Sunday, August 7th, 2005
Katherine Min’s story The Liberation of a Face begins like this:
One day I stopped looking in the mirror. I was tired of my face, tired of finding fault with it, of wishing it looked a different way or trying to make it look a certain way. It was always just my face. So I stopped looking. And an odd thing happened. My face went away. It disappeared. Or at least the reflection of my face went away, the only means I had of regarding it.
This first paragraph is a tight jerk, and it ends with a simple knot, although the nature of the diappearance is questionable. The story is tight throughout, one of those stories you’d like to see continue because of the control the author has over the language and the way this control generates a sense of expectation sentence to sentence.
But what’s the idea here: what would happen if a woman did as this protagonist does? How would the image of the self be affected by such an intimate friend as the mirror and such a powerful metaphor? Min explores the question. “Once my face became unavailable to me, two things happened:I cared more about it; and caring for it became more difficult.” It’s not just the makeup and washing that become a problem absent the mirror, but the habitual recognitions we make of ourselves “through” the body, which, we know, we “feel” in the space around us.
It was torturous not to be able to confirm a clean appearance, a tidiness of one’s own features like a room well-swept. I did not like the idea that other people could look at me while I could not; that I could see their faces but not my own. I realized that to recognize oneself each morning anew was a kind of exercise in existence. You get up and see yourself in the mirror and you think, “Here I am.” It was reassuring, this ritual, the familiarity of self, conjured and reconjured like an auto-hypnotic spell. Without my face, I felt off-balance, tentative. I became obsessed by what I could not see.
Without the mirror–the face as one facet of self–do we lose a sense of being “in place” or one means of self-definition? Do we lose anchor? Without reflected “image,” are we potentially lost “in place,” in other words, become “out of place.”
Gradually I stopped caring what I looked like. What did it matter, if I had no one to tell me? I didn’t wash for days. I threw my cosmetics out. I barely brushed my hair. On the occasions when I did go out, to run an errand or to buy food, I noticed people shying away from me. Their own faces looked startled by mine, as though they were looking at a ghost. I did not bother to smile or frown, or to evidence any facial expression at all. If I could not see, why should they?
In this way I began to reinhabit the world. I presented myself to it as I saw myself in it, a blank, a cipher, a nonentity. A faceless woman. I no longer expected any sort of reaction at all when people happened to look upon me; I began no longer to require one. And the strange thing was that I became happy. I saw the faces of others, their looks of suffering and boredom, of longing and displeasure. I saw also–mostly on children–looks of delight and curiosity, of sadness and rebellion. And I knew that their faces were my own, that I had access to all of these ways of looking by means of what I saw.
The story ends with the woman witnessing her image, which she’s carried “like a relic” in a shop window for the first time after many years and her “delusion” is, as she says, “shattered.”
Unfortunatly, this discontinuity breaks the story. How, in other words, after so many years of going about, does the woman avoid her image for so long? In the story, Min writes, “And then one day, as I was hurrying down the street, I passed a shop window and caught a glimpse of my reflection.” In the window, she sees a “ruin.” Nevertheless, this “revealing” doesn’t square with the control the writer displays throughout. Again, how is it possible that the woman hadn’t happened to see herself in any other shop window, in passing, just by turning her head? This isn’t a nitpick; the story has relies on a steady loss/gain structure–she loses herself, steadies, then loses herself again. But how does she maintain the “delusion” for so long, years, without some measure of near miss: did she approach the store with her eyes shut?
The question of the self is an important idea in fiction because character sustains this kind of story. I enjoy Min’s writing but I find this little break in her story disappointing. I leave the story not buying it, after I bought it nearly all the way through.