It’s hard to believe that this book came out almost a year before the Rachel Dolezal controversy. In what novelist Karen Russell calls “a postcard from the near future,” Jess Row has written a riveting novel about “racial reassignment surgery,” an idea that at first sounds like science fiction. But the further into the book I got, the more the idea of surgically changing race seemed like a relatively short (if ethically fraught) hop from doing the same with gender. This comparison came up a few times during Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. Here, in an interview on Vulture with Boris Kachka, Row speculates that there are more out there like Dolezal. Whatever you feel about the differences between the two, this novel makes a very thought provoking read.
“Passing” for white has been an issue in America as long as African Americans have lived here. Martin, the main character in this novel, however, started out as a white Jewish man who underwent surgery to become black. Here, he encounters the other main character, Kelly, who is white, and has recently lost his Chinese wife and young daughter in a car accident:
I am looking into the face of a black man, and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before. Who goes around looking for ghost eyes, for pleading looks of remembrance, in the faces of strangers? Not me. He’s coming closer, and I’m running through all my past at a furious clip, riffling frantically the index cards of my memory for a forgotten slight, a stray remark, a door slammed in a black man’s face, a braying car horn behind me on 83 South. He has his eyes trained on me with a faint smile, a smile that dips at the left corner, and says,
Kelly. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I know your name.
I’m sorry, I say. Do I know you?
Kelly, he says, pursing his lips, it’s Martin.
Martin wants Kelly, who is a former journalist, to write his story, which Kelly agrees to do. From there on out, he’s swept along in a murky current where nothing is clear, from Martin’s motives to how he feels about his own identity. It kept me reading at a fast clip, in a sweat to find out how (or if) the whole thing would resolve.
author photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times