Jess Row

Author Jess Row and the cover of his new book, "Your Face in Mine." (Sarah Shatz / Riverhead)

Late in his novel "Your Face in Mine," Jess Row cites a parable attributed to Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher from the fourth century BC. "Zhuangzi awoke from dreaming that he was a butterfly," he writes, "… And didn't know whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi." It's the kind of brain-twister beloved by the ancient masters, but it also has a lot to do with what Row is after in this book.

"Your Face in Mine" is his first novel after two well-regarded collections of stories, and it deals with the essence of identity. Narrated by a lapsed scholar of Chinese named Kelly Thorndike, it is to some extent a portrait of someone trying to return from the lost after a car crash kills his wife and young daughter.

Row, however, seeks to raise the stakes by building his narrative around Kelly's growing re-involvement with an old friend, Martin — the first recipient of a radical racial reassignment treatment that has altered him from white to black. Think John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me" on steroids, and you get a sense of what Row's intentions are: essentially, to frame (or reframe) the conflicts of race, ethnicity and heritage from the inside.

For Martin, this has to do with seizing one's own destiny, with moving beyond history, personal or otherwise. "What I can say," he writes in a document he gives to Kelly, "is that I always … knew in some way that I lived in the wrong body. I've spoken with transsexuals … who've told me exactly the same thing."

In his view, racial reassignment exists on a continuum that begins with cosmetics and includes plastic surgery and gender reassignment, the expression of a brave new world. Still, Row's too smart to be satisfied with that; he wants us to consider what it means in existential terms — identity not as a function of who we are so much as of who we want to be.

"I do think of her now," Kelly reflects about his dead daughter Meimei, "in roundabout, philosophical ways. … I choose not to remember sailing with her on the Charles, or the way she grabbed my back pockets and hoisted herself up against my legs from behind as I tried to leave for work. Those memories are there, perfectly visible, in their own vitrines, but what I choose to think about, instead, is how it felt to have a purpose in life."

The key phrase of course is "choose not to remember" — a reminder of what we like to call free will. That's the currency of modernity: "Erasing our histories," Row puts it. "You could call that a kind of romance." At the same time, it raises certain questions about whether history is personal or collective, a matter of our responsibility to others or our responsibility to ourselves.

"Your Face in Mine" is at its best — at its best? More like: flat-out brilliant — when it takes on these issues, which come up mainly as Kelly wrestles with himself. He is an astonishing character, tormented, compromised but self-aware enough to know it, cynical but without self-deceit. His life has been bound by loss, not only that of his family but also of his and Martin's high school bandmate Alan, a teenage nihilist whose suicide in the early 1990s transformed both men.

For Martin, Alan is one of two geniuses he has ever met, but to Kelly, the connection is more complex, more complicit, more internalized. "You could say that I wrote elegies for him starting in the winter of 1992," Kelly tells us, "that he became useful to me before he actually died." This is among the most brutal, and accurate, statements in the novel, with its implication that we are all in some sense psychic vampires feeding off each other, taking what we need, even from our dearest loved ones, to construct, and to support, our internal plots.

In many ways, that's what Martin is up to, especially once he recruits Kelly to write his story: "the Alex Haley to my Malcolm X." And yet, here "Your Face in Mine" begins to unravel because of its own plot requirements. To move the story, Row brings in all sorts of intrigues: gray market capital, a series of shadowy half-agendas, a sense that Martin is not who he says he is.

That this goes without saying — he is, after all, a white man masquerading as African American — is one of the ironies, but Row doesn't push it hard enough. The idea of racial reassignment may be controversial, but the real challenge has to do less with his characters' relationship to the outside world than their relationship to themselves. "The most important thing, frankly, is the narrative," Martin explains. "You have to have it down. You have to believe who you are. Or else there's a risk of a certain schizoid feeling."

The line recalls Hari Kunzru's "My Revolutions" and Dana Spiotta's "Eat the Document," both of which involve 1960s radicals who experience the dislocation of their new identities after going underground. Unlike those writers, though, Row never plumbs the depth of Martin's psyche, never lets us see the struggle of his heart. "I think I'm cool with that," he says. "… I'd rather keep it superficial." But if that's the case, why are we interested at all?

Partly the problem is that Martin isn't nearly as compelling as Kelly; partly that, despite his claims, we never understand why he chose to make the change. But more to the point, as the book progresses, its ideas evaporate before the movement of its narrative.

This is inevitable, I suppose; fiction is a narrative art. But it is in the interstices of the action, in the darkness and confusion of Kelly's conflicted consciousness, that Row finds his most radical honesty and insight.

"Your self-pity is unbelievable … with your … your severance checks, your sheer, everyday whiteness, your get-out-of-jail-free card, you who can have it both ways, any way you like," Kelly tells himself, by turns decrying and embracing his own privilege, like a butterfly dreaming itself in and out of human form. "[B]ut I am still looking toward the wall, so no one can see me frantically scrubbing the tears off, and getting up to slide the book onto its shelf where it belongs."

david.ulin@latimes.com

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Your Face in Mine
A Novel

Jess Row
Riverhead: 372 pp., $27.95