[13 February 2012]
Wow, this is a great book. I’ll confess that Percival Everett’s was a name unknown to me before accepting this novel for review, but it turns out Everett is an established figure, with over 20 books out there, including I Am Not Sidney Poitier, American Desert and Swimming Swimming Swimming. Erasure is the first of his books that I’ve read, and it’s a killer. It won’t be the last.
Percival Everett is a black man who is a novelist and academic. His protagonist, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, is a black man who is a novelist and academic. Let’s not jump to conclusions here, but it seems possible that, to some extent, Ellison serves as a reflection of some of Everett’s views on comtemporary literature and academia—especially contemporary black literature, and the sometimes awkward positions encountered by black academics.
Normally I wouldn’t even go there, but this book practically dares you to. Metatextual references abound: Everett’s protagonist shares a last name with Ralph Ellison, whose most famous novel, Invisible Man, stands as a classic of 20th century American literature (and whose title echoes Erasure‘s themes of non-being and invisibility, or more properly, visibility only under certain circumstances). Moreover, the primary plot thread in this multi-stranded but eminently readable story concerns Thelonius Ellison’s bad-tempered, tongue-in-cheek exploitation novel, Pafology. The book is included, in full, as a story-within-a-story that is simultaneously infuriated and infuriating, painfully funny and just plain painful.
Dashed off in a fit of temper, in response to the runaway success of a Push-style, Oprah-approved “memoir” entitled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Ellison offers Pafology as a searing, up-yours diatribe, a satire that he hopes will expose the publishing industry’s racial pigeonholing—its inability to know what to do with a black author who doesn’t write like a “black author” is supposed to.
He expects Pafiology to disappear, maybe to amuse a few people or piss off a few editors. The last thing he expects is what actually happens. And this creates a dilemma; actually, more than one.
I don’t know whether Push is the intended target of Everett’s satire; there are plenty of other targets, as a quick glance at Amazon attests. There is something called “the Thug series”, which includes such titles as Thug Lovin’, Thug Matrimony and—my favorite—Justify My Thug, whose first page includes the lines: “Well I listened to her and now look what the fuck chillin’ got me. When I saw Trae I wanted to shit on myself.” Folks, this could be an extract from Pafology. And don’t get me started on the Hustler’s Wife series.
Okay, so far so good: as described, Erasure probably sounds like a grim satire of the publishing industry, as well as the book buying public’s willingness to hoist novels like Push to the top of the bestseller list, while black authors of challenging, rewarding work such as—err, Percival Everett? ZZ Packer? Edward P. Jones?—are underappreciated. Sour grapes? Maybe. What elevates this novel beyond simple satire, though, no matter how vicious and clever, is the burgeoning human heart at its core.
Everett is much more than just a bitter novelist with an ax to grind and a wicked sense of humor. He’s also a gifted writer capable of deftly delineating the troubled emotional ground of his protagonist. Ellison is a guy with an estranged brother, a sister he loves but has difficulty talking to, a father long dead and an aging, unwell mother. His mother’s increasing frailty and dependence is what acts as the motor in this story.
Forget the cleverness, the metafictional interludes, the 70-page Pafology reproduced in its entirety. Forget, if you can, the scathing nothingness of Ellison’s academic paper delivered early in the book (“Like Barthes, let us designate as hermeneutic code [HER] ‘all the units whose function is to articulate in various ways a question, its response and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution’.”).
Forget also Linda, the white fellow academic who chases Ellison for sex whenever they are in the same city, though she doesn’t seem to enjoy it much. This is all entertaining and thought-provoking stuff, delightfully enraging and engaging, but what matters, ultimately, is Ellison’s beating, aching, breaking heart.
Erasure is a seriously pissed off book, and its anger is likely to breed more. That’s what anger does. Some readers will be furious for the same reasons that Everett/Ellison is; others will be mad at him, for dissing books like Push or academic doublethink or for insinuating that their perceptions of black Americans are limited to the images portrayed in gangster rap songs and Tyler Perry movies. There is a context for that anger, though, and that context is Ellison’s unhappy life. That’s what makes this book a terrific novel, and not just an entertaining rant.
Erasure is a book that deserves to be read, and talked about, and argued over, by everybody. So read it. Read it soon.