SEPTEMBER 12, 2014
GIVEN RECENT DISCUSSIONS surrounding cultural appropriation in American culture, Your Face in Mine is a timely book. In music, 2013 marked the first year that no black artist topped the Billboard 100 chart, and white artists spent most of the year atop the hip-hop and R&B charts. In 2014, Forbes drew considerable criticism for claiming that Iggy Azalea — a white, female, Australian artist — is the new face of hip-hop, based on the success of her hit song “Fancy.” Other artists such as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have received both praise and criticism for their willingness to borrow from minority cultures. Jess Row takes the concept of appropriation to its natural end in Your Face in Mine. In Row’s novel, instead of simply adopting the speech or mannerisms of another race, there is the possibility to become another race altogether through extreme plastic surgery.
Row’s narrator, Kelly Thorndike — a directionless, white widower and failed academic working for an NPR subsidiary in Baltimore — discovers this possibility when he meets one of his old friends in a parking lot. His friend, Martin Lipkin, was a skinny Jewish boy the last time Kelly saw him. When Kelly meets him in the beginning of the novel, Martin Lipkin has transformed himself into Martin Wilkinson, a black man. Martin reveals his secret to Kelly in hopes that Kelly will use his communications background to help Martin explain this radical new possibility to the public. Kelly, for his part, finds his life at both a personal and professional crossroads, and this crisis gives Kelly the perfect opportunity to reunite with his old friend and find a new direction.
It would be easy to label Your Face in Mine as science fiction. (In fact, it is listed on io9’s list of “All the Amazing Must-Read Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for August.”) However, given Maureen O’Connor’s recent New York magazine article on “ethnic plastic surgery,” (a catch-all term for procedures ranging from nose jobs to butt implants), the plot of Row’s novel might not be far-fetched or fictitious at all. Again, this makes Row’s novel feel timely. However, at its core, Your Face in Mine deals with the timeless American need for reinvention. From the narratives of John Smith, settler of the Virginia colony, to celebrated television shows like Mad Men, the idea of rebirth sits at the center of the American psyche, and the need for rebirth is what drives both Martin and Kelly throughout the novel.
Initially, the tragic loss of a friend pushes both characters away from Baltimore. When Alan — Martin and Kelly’s best friend, and lead member of their experimental garage band — commits suicide, Kelly immerses himself in Chinese culture, becoming a language scholar and marrying into a Chinese family. However, despite his love for his family and the culture, he can never be accepted as fully Chinese, and whatever communal bonds he has with China dissolves when his wife and child die in a car accident. Even in his adopted homeland, he is doomed to forever be a laowai — an alien, an outsider.For Martin, his search for belonging eventually brings him back to Baltimore. He spends some years traveling up and down the East Coast as a middleman in a marijuana ring, until a peyote-induced revelation leads him to realize his real purpose lies in being a black man. When he returns to Baltimore after his surgery, it is the black community of the city that represents a place to belong, but it also represents the opportunity for him to be the person he has always wanted to be. Row makes readers feel the desperation of the two main characters, and the depths to which they are willing to travel to find a sense of home. The plot of the novel shows Kelly tracking the secrets behind Martin’s transformation, but this search leads to him crossing continents and crossing paths with law enforcement, other childhood friends, and his own secrets that he tried to leave behind in Baltimore. However, throughout the novel, even though Kelly is searching for the truth behind Martin, it becomes clear that Kelly is searching for his own truth as well.
However, as the two main characters attach themselves to other cultures and investigate other cultures to find themselves, the expert craft in Your Face in Mine is overshadowed by a few troubling issues. When discussing his affinity for black culture with Kelly, Martin states that “The house of blackness has many doors.” On one hand, in the scene itself, Martin is discussing music with Kelly. However, later on, the doctor responsible for the racial transformation surgeries tells Kelly that “Lightness is quite difficult,” when he describes the processes used to transform patients’ appearance from one race to another. The doctor is speaking from a medical sense when he makes the comment, but every statement about color, skin, and body types in Your Face in Mine operates on multiple levels, so it is difficult to take his statement as a purely scientific observation in Row’s world.
