Jess Row’s ‘Your Face in Mine’ Is a Provocative Commentary on the Plasticity of Race

“Is Race Plastic?” the cover of New York Magazine asked last week. In “My Trip Into the Ethnic Plastic Surgery Minefield,” writer Maureen O’Connor explores a niche collection of surgical procedures that can alter the shape of a person’s face and the racial information coded there. It’s a disquieting idea: “Doctors comfortable advertising their expertise in ethnic plastic surgery are growing wealthy creasing Asian eyelids, pushing sloped foreheads forward, and pulling prominent mouths back.” What makes it unnerving, however, is the many, many repercussions that these surgeries have, and what they say about what we think about race, beauty standards, and what constitutes your ethnic identity.

It’s a strange article to read before delving into Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine, a book that starts with a reunion between two middle aged men who had a punk band together in their youth: “I’m looking into the face of a black man, 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 his face before.” Kelly, the narrator, is looking into the eyes of his old friend and bandmate Martin Lipkin, who is now Martin Wilkinson, a black man. How these two men got to this place is unnervingly possible (as illustrated by New York Magazine‘s piece), and Row is ready to delve into the fraught minefield that is writing about race in America.

Identity gives Your Face in Mine its power, and throughout the book, Row has made some choices that leave the reader marooned and adrift — which works, until it doesn’t work — present tense throughout, dialogue as part of the text, without tags and without identifying who’s saying what, so the ideas and the potential offensiveness just fly through the air. The book has a nightmarish quality as Kelly, a former NPR latte liberal, mired in grief for the death of his Chinese wife and infant daughter in a car accident, follows Martin around, the idea being that he’ll help Martin “debut” as a public figure, the first person to have racial reassignment surgery.

Kelly listens to Martin’s black community as they talk about Obama. He steps back from Martin’s story to tell the reader about his “education in blackness,” which began with a 1989 screening of Do the Right Thing. Kelly falls in love with early 90s hip hop — Public Enemy, N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest, only to have a biracial classmate call him out: “You’re not the black world. You’re not black, don’t you get it? And listening to this shit doesn’t change that. It just makes you a parasite… You get to not have rights for a change. Shut up and go away and leave black people alone, for once.”

Your Face in Mine is a novel of ideas, of riffs, of what it’s like to address race in America, how white men crave black cool and how blackness or any “other”-ness can be a construct. In the novel, the concept of racial reassignment surgery is compared to transsexual transitions, the concept of feeling like you were born in the wrong body. It’s wrapped up in a highfalutin New Yorker-article concept that mutates, over time, into something more horrifying, a dystopian sci-fi Bangkok getaway at the end of the world. I felt nauseated while reading it, uncomfortable with the ideas being thrown around.

But I didn’t always find a center to the book. Some of that’s from its relentlessly modern perspective, the choices that Row makes as a writer — especially the Cormac McCarthy-esque trope of having dialogue flow into the text, without quotation marks, which is one of those choices that you vibe with or it drives you insane. Some of it is because (rightfully, but sometimes boringly) mopey Kelly’s past life in a teenage punk rock band isn’t interesting. The dread and tragedy surrounding the story made it airless — what I wouldn’t have given for a hint of the humor from a writer like Paul Beatty, whose book The White Boy Shuffle wrestles with race and is funny as hell. Row cites Beatty’s work in the acknowledgements (a crucial list of modern books and artwork dealing with and acknowledging race, including James Baldwin and The Wire). Your Face in Mine remains serious, apocalyptic, avoiding this Kanye West maxim: “I’ll say things that are serious and put them in a joke form so people can enjoy them. We laugh to keep from crying.”

Yet Your Face in Mine has ambition and scope, a concept that is creepy and provocative, and that is enough to make it matter as a piece of literature. It’s a serious novel with serious ideas, and it’s good to see a young writer wrestling with race, poking at a beehive. It’s not a book to read lightly, and that may be the highest compliment that I can give it.