Your Face in Mine. Jesse Row.

Row, Jesse. Your Face in Mine. Silverhead, New York, 2014. F;03/19

This is another novel picked up through being impressed with a short story in a periodical. Row’s Radical Sufficiency in Granta was about high school kids fooling around with drones and robots, and in the process learning about love, sex, betrayal, and kindness through a world where in the imagination machines were a little bit human and humans were a little bit robotic. Row uses a device I’ve seen before: piling on references (to pop music, authors, TV stars, philosophers) which has for me both an intriguing and a bit annoying effect. Kindle with its built-in dictionary and Wikipedia helped with this.

The novel does the same thing (with references) which also gives it nuance depth through detail, but at the same time makes it feel like our author for some reason needs to be doing a meretricious show:

a circle of New York kids from Stuyvesant and Saint Ann’s, who were hardcore for Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Kathy Acker.

one should start slow on the stereo, first thing in the morning, a little Nick Drake, maybe, or folky Neil Young, or wake up with a thunderous blast of Antischism or Bolt Thrower or Cannibal Corpse.

But as in the short story, Row is up to other things, some of them compelling, together pointing beyond an engaging barrage of detail.

Narrator Kelly crossing a parking lot in Baltimore runs into a black man with a very familiar face. He’s Kelly’s former high school buddy and bandmate Martin. But Martin was white! It seems Martin is one of the earliest of a potential large group who, analogous to gender dysphorics who undergo sex change, are converted by a plastic surgery genius operating in Thailand into the race they believe they’ve always wanted to be.

Kelly, who has tragically lost his Chinese wife and little daughter in a freak car accident, has been working at a radio station (way below the level his Harvard PhD would normally command) and is co-opted by Martin to write Martin’s story of his racial switchover, which will make them both rich and introduce the world to racial-change opportunities. But in Thailand after meeting the genius surgeon it’s clear Martin is using Kelly to become another example of race-change magic by making him into the Chinese man he’s kind of always wanted to be.

The character of Kelly is a pretty classic if a bit overeducated everyman and we sympathize with his efforts to work out the loss of his family, and just what is going on in and with the other people in his life. “Okay, I say, with an inward sigh. What kind of relationship is this? I suppose I’d like to ask. But how can you ask that question without asking, what kind of person is this? There’s a principle at work here, but I can’t wait for it to reveal itself, can I?” Row has to have enjoyed putting his dramatic narrative skills to work in a gorgeously chaotic scene at the radio station where employees are told the station is being sold and their jobs are terminating. Kelly who has just been offered something much better somehow manages to stay out of the way.

Although this is arguably science-fiction, in a world where sex change is routine, race change might seem believable. But it points in the hardly original Frankenstein direction: if we could somehow make ourselves over, would we? Would I want to be better than I am by fixing the deficiencies I perceive in myself? Or would that, like messing with the past, risk changing everything for the worse? There was enough character and emotional credibility here to maintain my interest while keeping me wondering about being made over.

Recommended, even though both the story and the writing may not be for everybody. My rating for both content and style could be anywhere between 8.5 and the low 9s depending on how you react to the sci-fi and the use of arcane references.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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