If Jess Row, born in 1974, received a legacy from the white writers of the 20th century, it was one of "silences, defensive postures, lacunae, conscious and unconscious self-limitations" on the subject of race.
But that doesn't mean race is absent from their work, as he notes in his new book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination: "even writers who would seem to have almost nothing to say about race...are saying a great deal."
Row's book is an ambitious attempt to investigate what is latent in those silences, and to create a theory of what Row, borrowing from the critic Eve Sedgwick, calls "reparative writing."
In seven linked essays, Row considers white art from the writer Gordon Lish to emo music, which he calls a kind of white blues, together with reflections on his own heritage and family.
White Flights is both astute and painfully self-regarding, showcasing a fierce intelligence trained, too often, on its own belly button. Row falls into familiar traps of white writers addressing race, including exaggerated confessions of guilt (Row liked guns and action movies as a kid), and invocations of racially ambiguous ancestors to, presumably, confer authenticity. In other words, despite his great care and acute self-awareness, Row shows how very hard it can be for white writers not to make it about themselves.
Perhaps the clearest example of these faults is a passage about the Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader's work In Search of the Miraculous. In 1975, Ader set out to cross the Atlantic in a small sailboat. Ader's boat was found; he was not.
This work, Row suggests, "represents a horizon of white art making, namely, the choice to stop, to absent oneself. Which is to say: the question of whether to write at all is one white writers should take seriously."
But Ader's gesture, according to Row, could not be successful: "The other side of the coin, unfortunately, is that Ader's suicide is a potent act of mythmaking, part of the cult of a romantic early death of the white male..."
This is all made up: There is no evidence that Ader committed suicide. He left no indication that he was "absenting himself" as a gesture of racial reconciliation, or that anyone would want such a thing. The suggestion, both incoherent and cruel, also performs the kind of self-important flagellation that generally only serves to force people of color to offer reassurance that no, white artists don't need to drown themselves (but quietly!) for artists of color to succeed in a racist world.
Row might say he didn't mean for this idea to be taken literally; he might be leaving the thought there only as an experiment, a possibility, a question. Row likes ambiguity, and is fond of phrases like "Which is to say, but also not to say..." or sentences like "I was performing what Brecht calls formal realism, which is actually unrealism." But one of the requirements of nonfiction is that it needs to, at some level, mean what it says.
Fiction has different requirements. I wanted to read White Flights because I liked Row's novel Your Face in Mine, which made something moving, subtle, and genuinely surprising out the idea of "racial reassignment surgery," a classic straw man of the anti-trans movement.
Like a few of the ideas in this essay collection, the premise of Your Face in Mine could be read as cruel or irritatingly provocative (by some critics, it was). To me, it felt liberating and intelligent. But that is because fiction, as Row argues in White Flights, allows for "alternate realities already here but unseen," a tussle between contradictory ideas, a "backward-and-forward movement, which writers and readers both engage in, as a possible ground for reparation, for reconciliation, mutual comprehension, and...play."
Your Face in Mine validates the claim Row makes so imperfectly in White Flights, that fiction is the place where we can both say and not say, and still come away with something real.