The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki. Restless Books. 144pp, $9.99.
The Face: Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw. Restless Books. 80pp, $9.99.
The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani. Restless Books. 96pp, $6.99.
In the third act of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the artist responsible for said portrait, Basil Hallward, sums up the central irony of the novella: “People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.” At this point in the book, of course, the reader knows exactly how well a sin can be concealed by a lovely face. Wilde’s own double life resonates as well in the scene, as it does throughout the story. The transgression of social and ethical mores, he knew well, doesn’t leave its graffiti on the body’s exterior. Rather, the evidence of one’s vices accumulate in the basement, collecting into a single object very like but not identical to the self.
To paraphrase Eliot, we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Whether what’s presented is an “honest” face that reveals some truth about a person’s inner life is completely beside the point. A face is a construction. It’s crafted—intentionally or subconsciously—to present a constellation of specific traits to the world, and the world in turn projects meanings onto and (mis)reads the features of a face. Dorian Gray, astute as the author who invented him, wonders “at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence.” The shifting misdirection of the face reflects the dynamism of the underlying self. That impermanence may be the face’s single most salient feature, and may be what makes the face most worthy of examination.
How much examination, though? Portraiture is a notoriously difficult art, not only for the challenge of evoking some dimension of character but also because it takes a tremendous amount of skill to render a face with any sort of originality. Every art museum seems to contain hall after massive hall of perfectly masterful portraits—and if we’re being completely honest, they are deadly boring. Wigs, hats, dresses, robes, uniforms, scepters, swords, tools, books, fans; the half-smile, the frown, the raised brow, the centered gaze, the distant look, the ruddy cheek, the jowl, the pert lip, the cleft chin, the laugh lines, the pallor, the angle of the nose, the blushing cheek: after the first dozen or so, one becomes basically as good as another. Different, yes; but interchangeable. It takes genius to reimagine the familiar. Rembrant’s portraits are recognizable from across the next hall. Artists like Velazquez, Sargent, Picasso, Lange, Freud, and Leibovitz are famous in no small part because their depictions of the face teach viewers a new way to see. The face seems to achieve this with more immediacy than any other artistic subject.
Restless Books, an independent press dedicated to publishing diverse international literature, has launched a new series of novella-length essays exploring the biographical, philosophical, racial, gendered, and aesthetic dimensions of one’s own face. At first blush it sounds like a marketing gimmick, an attempt to translate celebrity culture into literary style or to leverage the current confessional fad. It also risks the boredom of the 17th-century portrait gallery, over-burdening writers to be interesting without pandering, reflective without navel-gazing.
Which is why it’s no small feat that, for the most part, these first three installments in the “Face” series are so effective—and more so when read together. Ruth Ozecki, Chris Abani, and Tash Aw each approach their own face (that “planar surface housing a cluster of holes,” as Ozecki describes it) from characteristic perspectives, drawing from unique biographical and cultural sources. Their apparent disparities make certain echoes all the more surprising.
For example, how unlikely is it that both Abani, a Nigerian author of Nigerian and British descent now living in Los Angeles, and Aw, a Malaysian author of Chinese descent now living in London, would both have cause to mention the Cosby Show? Abani spends the bulk of his essay exploring the resonances of trauma left behind by his abusive father, as well as the fraught position he and his siblings occupy between indigenous and imperial norms. Near his essay’s midpoint he writes:
My generation struggled to reconcile the often conflicting, schizophrenic expectations of our parents’ old-world ideals and punishments with the equally schizophrenic Western ideals of parenting we saw on television. These came to a head with the Cosby Show.
I said to my father, “Dr. Huxtable tells his son, ‘Theo, I love you,’ and all you do is yell at me and tell me how I fail. How I embarrass you. How I betray you.” He was eating. He paused and looked up at me from the plate and said, “Shut your mouth before I rearrange your stupid face.”
Again, the face. That face. Always.
The show provides an alternative paradigm for Aw as well, whose reserved father unexpectedly opens up about the shame borne by Chinese migrants to Malaysia. “I used to wish that we could be more frank and touchy-feely with our parents,” Aw writes, “the way American families were in the Cosby Show and other programs we saw on TV, but now I feel suddenly uncomfortable, as if I have intruded into a space that was better left unexplored.”
This coincidence proves substantial. Abani’s Nigeria and Aw’s Malaysia are both multiethnic nations founded in the middle of the 20th century. Both are former British colonies that have faced major political and cultural challenges in the decades since independence. Both were thrust into the modern globalized economy in the space of a single generation, a shift that opened vast divisions within their respective populations.
The show highlights the great importance of fathers. Abani’s father is the central topic of his essay—the ghost of his abuse haunts the writer each time he looks in a mirror—and the volume serves as a cathartic exercise. Aw relates the immigration experience of his two grandfathers, with his father providing the central dramatic scene, but the women in his family are largely absent. Ozecki’s focus on her father is perhaps most surprising. She sees this man’s face in the mirror—in her eyes, in her broad forehead, in the scar from a sledding accident. She recognizes his disapproving look in her own face, remembers his anxiety about having his family depicted in her art, recalls that he died only a week before her first novel was published. Ozecki’s mother is more present in her essay than Abani’s or Aw’s mothers are in theirs, but Ozecki still discusses her mother most often in association with her grandfather, an artist.
