Your Face In Mine: Novel

By Jess Row

Riverhead Books

372 pages, $27.95

By William L. Morris


There’s a scene in Robert Stone’s New Orleans novel, “A Hall of Mirrors,” where an idealistic, naïve social worker named Rainey confronts a black man, called Mr. Clotho, who is at the center of a right-wing political conspiracy hiding behind a populist radio station.

Rainey tells him,“You can’t take the light from me.”

“I have,” Mr. Clotho responds. “If you want light you have to take it from me.” Mr. Clotho then reveals that he is really white.

Forty-seven years later Jess Row’s world has switched that search from light to dark. The confidence man is no longer a white man pretending to be black, but a black man who used to be white and Jewish.

In a Baltimore parking lot this man approaches a down-on-his-luck scholar whose Ph.D. thesis was rejected by Harvard University. He married a Chinese woman and moved to China but lost his wife and child in a car accident. Now he has moved back to his hometown to work at a failing PBS station. He realizes he used to play in a band with this black man named Clotho, only he was white at the time.

He went to Thailand for “racial reassignment surgery.” Apparently such an operation is within the realm of possibility – or soon will be. He did it because the only time he felt cared for was when a poor black family fed him when he was young and because of his love for black music.

Hearing that his friend is about to be unemployed, the black man hires him to write a book about the efficacy of his surgery.

An unrelated series of vignettes from various points of view follows. They seem designed to prove that even the most liberal mind is full of prejudices. In our politically correct world, people tiptoe around these issues for fear of being labeled. But Row is fearless.

But the former student has no intention of writing the book. Instead his attraction for any culture other than his own morphs into lust for his friend’s beautiful black wife who suffers from the same racial wanderlust.

We also learn that the leader of their rock band committed suicide and the failed Ph.D. student could go to jail for facilitating his death unless he hides his tracks.

Cringing from these distasteful developments, the reader is tempted to put down the book, but the author has shown signs of genius, so he reads on.

Cringe turns out to be the right word because what the novel is really about is “cultural cringe,” which according to Wikipedia is “an internalized inferiority complex that causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the culture of other countries.”

In the Dark Ages it was assumed a race of giants had built the ruins of the Roman Empire. Their influence was so strong that hundreds of years after the Romans abandoned the Italian peninsula a few artists in Florence, Italy, suffering from a bad case of cultural cringe created the Renaissance.

Cultural cringe is related to “the colonial mentality” where the culture that colonized your country has left and the culture that remains is thought to be inferior.

Sometimes the colonial mentality happens in reverse. The Roman Empire lasted 1400 years and covered a million square miles. But the Romans could never match the philosophers and artists of Athens. So they did bad imitations of their architecture, literature and philosophy and sent their noble youths to Athens to learn how to think.

In the United States, we suffer from both cultural inferiority complexes. Nothing our culture has come up with matches the culture of Europe or the cultures we have assimilated – the Native Americans’ and the blacks’.

Living in America during an age of prosperity, these two men – one an Ashkenazic Jew and one the recipient of a Harvard education – want none of it. They jettison their culture, but not to embrace the good things about the culture they are joining. As capitalists they’re going to make their fortune out of the change.

The Jewish bass player cashes in on the current rage for the edgier side of black culture. And the failed student chooses to become Chinese and blend into the masses to avoid prison.

The black man plans to create an industry of “racial reassignment” in Baltimore – “The Center for Black Transformation …We’ve got the world’s best surgeons [at Johns Hopkins Hospital]. And by god, if there’s one thing Baltimore’s got, it’s blackness … You have no idea the number of people – Germans, Danes Norwegians […] who are already lining up. Black culture is global now.”

The Harvard graduate is even more culpable. While working on his thesis he discovered two relatively unknown ancient Chinese poets who were banished to a far-off province of China. There they discovered the concept of Miao, a tradition of forgiving and including people who are different – “the wrong note that a musician plays that harmonizes all human appearances and allows us to forget ‘near’ and ‘far’ ‘dark’ and ‘light’ ‘Chinese’ and ‘barbarian.’ ”

Chinese scholars repressed this concept because their culture was – as it still is – fiercely xenophobic. His thesis adviser rejects Miao on the grounds it deserves to be a forgotten concept. It’s just the sort of trendy nonsense that has made his generation soft and useless. She not only rejects his thesis but she tells him he will never belong in places like Harvard.

So the failed Ph.D. student does nothing with Miao, the antidote to the poisons of cultural cringe. Instead of exposing the racial reassignment conspiracy for what it is, he joins it.

An excellent education on being a part of a culture that goes back for thousands of years has no defense apparently against mass media’s attraction to dead ends.

Robert Stone redux: “If you want the dark, you’re going to have to take it from me.”

William L. Morris was the co-creator of The Buffalo News Poetry page. He now lives and writes in Florida.