Jess Row

Nobody's Protest Novel: A Review of Your Face in Mine

By Phillip Garcia

It’s complicated.
And what you’re asking is for me to not make this complicated?”
                       —From Jess Row's Your Face in Mine

Lately, there’s been some praise for sentimentality, but personally, I’m not convinced. While Nick Ripatrazone might believe that “[o]ne moment of sentiment in literature is worth a thousand failures,” such a claim seems to ignore the inherent danger that those “thousand failures” might pose for real world issues, particularly for people of color.

In a sense, it feels as though Ripatrazone is confusing “sentimentality” with “emotion”—but they aren’t necessarily synonymous. Consider this quote from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel:”

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Baldwin might seem harsh here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that sentimentality (as he defines it here) risks oversimplifying important issues and, in doing so, creates bad politics and, perhaps worse yet, bad art. This oversimplification is what made Baldwin consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin a pamphlet, not an actual novel.  As well-intentioned as Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been, it was still shallow propaganda, not true art that presented complex characters full of well-earned pathos.

Sentimentality is the reason that when I first heard the premise of Jess Row’s new novel, Your Face in Mine, I was a bit worried. After all, a novel about a white man getting “racial reassignment surgery” could easily go awry. It’s not that I didn’t trust Row’s ability; it’s simply that I live in a world populated by Uncle Tom -esque books: sentimental, flat creations of white guilt that say little more than “Boy, it sure sucks to be a person of color.”

Imagine, then, not just my surprise but my unfettered delight at reading the novel and discovering what depth Row manages to dig out. Row takes what should be a bizarre idea and deftly balances it with a sense of realism. This balance between the real and the absurd reminded me of how Salman Rushdie recently described Gabriel García Márquez’s work:

The trouble with the term “magic realism”… is that when people say or hear it they are really hearing or saying only half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism.” But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works. 

It would, of course, be silly to argue that what Row is doing here qualifies as “magical realism,” but the balance between the unbelievable (or nearly unbelievable, in the case of racial reassignment surgery) and the believable is just as vital to anchoring his novel.

Not only is Row’s novel grounded in real-world Baltimore (and later, real-world Bangkok), it presents characters who are realistic, not simple, flat pawns who act out an Orwellian parable. While the characters deal with the issue of racial identity, they aren’t race-obsessed, and to say the novel is “about race” would be to ignore the layers of complexity Row has given his characters.

Kelly Thorndike, the narrator, struggles with the loss of his wife and daughter, as well as struggling with his own sense of self in a world that monetizes identity. Kelly is by no means a radical; he’s more of an academic who struggles with the real-world application of theory. We see this throughout the course of the novel, perhaps most memorably in a scene where Kelly and his wife argue about Chapelle’s Show. Yes, Kelly knows of white guilt; he knows of his role as oppressor. But Kelly comes to realize that he has been living in “white dreamtime,” a concept that is pervasive throughout the novel. “White dreamtime” really is the best description of Kelly: a passive, detached, and privileged observer, floating through reality. (Note, too, how the concept of “dreamtime” blends the surreal and real together).  

Martin Lipkin, one of Kelly’s old high school friends who undergoes racial reassignment surgery, is something of Kelly’s opposite. Unlike the concreteness of Kelly, Martin has obscured motives, is often unreliable, and is outright manipulative. The only thing that’s clear about Martin is that he’s interested in simplifying race as a means to turn it into a lucrative brand.  The often inconsistent elements of Martin’s character add to the overall dream-like confusion of the novel, and the dynamic between Kelly and Martin gives the novel its shape and carries us through the chaotic issues of race, identity, and capitalism.

In short, Row presents a complicated issue as it is: complicated. If, like Kelly, this book had stuck to the safety of academic theory, it would have been divorced from the rawness of reality; likewise, had it veered into the simplistic brand that Martin wanted to project, it would have been sentimental propaganda. It’s no surprise, then, that as Row worked through these concepts, he consciously follows  Baldwin (who gets a shout-out in both the epigraph and the dedication). Of course, while structurally and thematically there are some similarities to Another Country, to reduce Row’s work to Baldwin homage would also be an oversimplification.

Where Row actually follows Baldwin closest is in his aversion to sentimentality and simplicity in the face of harsh reality. Row deserves praise not simply for tackling a tricky subject, but for tackling that subject so masterfully.  This book could have easily devolved into white guilt and pandering, but Row provides thoughtful balance. For that reason, this book is not Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book is not a pamphlet. This book is a novel, and a very good one at that.