Open faced

Paul Constant

April 21, 2016

The Face is a new series of book-length essays centered around an interesting theme: in each volume, an author writes about their own face. It’s an idea that at once seems expansive as the horizon and as claustrophobic as a broom closet. When meeting strangers, we look to their face for hints of inner character, but we also chastise people for being too narcissistic if they seem overly obsessed with their own appearance. And as Scott McCloud noted in Understanding Comics, we pay close attention to everyone else’s faces while in conversation, while at the same time we maintain a vague, cartoonish understanding of what our own faces look like. All of which is a long way of saying we have weird relationships with our faces.

Because of this complex and often fraught relationship, it was smart of the editors behind The Face to release three inaugural volumes at once: The Face: Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw, The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani, and The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki. Together, the three authors introduce a variety of approaches from which future volumes (including promised books from Roxane Gay and Lynne Tillman) can address the theme.

Aw’s volume pivots on the fact that wherever he travels in Asia, people believe he is their countryman:

My features are neutral, unpronounced, my skin tone changeable — pale in sunless, northern climates but tanning swiftly within a day or two of arriving in the tropics. My face blends into the cultural landscape of Asia: East of India, my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit in with the people around me.

Aw’s face does not always feel like his own; people see in it what they want to see — and what people most often want to see is a mirror, a sympathetic and familiar face staring back at them. Pier is a story that Aw could not have written into one of his novels; it’s one of those truths that would be dismissed as too aggressively symbolic.

While Aw addresses the way his face creates familiarity in foreign lands, Abani is interested in the foreignness of his own face. Abani tells us that his face is an exact copy of his own father’s, and that his father was a complicated man — a brilliant man, but a cruel and abusive one. Whenever Abani sees his own face, he remembers the torments it delivered upon him in his youth.

Even more complicated, Abani’s father is from Nigeria and his mother is, as someone once gasped to Abani in surprise, “as white as day.” This causes Abani to think differently about race. “Frantz Fanon has written better than I ever will about this matter,” Abani writes, “the idea of whiteness, and a visible whiteness, being preferred: the idea that secretly all white people believe that everyone really wants to look like them, to be them.”

Abani is, racially speaking, half-white. But he doesn’t look white to Americans. In Africa, nobody knows exactly where he’s from; they only know he’s not like them. Aw is a man of every nation, and Abani is a man of none. These are both decisions people make immediately upon meeting them — after looking at their face for a fraction of a second, the viewer decides that this person is or is not their family. That’s a decision that can alter the entire course of a relationship. It’s the difference between friend or foe.

The best of the three inaugural editions of The Face is Ozeki’s The Face: Time Code. In it, Ozeki spends three hours staring at her own face in the mirror. She includes both very basic physical observations — “Age spots along my jaw line, but I don’t notice them very often, since they’re on the side of my face” — and tangential thoughts: “As a Zen priest, I probably shouldn’t be using makeup at all. Isn’t there a precept against lipstick? If not, shouldn’t there be?”

Ozeki uses those three intense hours of observation as a kind of meditation. She thinks of the creation of noh masks, and the aesthetic of wabi sabi, which embraces imperfections and the natural process of aging and decay. She remembers “prancing around a stage in a kimono, twirling a parasol” during an elementary school production of The Mikado, and making a joke of her ethnicity (her father is white, her mother Japanese) on the playground before other kids could. She remembers the tension she felt in choosing an author photo for her debut novel, which is a special kind of stress that, say, Norman Mailer likely never had to consider; women are judged one way if their author photos are too sexy, another way if they’re too frumpy. If the photo is outdated, the author will be accused of being vain, of wanting to give off an appearance of being youthful.

When I was younger, I’d been guilty of making judgments like this, too, smugly assuming that older women who deliberately chose young-looking publicity photographs must be blind, delusional, or incurably vain. Now that I was aging, I realized how unfair and wrong I’d been. For most women, once we’re past a certain age, the changes to our faces are so rapid and radical that it’s almost impossible to keep up, and anyway, who wants to? Who can be bothered?

Time Code is an autobiography of a face, sure, but it’s also an aesthetic and spiritual inquiry into faces. The language Ozeki uses is plainer, less lyrical than in her splendid novel A Tale for the Time Being, and perhaps that informality might make some readers feel uncomfortable. But it’s hard to imagine an author being majestic and lyrical when she’s literally inviting the reader to investigate her own pores; the situation demands a certain familiar earthiness.

Taken as a whole, the first three editions of The Face make plain how uncomfortable we are with our own faces, and how out of our own control they are: the way they change, the people they resemble, the reactions they spur from others. In the same way we subconsciously train ourselves to not be distracted by the obstruction of our own noses in our line of sight, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what our faces are doing. When you finally sit down and get close enough to a mirror that you fog it up with every breath, you start to see things you’ve never seen before. Those lines — were they always there? Is that tiny pink velveteen slash on the chin new, or very old? Who the hell is it I’m looking at, anyway?

Books in this review:
  • The Face
    by Ruth Ozeki
    Simon and Schuster
    February 29, 2016
    144 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Face
    by Chris Abani
    Simon and Schuster
    February 29, 2016
    96 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Face
    by Tash Aw
    Simon and Schuster
    February 29, 2016
    80 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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