Physical Deception: Classification Chaos in a Visual World
Allow me to quickly affirm one thing: this has always been a visual world. In our past, we have based much of our lives on determining what color, dress, and style we should present to the outside world. We’ve always dictated how we look and, consequently, we have essentially been in charge of how others view us. All of these elements came together to form a person’s perceived identity. I’m not suggesting that identity is purely a creation of physical elements because that would be borderline absurd; however, my assertion is, rather, that physicality has played an important role in dictating our perceived places in society.
Art is almost always where we see things changing first, and literature is leading the way in terms of lessening the role that physical identity actually plays in determining set classifications in today’s age. Contemporary literature’s latest trend focuses on manipulating appearance to allow identities to form based not on traditional physical perception, but instead on emotional and social traits and development.
Let’s look at one of 2015’s most anticipated novels—and one that will likely have a lot of buzz throughout the year: Reif Larsen’s I Am Radar. Larsen’s second novel is not entirely about physical identity, but Larsen certainly use the classic theme in presenting his protagonist. Radar Radmanovic is the son of white parents, but he possesses black skin. His appearance boggles everyone, none more so than his mother, Charlene. She cannot accept that her son looks so different from her and her husband. She even states, “I need to know what I did to him.” Charlene’s reaction to her son’s physicality can be traced back to the long-held notion that physical appearance defines a person. Since Radar appears as a black individual, she classifies him as being a part of some kind of “otherness.” He isn’t hers. He isn’t even a part of her. He simply can’t be.
Larsen presents Radar as a character who isn’t even very aware of his own appearance, neither in his early story nor in the later pages. Doing so eliminates the old-school notion that Radar thinks of himself differently because of the way he looks. Further inside the novel, when Charlene reveals Radar’s history of physical difference to him, he responds in two words: “wait” and “what.”
Larsen is an incredibly talented writer, and I Am Radar is clearly written intelligently. So, it’s important to note that the issue with Radar’s appearance is not some kind of light joke. It certainly isn’t. Instead, Larsen seems to be suggesting that maybe a person’s identity is not solely shaped by the way he or she looks. Maybe, Radar’s physical appearance has nothing to do with who he really is. It’s certainly a progressive concept, but it’s one that has merit.
Larsen is just the latest in a series of writers who’ve challenged what we’ve been told about physical identity. Karen Russell’s “Reeling for the Empire,” which is from her 2013 collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, tells the story of a group of Japanese girls who are enslaved to produce silk. These girls literally transform into silkworms. By drinking a special liquid, their bodies morph into shapes that, at least their masters believe, transport them entirely from the human realm. As the narrative progressives, we realize that not all of the girls’ humanity is lost.
Although they no longer have the physically female form, they still have definably human traits: the ability to think and to react. They realize what is happening to them, and they revolt. Like Larsen’s Radar, the characters in Russell’s “Reeling for the Empire” rely on other factors besides physicality to define themselves. They are not simply brave girls. Instead, they are fighters; they are survivors.
Other recent works stage physicality as an equally chaotic form of preliminary classification. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me presents a cast of seemingly friendly cheerleaders. As the novel progresses, we uncover a world that is far from what we might initially see. These are jealous, vicious characters. Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child asks readers to debate whether a human can actually come from snow. We see a little girl, an answer to prayers, but is such an appearance too good to be true? Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver is about the Devil, haunting the halls of a psychiatric ward. Are we to believe that this is the Devil because he looks scary? We must see beyond the exterior to understand the interior. Finally, there is James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Little Henry Shackleford becomes Henrietta “Little Onion” Shackleford; however, our protagonist is quick to tell us that he is not who he appears to be. He admits, “I come to the understanding that maybe what was on the inside was more important, and that your outer covering didn’t count so much as folks thought it did, colored or white, man or woman.” His statement on identity is astoundingly accurate. Looks are deceiving.
Each of these works of contemporary literature presents equally compelling characters who cannot be grouped into traditional classifications because of how they might look. To base them on appearance alone would result in a reading that is far from the truth. Instead, we have to meet them and uncover their voices and actions before we can make any observations on their true selves.
Sure, there are always critics attacking contemporary literature for being too narcissistic, too pretentious, and too boring. I have to disagree. We are living in an age when boundaries are being redrawn. Revolutionary thinking is exciting. I, for one, feel optimistic about our future.