When we think of fads, we often think of things that are temporary in popularity —and often temporary in durability, too. Hula hoops, Buddha bead bracelets, lava lamps can break, get lost, or fade out of fashion. But what about fads that hang around even after their trendy moment has passed? Many people regret ill-considered tattoos (there’s a reason those places stay open late after bars close!), but even worse is the ill-considered plastic-surgery procedure.
Not that Martin Wilkinson, one of the protagonists of Jess Row’s astonishing new novel Your Face in Mine, has any regrets about his own journey through cosmetic alteration. It is not a spoiler to tell you that Wilkinson, who grew up as the Jewish Martin Lipkin, has journeyed across the world to undergo “racial reassignment surgery.” Wilkinson now lives as an African-American man in Baltimore, a successful entrepreneur whose beautiful wife and adopted twin daughters have no idea that he was once a white man.
His story is narrated by Kelly Thorndike, a high-school friend of the now-defunct Lipkin. He believes that his pal Martin has approached him to write an investigative piece about this radical new approach to race, ethnicity and identity. Thorndike, who is mourning the horrific death of his Chinese wife Wendy and their daughter Meimei, signs up quickly because the public-radio station he’s recently joined as programming director is being sold out to a shock-jock outlet. The truth behind Wilkinson’s proposal — which is worth waiting for — is both more complicated and more terrifying than anything Thorndike might have imagined. Your Face in Mine is a fast-paced literary novel with layers of meaning similar to the layers of the human dermis. It’s not Fabulism or Sci-Fi; the implications for a world in which people can be transracial as well as transgender are things we all need to talk about, now.
Row’s novel, in its ambitious depth and eerie tone, has some echoes of Never Let Me Goby Kazuo Ishiguro (which was made into a movie starring Keira Knightley in 2010; if you’ve seen that, you’ll understand why these two books are paired). In this case, the less said, the better — spoilers would ruin the cut-glass tension of what is truly happening in this tale of an odd English boarding school. As the reader slowly realizes that there is more to this institution than arts-and-crafts exercises and carefully nurtured friendships, she will see that Ishiguro’s vision shares more with Row’s than mere conceit.