What is it about the face that brings fathers to mind? Abani jokes about the evolutionary benefit to a newborn looking like its father (to limit the threat of cannibalism). It could be that children tend to experience their fathers as visual constructions, whereas a child’s relationship to its mother often begins with touch, scent, nourishment. Are the senses in this way gendered in their development? Ozecki writes, “My face was a surface onto which people, especially men, projected their ideas of race and sexuality.” Is there something inherently male about the gaze, or is this merely a case of Freudian signification? Or is there a sense in which the relation to fathers carries more social significance, offering itself up more prominently as a topic?
Another recurring theme is the social construction of the face—one’s features are inevitably put into a racially tinged context. Ozecki and Abani each have one parent of European descent, a contingency that makes both vulnerable. Ozecki recalls strangers approaching her on the street as a child to ask What are you? “In refusing to resolve into one thing or another,” she writes, “my face was the occasion for discomfort. . . . Half, hybrid, mulatto, chimera . . . in the uncanny valley, ordinary manners do not apply.” Meanwhile, strangers in Abani’s native England would remark to his mother how noble it was of her to adopt these African children. “It still amazes me that she never grew tired of correcting people.” Abani himself recalls one occasion where he was arrested by the Nigerian military:
Army trucks rolled into markets and soldiers would round up these refugees, separating families without a second thought—after all, they all looked alike—and drive them to the border. I once found myself being pushed into the back of one such truck, but my fluency in several Nigerian languages saved me. I was often confused for being Lebanese, Indian, Arab, or Fulani. But not in England or America. In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.
People project onto the features of a face a type of racial/ethnic identity that is, as Wilde scoffed, “simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence”—and also a lie. Well, not a lie so much as a fiction, something malleable that adjusts in differing circumstances. The race-making project rewards our collective “predilection for voyeurism,” to borrow Ozecki’s words. Aw, on the other hand, finds himself not accused of being the racial other but being constantly mistaken for the local ethnicity of whatever East Asian nation he happens to be visiting—Thailand, mainland China, Nepal, Hong Kong. He attributes this to “our wish for everyone to be like us. We want the stranger to be one of our own, someone we can understand.” His reading springs from a welcome optimism regarding the generosity of strangers, and also from his understanding of the interconnected history of the region. Tracing the long history of South East Asian migration via his grandparents’ experience fleeing war-torn China, Aw writes that it “might explain why I can pass for anyone, anywhere in South East Asia; might explain why no one ever guesses where I’m from.”
I could not help but think of Lacan as well—almost despite myself. Ozecki, of course, spends the first volume staring into a mirror, unpacking the accumulated details of her physical appearance, tracing the signification of each element, and each author works to resolve their identities—to borrow Lacan’s words—with the discordance with their own realities: Abani exploring the space between himself and his father, as well as his Afikpo heritage; Aw following the history of his family’s migration in a perspective that comes close to historical objectivity. Ozecki’s process circles the inner life, the psyche, the self. Abani focuses on the complications of familial relationships. Aw stands furthest from his own life, taking an almost impersonal tone, “skirting around the subject of his own past.” Body: family: object. Of course, each writer addresses their own lives, their families, and history, but the shift in focus from one essay to the next is notable. It is a fading impression, and one that becomes less tangible the more closely one looks for it—but the volumes do seem to sketch an outline that resembles Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage.
There are stronger resonances with the work of the religious philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas, less familiar to literary readers but highly influential. Both thinkers build their philosophies upon the relationship between the self and the other. In his landmark volume, I and thou, Buber writes, “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.” (Which could serve as a tidy paraphrase of Lacan’s jargon-obsessed opacity.) Lévinas expanded on Buber’s core ideas, describing the face-to-face encounter as the heart of all human experience. The abstractions that dominate our thinking—justice, goodness, love; perhaps even race and gender—are all extrapolated from the face-to-face. Ozecki, who may be familiar with Buber and Lévinas from her religious training, writes of “an understanding that can only emerge in the intimacy of the face-to-face meeting. . . . Their faces mirror mine, and my face mirror theirs, and this gives rise to a feeling of recursive kindliness and kinship that I haven’t felt in quite this way before.”
The face communicates with an immediacy that evades other artistic subjects. Its flux and primacy cannot be refused, and neither can the importance of recognition. The features require long, serious study to detail, but the face itself can be captured in a moment’s glance. Faces express emotion, hide the same, lie about our inner lives, or dramatize that inner life for strangers and friends. As a result, these novella-length essays are better read together than in isolation. Their cumulative effect ends up being far greater than the sum of the parts. For the strongest impact, it might even be worth waiting for the next round to be published, which is slated to include essays by Roxanne Gay and Lynn Tillman.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is a writer, poet, and translator as well as the founding editor of The Critical Flame, a journal of criticism and creative nonfiction. He serves a board member at Salamander and an advisor to AGNI. His work has been published by or is forthcoming from Harvard Review, Slushpile, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Buenos Aires Review, Little Star, and elsewhere. He lives in Greater Boston and yammers on endlessly at @pritchard33.
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