Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Face by Joma West

Face, Joma West (Tordotcom 978-1-25081-029-8, $26.99, 272pp, hc) August 2022.

We already live in a world where, for many, looks are currency, identity is performative, and status is a game. There’s no shortage of opinion on the effects of social media on culture, research on how phones have – literally – changed our posture and vision, and speculation on how replacing online communication either enhances or erodes human connection. Joma West’s debut novel, Face, takes those questions to extreme, extrapo­lating what’s next for us, if we keep chasing the dopamine hits of “likes” and the next viral post.

In the future, touch and physical intimacy have become abhorrent ideas. Coupling is done volun­tarily, but partners are chosen based on their ap­pearance (highly complementary or contrasting skin, hair, and eye colors are a popular guideline for a coupling aesthetic) or the social clout they bring to the union. Gone are any taboos about gender and sexuality – as well as any notion of love or passion. The goal is, always, to climb the social ladder.

The highest of the hierarchy are born to it, through genetic design and the use of human “studs” and “mams.” The lowest, “menials,” are bred in beakers and raised in training facili­ties to act as passive servants to the higher class. Class and value are highly controlled by “face,” a gamified concept that encompasses both “in” world (real life) and “out” (virtual reality/online) concepts: keeping one’s expressions and reac­tions in line with acceptable, “cool” parameters (sometimes with the aid of beta blocker medica­tions); creating and adopting a constructed per­sona/avatar specifically for different situations or events; keeping up with trends; being seen with your best/trendiest/newest constructed face at the best/trendiest/newest venues in the “out” and the “in;” and, of course, engaging in as­sertively funny/nasty exchanges with other faces at or above your level. Your online identities are everything, and require constant attention and maintenance – like today’s online branding of influencers, only integrated into every aspect of life. If that wasn’t dystopian enough, West’s world order is controlled by a shadowy cabal of “watchers,” privy to every post, every action, every word uttered by its citizens.

Some high-status citizens are able, because of their status, to reject some parts of the otherwise all-encompassing face game. Vidya Wójcik runs the most celebrated baby design firm, and her position affords her the privilege of opting out of face, even as her work directly supports it. Schuy­ler Burroughs, born at the top of the pyramid and designed to be beautiful, develops an obsession with real reactions and skin-on-skin touch – es­pecially when it comes to Tonia and Edwardo, a pretty-enough and just-lower-in-status-than-him couple he’s taken under his wing.

The lowest citizens are also able to live outside the game, but not by choice. As menials, they are barely considered human by their owners. But the Burroughs’s menial, a secretly emotional and needy man who calls himself, privately, Jake, is in love with Madeline, Schuyler’s other half, who is, herself, an emotional and needy wreck of a woman deeply invested in face.

West makes some interesting decisions in Face, which simultaneously work fantastically in parts while encroaching on tedious elsewhere. We are shown situations multiple times, from multiple points of view throughout the books. When it works, it digs deeply into how face works for different players, for those giving face, and those receiving it. We witness interactions from the perspective of many characters, including Schuyler and Madeline’s teenagers, Naomi and Reyna, as well as their friends and peers, a teacher at the school the teens attend, and others. We are better able to understand the nuances of how the world works, without exposition, and, through being omniscient in this way, act ourselves as watchers, cutting through notions of privacy. We get to be intimate with characters who are revolted by intimacy. On occasion, though, we see the same interaction too many times, and there’s not a lot of new information to be gleaned, and it’s hard to determine why West included it. When they work, they’re genius; when they don’t, they feel redundant and skimmable.

The strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. Though multiple points of view is hardly an under­utilized style choice in genre, it’s rarely used to this effect. West avoids exposition, instead overlaying scenes from different angles in order for readers to learn about the world. This makes the first few chapters somewhat disorienting, but they’re compel­ling enough to not frustrate readers. By the time we would really need a guidebook, West folds back the timeline, so we can start to piece things together.

In the end, in the tradition of many great science fiction novels, Face is about today, about those opinions, theories, and fears. It asks whether we can straighten our spines again and unsquint our eyes long enough to see one another for who we truly are, and to connect on a real level.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the June 2022 issue of Locus.

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