Saturday, March 14, 2009

Glyph by Percival Everett

In its central conceit, Glyph is essentially identical to another of Everett's novels, American Desert. In that, a man dies and comes back to life – literally so, rising from his coffin in the middle of his funeral service. In Glyph we have a ten-month-old baby prodigy who has the brain of a fully-functioning intellectual adult and an IQ of 476, reading, memorising and understanding everything that is put before him and, although he eschews speech, able to write and communicate fluently. On the face of it you might argue, then, that the two novels are not especially similar, but they are: in each, a person is violently removed from the mainstream of human experience in order to be able to observe it from the margins. It is the common stuff of satire, of course: by artificially intensifying the emotions and beliefs and taboos and mores of a society, the satirist can reveal its weaknesses and faultlines. This is what Everett does brilliantly.

And so, just as in American Desert Ted is kidnapped by religious lunatics and subsequently kidnapped again by the government, in Glyph baby Ralph is kidnapped by one crazed academic, undergoes a bungled kidnap by a second and is immediately kidnapped again by shadowy government agencies, where he is put to work as a spy. That’s not the end of it. He is rescued by a kindly guard, only to be effectively kidnapped again as the guard and his wife, desperate for a child of her own, flee to Mexico. There, he falls into the clutches of a paedophile priest, while, one by one, his previous kidnappers and his distraught mother converge on him, each determined to claim him for their own. Crazy? It certainly is, and extremely funny, too. As ever, do not expect dry social realism from Percival Everett.

It could be argued that a fault of Everett’s is his tendency to take potshots at everything, and certainly, with Glyph, the usual suspects are lined up for their Everettian kicking – racial stereotyping, the media, the church, academia, the government. These tend to appear in all of his novels, and it is only the relative degree of their suffering that changes. That does sometimes give a feeling that his writing is unfocused, and it also serves to give a sense of déjà vu at times.

But that is not to say that this is a weak book – far from it. Everett is one of the funniest writers around and here he has enormous fun. His primary target in Glyph is academia, principally at the expense of Roland Barthes – ‘I’m French, you know’, and the postmodernist, deconstructionist school of literary criticism. Barthes is portrayed as a lecherous, pretentious buffoon, and baby Ralph joyfully rips his treasured theories apart. Of his structuralist analysis of Sarrasine, S/Z (which Everett also plays with in his most famous novel, Erasure), Ralph agrees that, in theory, he could read backwards or pull text randomly from a novel and so produce fragments in the way that Barthes suggests. ‘But I do not,’ he says, ‘any more than than I might walk the middle part of my trip to the refrigerator first this time and last the next.’ Thus, Everett trashes much of the artificiality of academia. There are in-jokes by the dozen here. Many of them fly straight over my head because I am not a literature scholar but, such is the brio with which Everett writes, it scarcely matters.

However, as with all the best satire, there is a message here. Everett makes his usual comments about race and religion and the evils of secret government, but this time his real target is truth. Near the end, Ralph insists that he ‘offers no truth about the culture’, but here he is being too modest. The novel has revolved around truth, around the ways that we interrelate and how we prevaricate, how we come to judgements not based on truth but on our own prejudices and fears and self-interests. Ralph also insists frequently that, the evidence notwithstanding, he is not a genius. How could I be?, he seems to be saying, because:

What genius, I guessed then and know now, allows is the start of a new race. Genius means finding a way back to the beginning where the truths are uncorrupted and honest and maybe even pure.

And there we have it. Raph, despite his massive intellect, is still literally a babe in arms, and for all his knowingness he represents that uncorrupted honesty that we all seek. There is, beneath the satire, a tenderness in the writing of Pervical Everett that makes him a most beguiling writer. He has the wit of a satirist, but the heart of a romantic.

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