It All Begins with the Jewish Nose

August 15, 2014 | ,

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95

Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race?

Row, who was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007 on the strength of his short stories, takes on the timely project of imagining what would happen if any desired racial or ethnic appearance could suddenly be acquired through cosmetic surgery. Answering this question, he has crafted a page-turning novel about race that’s equal parts literary fiction, popular science and smart thriller.

The novel presents a world barely two steps ahead of our own, in which an American-trained Thai doctor and a Baltimore entrepreneur have pioneered what they call “racial-reassignment surgery,” which could change the way we talk about race — and make them rich.

Modeled on sexual reassignment as currently practiced, this process involves various procedures (in one exemplary case, “subcutaneous injections of melanotomanine … alteration of the palatine and vomer bone structures … [and] rhinoplasty with nostril augmentation”) and “other forms of treatment commonly used in sexual reassignment (voice lessons, for example),” to provide paying clients with the typical physical appearance of whatever ethnic group they desire.

The entrepreneur, Martin Lipkin, who is of partly Ashkenazi-Jewish descent, has at the novel’s start already proved that the techniques work by transforming himself into an African-American named Martin Wilkinson.

The story gets going when the novel’s narrator, Kelly Thorndike, runs into Martin, an old friend from high school, and eventually agrees to write a book about his racial transformation. Kelly is a failed academic and public-radio administrator, and because of his friendship with Martin and his own personal curiosity he’s eager to discover both the how of Martin’s transformation and, even more difficult to establish, the why. To do so, he interviews Martin’s African-American wife, reads the man’s journal entries and eventually flies to Thailand, where he discovers Martin’s plans and motivations are even more complicated than he imagined.

Kelly’s not just a narrative cipher, though, some prop through which Martin’s story can be told; he also serves to personify old-fashioned American whiteness, down to the ivied prep schools and universities he has attended. A Korean racial-reassignment patient, shelling out to become Caucasian, tells him when they meet in Bangkok that she’s been seeking what comes to him naturally: “A northeastern college look. A Nantucket look.”

In fact, Kelly isn’t exactly disinterested when it comes to the idea of affiliating oneself with a culture one doesn’t own bodily or genetically. In his case, it’s Chinese: He holds a Harvard Ph.D. in East Asian studies, speaks the language fluently, married a Chinese woman, and named his daughter Meimei. Through all that, he remains aware that “no Westerner has ever actually become a Chinese citizen” (which fact, though fantastic, seems to be at least approximately, and with some exceptions, true). The best he could hope for, if he moved to his wife’s hometown, Wudeng, would be a life as an outsider, the local “laowai, the Pearl S. Buck of the village.” His proximity to an exclusive culture to which only a specific, unattainable physical appearance would provide entry shows him the value of the product that Martin hopes to sell.

Yet Kelly’s example, being relatively unusual, makes clear, too, the ways in which Row’s hypothetical runs into a dead end. If Kelly didn’t already speak fluent Chinese, and know as much about Chinese history and culture as the natives, would a stereotypically Chinese appearance really allow him to assimilate in Wudeng? Only superficially, at best. As far as I can tell, few contemporary ethnic communities place so much weight on one’s looks, as opposed to one’s other behavioral qualities.

Surely there would be some customers somewhere out there for racial-reassignment surgery; there are some customers, somewhere, for anything that can be sold. But if the real-world analogy of trans and gender-queer identities suggests anything, it’s that surgery hardly provides simple solutions for everyone: There are certainly trans people who want to disappear into conventional gender identities, but there are also lots of gender-queer folk whose identities don’t conform to the binary at all. And in this era of Obama and increasing bi- and multi-racialism, isn’t the much more interesting aspect of ethnic identity how far one can get in a given community as long as one talks the talk and walks the walk, even if one doesn’t entirely look the look?

Row himself, in addition to being a graduate of Yale and the University of Michigan, is “an ordained dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.” And as someone with American roots, at least on his father’s side, that stretch back to the Mayflower, he could serve as an example of just how much acceptance one can find in a culture even without being racially typecast for it.

It’s also no accident, in terms of people being able to play against type, that Row places Jews awkwardly, ambivalently, at the center of the novel. For one thing, Row has read his Sander Gilman, and the novel’s Thai cosmetic surgeon argues in defense of his experiments that “cosmetic surgery for the purposes of changing one’s racial or ethnic identity has been an established practice … since the first cosmetic rhinoplasties were performed by Jacques Joseph in 1870s.” In other words, as Martin summarizes, “it all begins with the Jewish nose.”

But it doesn’t end there because even if Jews pioneered surgical transformations for the purpose of avoiding social persecution, Jews are anything but racially, visually or behaviorally uniform. Martin’s Jewishness, for one thing, is quite tenuous — he was “not technically Jewish at all,” he says, because his father was but his mother wasn’t; he “never went to synagogue, never had a bar mitzvah,” though he did read Bruno Schulz and the Zohar in college — and yet he’s described, without qualification, both in the novel and even in the blurb on the back cover, as Jewish. Kelly recalls, meanwhile, that at the progressive high school where he and Martin met, they had Jewish classmates of all kinds: “Hinjews, Mexijews,” and one friend who was both African-American and a rabbi’s daughter.

Those characters offer a reminder that at least in progressive communities, being black, Hindu, Mexican or non-Jewish according to halakha, like Martin, didn’t, by the late 20th century, stop you from being accepted as a Jew in America, if you wanted to be. (In an essay, Row has mentioned his own “Hindu-Unitarian-Jewish-Buddhist wedding.” Of course, there’s still racism in the American Jewish communities of the real world — that’s why the work of organizations like Be’chol Lashon, which advocates for the full acceptance of Jews of color, remains important. And our culture still associates particular physical characteristics with Jews, which is why the actor Jason Biggs, though not a Jew, is always cast as one.

But it’s also true that the kind of racial-reassignment surgery “Your Face in Mine” imagines would simply not make sense for transforming anyone into a Jew nowadays — and, of course, no one in Row’s novel even mentions the idea of becoming Jewish through racial reassignment. Having a stereotypically Ashkenazi nose or hairdo would be neither necessary nor sufficient for acceptance in any community I’ve heard of, whereas linguistic and cultural literacy, along with in many cases religious conversion, goes a long way. Jews don’t seem distinct in this regard; for Martin and the other racially reassigned characters in the book, language, gait and a dozen other performative qualities seem to matter at least as much for their acceptance in a new community as a new skin tone does. But the novel, disappointingly, skims over these behavioral aspects of racial transition.

Row writes impressive, controlled prose, building scenes and characters with a sure hand, and the novel’s plot proceeds rapidly through lies told, secrets revealed and trusts broken. All of that makes for an engrossing, at times emotionally affecting, at times almost popcorny read. But the novel’s lasting impression is of a fascinating irony: If the latest developments in trans awareness are any indicator, the book’s sci-fi vision of racial reassignment sounds less like the future than do the novel’s briefly mentioned biracial Jews who know how to be more than one thing at once.

[Published in Haaretz.]