the book that takes on race as technology most explicitly is George Schuyler's Black No More (1931). The book is "dedicated to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family tree."
The plot is simple: a black scientist attempts to solve the problem of the color line by inventing a machine that turns black people white. The machine is so successful that white people panic that the color line cannot be policed. By the end of the book, a consensus develops among white leaders that those who have been through the machine are too white and that true white people are darker than machine-made white people.
Schuyler was famous as a satirist and the book is a masterpiece in satire. Satire makes all the difference.
Perhaps our age is post-satire—it has been claimed that we are now bedeviled by sincerity and earnestness. Every time I pick up Row's book, I want to re-read Schuyler. I read Row through Schuyler, and that makes it difficult to read Row.
If you search for reviews of Your Face in Mine, you soon encounter the words "courageous" and "brave," accolades bestowed on the white author "unafraid" to "tackle race" in an "honest" and "unflinching" way. (The handy Press page on the author's website provides a generous sampling of reviews.)
Those writing such reviews might be thinking of passages like these:
I've never in my life been attracted to a black woman.
Of course it occurs to me now that I wasn't ever attracted to black women partly because no one ever would have wanted me to be, because it's inconvenient, unsightly, because the image it brings to mind, let's say it, is the master and the slave, Sally Hemings and President Jefferson.
This was the life I was raised to have, racially speaking, the life my parents had, post-1973, when they left Back Bay for the suburbs, the life of a Good White Person. I was meant to have a few, select, black friends—peers, confidants, individuals—a number of acquaintances, business associates, secretaries, hygienists, a few charities, to which I would give generously, as much as possible, and a broad, sympathetic, detached view of the continuing struggles of African Americans to achieve the long-delayed goals of full civic participation, low birth rates, ascension to the middle class, hiring equity, educational parity, and so, so, so, on, on, on. I was supposed to live with the frisson of guilt that comes from owning an expensive, elaborate security system, and to mention, at parties, that rates of incarceration for black males are six times the national average. I was supposed to organize for Obama, and own at least ten separate items of Obama paraphernalia, and proudly display my Yes We Did postcard on my refrigerator for all of 2009 and 2010, and feel that slow flush of warmth and exultation, as if someone had reached out and grasped my hand, and held it, a squeeze as a substitute for an embrace.
I lived in white dreamtime. I have been living 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?
Why would I steal out of the circle of belonging, where I've always been? The gilded prison house of whiteness, with its electric fences, its transparent walls? Being the most visible, therefore the most hated, of all? The one who can always condescend, not the one condescended to?
Reader, doesn't the question answer itself?
Such passages are supposed to make us cringe for the narrator as we experience a "shock of recognition." Or, we're supposed to applaud the author for revealing secrets: what do white people really think? How do white people speak when there are no non-white people around? Or, we're supposed to ponder the ethics of renouncing whiteness.
Here, I can do no better than turn to Foucault's description of "the speaker's benefit":
There may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker's benefit. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. (History of Sexuality)
When white authors are praised as "brave" and "courageous" for "tackling race," it happens under the banner of the speaker's benefit: something has been transgressed; a truth has been told; a different future has been envisioned. If, like me, you've thought a little about racialization, you soon get tired of such accolades. Much of what is presented as "new," "groundbreaking," and "transformative" is often uninteresting. The "Good White Person" has long been critiqued in writing by black authors. The white person ambivalent about whiteness has a presence in writing by black authors. They might not write as prettily as Jess Row, but they have written about these matters.
One gets tired of being asked to applaud.
Books are what political scientist Jane Bennet calls "vibrant matter." They act on us. They draw us in. They push us out. They invite. They disinvite. Your Face in Mine kept pushing me out, so much so that the thought of reading it irritated me. It is beautifully written. And I've had a lot of training that teaches me how to read books that were not written for me. Still, it pushed.
Two small moments of pushing.
How difficult it is for us, for the insulated ones, to understand what it means to risk anything at all.
