By Joma West
Tordotcom Publishing — 2nd August 2022
ISBN: 9781250810298 — Hardcover — 272 pp.
In near-future society, everything comes down to maintaining Face, masterly control over one’s image, the light in which others perceive you. Domination of diverse social media, and selfishly calculated steps in the dances of social interactions to build influence and control, become rewarded by a climb up the ladder of class and power. Marriages are built only upon convenience, a mutual benefit of improved Face, increased attention. Children are carefully designed, with the best possibilities available to the highest class, using the most talented of genetic artists. In an existence where success and fulfillment comes only from the construction of a virtual profile and celebrity persona, traditional forms of community and physical interactions have vanished. The concept of physical touch is anathema, and no respectable person would have a child other than through a professional biological surrogate who can fare no better.
Schuyler and Madeline Burroughs (together forming SchAddie) exist at the very top rung of society, with Faces of perfection that can make no missteps and who can afford eccentricity. They live as models and envy for others to follow and emulate, and to court their favor. But underneath those Face masks of perfection, sits discontentment and strife within the SchAddie household. Their designer children maintain their own exceptional Face, yet also don’t seem to be living up to the potential for which they were made. Maddie lives on edge, finding it harder to feign happiness and control, particularly with the increasingly risky behavior of Schuyler against conventions and expectations.
Case in point: Schuyler has inexplicably befriended a young couple who are hoping to get a baby of their own. While not socially low, they are not high up along the ladder to be able to get the best doctor out there without Schuyler’s support. Which, he oddly seems eager to provide, without any seeming benefit for himself. He arranges to host a party with Maddie in their home to introduce the young couple to the most famous baby designer around.
Also at that party are all the Menials owned by SchAddie, genetically engineered and trained human servants who are designed to have no will or desires of their own, constructs with a fleetingly short life-span and no rights. But one of their Menials harbors secrets of his own buried beneath the emotionlessly servile mask. Despite the design and training, he is feeling urges to transcend the rules: sexual desire and an increasingly difficult yearning to reach out and touch the skin of his mistress.
In a certain way, Face could be considered as a collection of interconnected short stories as much as a novel. Each of the main chapters presents the point-of-view portrait of a unique character. In other words, Face is itself a compilation of distinct character faces into a whole. Between each of these chapters are interludes from the perspective of a Menial who has started going to a confessional online in an effort to fight his prohibited compulsions, taking the added bizarre initiative of giving himself a name en lieu of his official Menial registration number.
The fragmentary construction of Face is central to its themes, purpose, and success. This future society is fragmentary itself, built from competing individuals whose only sense of community comes from naked desire for personal gain, never risking to sacrifice and lose Face. On the smaller scale, each of the characters we meet are fragmentary identities. There is the public persona they present in the online world and at engagements. But there is also their actual desires and thoughts beneath the ersatz, a personality they never let stray from their own mind or private moments where they think they are alone, unsurveilled.
The construction of the novel also means that it lacks strict linearity or one distinct protagonist arc. One you have a chapter from a given point-of-view, you’re done. The character will appear again, but you won’t get any further closure to their unique perspective. This is what’s brilliant about Face, because it’s all about perspective and how one appears compared to what really lies beneath, known only to oneself.
The construction also means that events that occur in one chapter will reappear in another, usually with blocks of identical dialogue. I have noticed many reviews of Face that criticize such receptiveness, but I can’t help but feel these have failed to appreciate just how essential the element is to the novel. Not only is it essential, it is exactly the element that drew me in to keep reading with intense curiosity. Again, it’s all about perspective.
West gives us a scene from one point of view and then later revisits that same scene from another individual’s senses and interpretations. The spoken words may stay the same, but the inflection of them, their interpretation, and the reading of body movements and actions brought on by that dialogue all shift. For instance, we see a character speaking to Schuyler early in the novel from their point of view, noting their uncertainties over why Schuyler uses particular words or frowns. Later, we get that same scene from Schuyler’s point of view.
As the novel progresses the reader begins to learn just how all the characters are connecting and tie together with the SchAddie corse. We get to learn about the characters from multiple directions, intimately and distantly alike. And we also begin to get a deeper sense of the complexity of the society in Face: its various strata of social class, and the large amount of discontentment that sits universally across the class spectrum, despite the veneer.
An engaging social commentary, Face inventively takes a look at the ways in which preoccupations with self and recognition in an increasingly digital civilization can go awry, stripping away the basics of humanity and healthy relationships social and biological. I wish I could easily go more into the various characters and events of Face, but things are so juxtaposed and woven to make summary impossible. These are elements simply to be discovered by reading.
Face is a compelling near-future dystopia of competitive social pretense, formed from interlacing portraits of individuals who thirst for biological & psychological connection. With all their energies devoted to cultural success that ultimately leaves them empty and dysfunctional, they seek fulfillment through community that paradoxically compels and disgusts them. There’s a bleak horror to Face, not unlike an episode of Black Mirror, an apt comparison that others have drawn. For all its coldness and distance, it’s an emotionally resonant narrative that readers are forced to stitch together from disparate conflicting perspectives into a singular community of reality.