Taken together, and taken with the conflicts that arise in the novel — mainly, the tension between Kelly and Martin over who was responsible for Alan’s death, and Kelly’s internal debate on whether or not to expose Martin’s secrets — Your Face in Mine presents a world where white characters can not only appropriate a culture, but they can become a member of a new culture with little consequence. And this a missed opportunity. In one part of the novel, Kelly and Martin walk by a police car, and Row creates a scene that shows the potential consequence of being black in the United States:
Rolling toward us on Howard Street, slowly, deliberately, is a Baltimore Police squad car, with two shadowy figures underneath the mirroring glare of the windshield. The driver’s-side window rolled down, a beefy, red-haired forearm adjusting the mirror. And without touching his body, without looking over at him, I feel a change in the envelope of energy around Martin, a crackle of static electricity: and I draw up my breath, stiffen my spine, and open my hands, keeping them in plain sight, keeping my gaze straight ahead, an unworried, unself-conscious man, as I imagine a black man would always have to be, though I’ve never imagined it before in quite this way. It occurs to me that in a way, on this street, in this old place where pedestrians rarely stray, I am his alibi. There is a percentage by which a white man and a black man walking together by Tilson Falls are less likely to be stopped than a black man walking alone. You could do a study.
Your Face in Mine could be that study, or a version of it, but this discomfort is a little more than a blip in the 350 page novel. The recent deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown give added gravity to this moment, but the gravity of moment disperses. The energy around Martin is never anxious outside of this scene. This moment of anxiety shows the consequences of Martin’s actions. When he changes his body into the body of a black man, this change is absolute. The stakes are much higher than him simply identifying with black culture or adopting black mannerisms. In this encounter, he has to accept the threat of violence attached to the black male experience. However, there is no echo of this moment, no example of Martin truly sacrificing. To be black, he has to have a few surgeries and wear a suit.
Throughout the novel, Martin is not only comfortable as a black man; he excels as a black man. In the novel’s Baltimore, which Kelly previously left because he can’t stand to be around “so many poor black people,” this poverty never touches Martin’s world. He is a successful businessman. He marries a beautiful black doctor. He’s a loving father and mentor in the community. His success could be taken as a sign that he is in the perfect environment for himself. However, Martin’s success as a black man and understanding of blackness is most keenly shown during a conversation with other black men at his home for a party. When the conversation turns to Barack Obama, it’s Martin who describes Obama as “The most primal president we’ve had… And the thing is, it’s all contrived. It’s constructed. And we’re okay with that. It’s artificial and sacred.”
Readers can understand the layers attached to Martin’s speech, how mentioning constructed identities and personas relates to himself more than the president, or anyone else in the novel. However, his guests are awed into silence by his description of the president, and here, Martin Wilkinson becomes Sam Worthington in Avatar, Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, Elvis Presley borrowing the moves of black musicians. Beneath the science and the friendship between Kelly and Martin, the novel becomes another example of a white man going native and becoming better at being a native than the natives.
It’s a harsh critique, but it is harsh because Your Face in Mine could have been much, much more. Row is a talented writer. Readers will sit down with this book and not realize they have read 100 pages until they look out of their windows and notice how much time has passed. Structurally, the book is strong. On a language level, the book is strong. However, the argument of the book, the heart of the book, feels hollow. Martin’s success as a black man, by itself, could be taken as just another example of appropriation in literature. He could have been another character study. If the other characters who wanted to change races ended up successful and well-adjusted, then there would be consistency in the novel. However, there are very different challenges for the white characters and the minority characters in the novel. While Martin offers one example of racial passing, Your Face in Mine offers its own version of the tragic mulatto in the form of Julie Nah, a Korean women looking to become a white woman through surgery and aping the confidence of Sex and the City protagonists. However, she ultimately finds that whiteness, or the “lightness” that the doctor refers to in the novel, can be a maddening goal.
For a book dedicated to the idea of passing, Your Face in Mine is attempting to create an illusion of its own. On the surface, the book will surely be praised for engaging with controversial subject matter. However, there is not real controversy. There is not real engagement. There’s a formula present, and that formula involves putting a white face on top of a minority culture, and that formula has proven to be successful — if not completely responsible — across many forms of media. Your Face in Mine appears to explore a new world, a new front in discussing race and culture, but some readers will be able to see past the illusion and see a face they have seen many times before.