My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A phenomenology of contemporary reading: Oscar Wilde said that only shallow people do not judge by appearances. In the library I plucked a strange little book from the “new” shelf. It’s glossy, white, and almost hand-sized. It has a strange bluish, orangish Rorschach design on the cover. It feels and looks like some device from the future. I love the title: The City of Folding Faces. As a Joycean/Woolfean, I prefer city novels to any other kind, and the title’s hint of surrealism intrigues. I am hooked by label and design alone. The first paragraph:
Mara was underwater: suspended and swaying marinely in a light green broth of plant matter, her body getting progressively lighter, nearly floating off the slippery plastic seat of the chair. The water felt cool around her face as her eyelids drooped. Everything was muffled except the muffled glubbing of her heart. Eventually a flutish tone sounded, followed by a male speech emulator.
On the one hand, this paragraph indulges a bad habit of contemporary prose that I strive mightily, and often fail, to correct in my own work: the sentence that drifts weakly to its conclusion on a train of progressive verbs. (Or so John complained, tapping his keyboard furiously, drinking his coffee, googling the correct grammatical terms.) Such lists of ongoing actions blur the image, blunt the action. Then again, perhaps the effect, and affect, are justified in so oneiric a text. And could I improve on “marinely” or “muffled glubbing”? I could not. The verbal originality and observant sensibility they portend almost guarantee I will read this short book, poet Jayinee Basu’s first work of fiction, to the end. I did, and I recommend you do too.
This science fiction novella’s speculative premise, which the back cover does its best to convey, remains mysterious for much of the narrative. My own best effort to explain it is as follows. In the near future, a corporate research scientist develops a technology that can harvest a person’s memories and then show them as a visual display or VR immersion. A person’s life, when seen from the exterior, looks a “tubeform”: the worm or snake we form as we pass through time. When this technology becomes commercially available, many people sign up for the experience as a kind of psychological extreme sport—its purveyors openly use gambling metaphors, calling the experience Roulette and their business The Casino—and it does pose a risk: it often leaves its subjects in a state of “dimensional dysphoria,” bereft of memory and unable to live within the fourth dimension after having seen it from a higher plane.
The preferred medical treatment for this dysphoria is a futuristic surgical intervention that renders the faces of the dysphoric into hyperexpressive visages capable of creasing and folding into supersubtle expressions of nuanced emotion, well beyond what language could convey, as befits their transdimensional sensibilities. This class of the surgically altered, called the Ruga (from the anatomical term for a fold or crease), is a new minority within a society marked by growing inequality.
But The City of Folding Faces is a non-linear and psychological narrative, a novella of inner life; Basu does not give pages and pages of exposition, and the book has more in common with the semi-surreal “world-blocking” technique Tyler Malone observes in Anna Kavan’s Ice than it does with conventional worldbuilding science fiction.
Its real narrative is the fraught love story between the novel’s Ruga protagonist, Mara, and her non-Ruga boyfriend, Arlo—or rather, the love-quadrangle among Mara, Arlo, Arlo’s colleague and lover Hanne, and Mara’s Ruga friend George, who is eventually disclosed to be more central to Roulette than he at first seemed. And its real theme is how people do and do not connect in a society where personal identity is ever more complex and social experience ever more fragmented. As Basu comments ambivalently in an interview:
Everyone wants to find their people — the ones who have experienced similar traumas and have a shared language with which to discuss that trauma. But no one will ever understand your trauma in all its subtlety, in all the little details of it that really make it yours, and realizing that is a disturbance in and of itself.
Dimensional dysphoria and Ruga identity are usefully flexible metaphors for any number of contemporary social phenomena: the author’s own back-cover author bio suggests real-world analogues in the immigrant experience and the multi-vocational artist-scientist experience, while much of the novella’s language also evokes the complexities of gender.
But metropolitan life in general is ever more cut off from “memory” in the sense of stable, traditional meaning and value, and most of us are concomitantly afflicted, often lyrically, with an immobilizing disjunction between the expansiveness of knowledge and possibility, on the one hand, and the narrow strictures of everyday life on the other. At one point in the novel, a character listens to an old speech from a corporate guru:
Over the last century, religion has all but disappeared from the lives of Americans and people the world over. God has been dead since the advent of modernity. The last major victim of our culture’s process of ruthless illusion shattering has been romantic love. We can see the negative impact this has made. People are crying out for something to worship.
Are such feelings as love and awe still possible in a society so secularized and atomized? If so, how will they be transformed? As a portrait, a phenomenology, of the urban self in the 21st century, The City of Folding Faces is laudable and convincing. Its fragmented dischronology, its quick but dense metaphorical descriptions of inner states, answer our mindset as stream of consciousness once did for the metropolitan readers of a century ago. When a mouse from Arlo’s lab turns up dead in his and Mara’s apartment, George places it on a table with an apricot and a mushroom (an allusion, perhaps, to Lautréamont’s Surrealist rendezvous of umbrella and sewing-machine on a surgical table), and Mara reflects:
Mara looked at the table and suddenly understood. People always talk about the importance of knowing who you are and writing your life story. But her life did not seem to her like a story. It seemed more to her like this dead mouse, a deteriorating fruit, and a mushroom lined up in a row. […] Purposeful meaninglessness. The more she focused on this, the more it produced a sensation of both fear and relief, which resulted in a burst of laughter that sprang from her lips in a sharp bark. The idea that there might be agents in the world whose only goal was to slow the human race’s suicidal sprint toward a pinprick of ultimate complexity by producing meaninglessness disguised as information became supremely comical, and Mara began to laugh even harder.
Such agents of purposeful meaninglessness are writers, especially writers of imaginative fictions like this one. Still, fiction does provide information, does confer and complicate identity, and so adumbrates our ever-infolding and therefore perhaps terminal complexity. The novella is caught between the old humanism and the new materialism.
The technology that gives rise to futuristic identities in this narrative come from the same commercial and corporates forces that make its San-Francisco-like city setting increasingly unlivable for masses of people (“There are feces everywhere—enough is enough!“), yet the identities themselves are beautiful and, in their way, natural (Mara desires to be like a plant, immanently meaningful: “A plant’s body is nothing but a map of its decisions”). Not to mention existential:
No one ever touches anything. It’s always just electrons interacting at surfaces that makes it appear as if our tissues have bridged the gap between us and other things. But there is always a space, and we have always begun to feel from afar, Mara wanted to say but didn’t have the words.
The novella implies by its conclusion that the Ruga, products of the system, will be the system’s undoing—in other words, that history is dialectical, that capitalism produces its own gravediggers. This prophecy has failed before, and anyway the delicate love story at the narrative’s center is rendered more persuasively, with more texture, sexy and irreal, surprisingly transformative, imbricated with markets and exploitation yet no less transcendent for that, than its more fashionable political divagations.
She pulled into her driveway and rubbed rose cream blush onto the apples of her cheeks. Her wan olive features suddenly looked alive with the shifting, iridophoric gleam of a cuttlefish.
Time is qualitative, not quantitative. Many works of fiction have been published in the last two decades, but not all are what The City of Folding Faces undeniably is: a 21st-century novel.