How much money, it occurs to me, just now, we spend to create these sterile bubbles.
I learned to listen to and for "us" and "we" when I sat in a classroom and the white sociologist teaching the class intoned, "you are all white and middle class." Perhaps it didn't happen that way. Perhaps I'm misremembering. Let's assume that it did. I am arrested by "us" and "we" when I encounter them—I wonder who is being addressed, who is being invited, who is being recognized. I suspect that those who describe this book as "brave" and "courageous" and "honest" find themselves in that "us" and "we."
That "us" and "we" made it impossible for me to read the book for close to a year.
A Surprise Appearance by Chinua Achebe
I return, often, to Chinua Achebe's "An Image of Africa," first published in the Massachusetts Review in 1977. It is best known as Achebe's critique of Conrad, which is a partial, if not misleading, reading. Achebe's true aim—let me be obnoxious here—is to think about the meaning of aesthetics in colonial modernity. Conrad—his writing and reception—is simply a case study.
Conrad, Achebe writes, "is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain." His work "falls automatically into . . . permanent literature—read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics." These are the stakes: how do we encounter and engage good and great work, work that becomes "permanent literature," or, to use our current vernacular, literary fiction, work that is "read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics"? Just as importantly, how do we engage "great stylists" who are also "good storyteller[s]"? This matters. Many great stylists do not know how to tell stories. We admire their craft and praise their genius, but we do not recommend their books to casual readers. We might write academic papers about such books, but they do not recur with the frequency of more readable and teachable works on our syllabi.
Marlow comes through to us not only as a witness of truth, but one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold of the Belgians or wherever.
Marlow is, as many of Conrad's defenders continually assert, on the right side of history.
Jess Row's Kelly is very clever. He holds all the right views. He tells Martin, for instance, "This is the most fucked-up reverse-eugenics experiment since Tuskegee. You're going to be accused of some kind of bioethical genocide. Trying to destroy race as a category." And, if one turns to the acknowledgements, one finds,
To Sander Gilman, for Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul; Jonathan Ames, for Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs; Rebecca Walker, for Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness; Fred Moten, for In the Break: The Poetics of the Black Avant-Garde; Spike Lee, for Do the Right Thing; David Simon and all those involved in creating The Wire; Maxine Hong Kingston, for The Woman Warrior (and particularly "Thirteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"); Paul Beatty for The White Boy Shuffle; Adam Mansbach for Angry Black White Boy; Cornel West for The Gifts of Black Folk in the Age of Terrorism, and above all to James Baldwin for Another Country and for his words to white Americans, in love and anger.
This list is impressive. It includes people who subtend my thinking—Sander Gilman, Fred Moten, James Baldwin. For people who might share my distaste for this book, it takes away one of our tools, "have you read?" One feels churlish for insisting that if these works had been read properly, Your Face in Mine would have been impossible to write as it has been written.
I do not read enough contemporary fiction to evaluate Jess Row alongside his peers. However, I have read a lot of fiction and I am comfortable claiming that Jess Row is a good stylist, perhaps even great, and a very good storyteller.
But this, readers will remind me, is a novel, an experiment in the imagination. To ask of it what I seem to be asking—an ethical stance, a political declaration, a more rigorous approach to racialization, a more elaborated attention to the thinking of the black diaspora—is to ask too much. Other books in history, anthropology, cultural studies, political theory, and visual culture can do that work. It is rude to demand more from the fiction writer's imagination.
I demand more.
But this, readers will remind me, is a novel that raises important questions about racialization and technology, and the book's aesthetic qualities—its self-awareness, its tone, its storytelling, its sentences and paragraphs—merit close consideration. One could, in fact, teach this book alongside many of those listed above. It creates a space for necessary conversations.
I'm not going to play this game.
But this, readers will remind me, is being published in a space dedicated to writing about "speculative fiction." Where is the section devoted to "speculative fiction"? What are all these detours through the Harlem Renaissance and Chinua Achebe?
Reader, the book exhausted me. I have written how I have lived with it.