Thursday, December 11, 2008

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure, published in 2001, is a wildly funny novel that works on a number of levels and is so playful that one feels constantly there are little jokes and references that are sliding by and will need a second reading. But much, much more than that, it is an immensely brave novel that is challenging some of the shibboleths of American culture and literature.

At its heart is a biting satire on the way race is handled in the US and, in particular, the constant stereotyping of black people that obtains – not only by white people but by black people themselves. The narrator, loosely based on the author himself, is Thelonius “Monk” Ellison a writer of avant-garde novels that even his agent thinks are challenging, brave, but ultimately unreadable. Monk despairs of a modern culture that puts his novels in the African-American section in bookshops, even when they are about Greek myths. In particular, he despairs about a culture that celebrates novels like We’s lives in da ghetto by Juanita Mae Jenkins, with its stereotyped depiction of black culture, hackneyed plots and over the top use of black idioms. This is false, he rails, it perpetuates the myths that black men are either sportsmen, musicians or drug dealers. And yet it is feted. Jenkins is interviewed gushingly on the Kenya Dunston Show, in a hilarious parody of Oprah Winfrey. Its paperback and movie rights sell for six figure sums. Meanwhile, Monk cannot find a publisher for his latest novel. ‘The line is,’ his agent tells him, ‘you’re not black enough’.

In a rage, Monk thrashes out a novella, My Pafology, into which he crams all the stereotypes he can muster. The protagonist has fo’ children by four different mothers, to none of whom he pays any maintenance. We see him indulge in casual sex that borders on rape. He turns quickly to violence. When a helping hand is offered to him by a wealthy individual who takes him on, he spurns the opportunity, and ends up raping the man’s daughter. The violence spirals into murder and he flees in an OJ Simpson type car chase, live on national television. My Pafology is included in its entirety in Erasure, running to 70 plus pages, and such is Everett’s skill that, while laughing at the parody, one still becomes caught up in the drama.

And this, of course, is exactly what happens in the novel. Monk pitches it to his agent who pitches to a publisher under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh, and Monk is astonished – and appalled – to discover that his angry parody is immediately snapped up. He changes the name to Fuck in an attempt to put the publishers off, but they agree. It becomes a bestseller. It is nominated for a national award. It becomes the talk of the literary world and Stagg R. Leigh is the most sought after author in the country. This, naturally, causes Everett considerable difficulty, particularly when, under his own name, he is asked to be a judge for the award for which Stagg’s novel is nominated. He is the only judge to argue against it. ‘I should think as an African-American you’d be happy to see one of your own people get an award like this,’ one of the other judges says to him.

All of this is brilliantly handled, and through the wonderful humour there are still uncomfortable truths about race and perceptions of race in America today. Much of the stereotyping is perpetuated by black people themselves and, at the very least, they are complicit in perpetuating those stereotypes. In a culture where African-American writers from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison onwards have been celebrating blackness as something to celebrate in itself, Everett is brave in standing aside and saying ‘no, the mark of the person resides not in his or her skin colour, but in their morality.’ Through Monk, he expresses his exasperation at being defined by the colour of his skin. Monk is asked by a taxi driver, ‘Are you Ethiopian?’ ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I’m just Washingtonian.’ But as the novel progresses he is in danger of being swallowed by his own stereotyped invention and becoming that which he despises.

There is much more at play in this novel. Everett pokes playful fun at the American publishing scene, with the crazy deals being offered to flavour of the month writers, the outrageous promotion of junk novels and the mutual back-scratching of award judges. Erasure also memorably takes on academia, with a brave and funny parody of Barthes’ S/Z in the second chapter (if I hadn’t been warned about it in advance I would have been completely flummoxed by it) and deliciously cruel pen pictures of those postmodernist authors who subsist by publishing each other often enough in their journals to qualify themselves for professorships. That Everett himself plays some delightful postmodern tricks in the novel – for example conversations between, amongst others, Rothko, Hitler, de Kooning and Rauschenberg – merely adds to the sense of enjoyment.

At the novel’s heart, and this is what transforms it from a good into a great novel, is a series of erasures from which it gains its title. Monk’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is slowly having her mind erased; Monk himself is being erased by his alter ego. His sister, who works in an abortion clinic – itself another form of erasure – is killed, erased, by pro-lifers. His brother, a married man with children, comes out as gay and is thrown out by his family, his past erased. And so on. In this way, Everett takes on many of the issues that form the faultlines of current American society and offers a humanist response. Take me as I am, he says. Reward ability. Do not judge by appearances. Do not take a binary, yes-no, black-white approach to life. In the deliberately ambivalent ending, we are left wondering which way Monk will turn. I have no doubt, though, that he will turn to the good, to the moral. A flawed character, for sure, but a good man.

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