Erasure by Percival Everett
Names and labels matter in Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure. So the fact that his protagonist is called Thelonious Ellison – known as Monk to both family and friends – with all the cultural connotations that such a name carries, makes a statement from the start.
Ellison is an academic and writer whose work is repeatedly rejected for not engaging with the African-American experience, for not being ‘black enough’ to sell. His books, which draw on Greek myths rather than ghetto struggles, have been failing to fly off the shelves at Borders (where they are predictably, if unimaginatively – and rather pointlessly – filed under the banner of ‘Black Fiction’).
Though Monk has "brown skin, a broad nose, (and) some of my ancestors were slaves", his experiences – that of a man from a middle class, suburban family; the son and brother of doctors; an academic – are deemed invalid, or at least, of little interest to readers.
Erasure, published in the UK in 2004, is a book full of anger. Everett takes targeted swipes at an America that likes its black literature to fit a very narrow definition of what blackness entails, an America that likes its ‘black writing’ to conform to certain tropes and clichés.
Ellison does not write about urban hardship and poverty, as a result the publishing industry is rapidly losing what little interest it had in his work. Facing financial difficulties after the death of his sister and with his mother’s health failing, Monk adopts the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh and pens his own ghetto novella, My Pafology (eventually re-titled Fuck to highlight its utter absence of creative worth).
This novella, which is Russian-dolled in its entirety in the centre of Erasure, is brutal, minimal and expletive-strewn. The protagonist of My Pafology, Van Go Jenkins, is a jobless father of four (by four separate mothers); he is groin-driven and bristling with anger, and his main motivation, apart from getting laid, is the acquisition of a ‘piece.’ Sample line: “The T-shirt I'm wearin' be funky as shit. But I don't give a fuck. The world be stinkin' so why not me?” The whole thing is a one finger salute to a certain kind of fiction, which Everett finds exploitative and offensive. Fuck is written as an admission of defeat, as an act of sadness and desperation, an act of creative self-destruction: so inevitably it is a huge success.
The decision to include the novella-in-a-novel in this manner is an interesting one. While it succeeds in illustrating why Everett is angry – at this constant celebration of brutality, acquisitiveness and small-mindedness as the archetypal African American experience – it’s just too obviously satirical to plausibly spark the literary success that follows. Critics everywhere are soon gushing about the ‘realness’ of it and it becomes a contender for a major literary prize. The Fuck section is also very readable, not purely as pastiche: Huck Finn has growed up and got hisself a gun and the whole thing has a definite degree of narrative appeal. This is necessary as it nears 70 pages in length and one might simply be tempted to flick through it until the novel-proper begins again if it didn’t throw a few treats to the reader.
Following Fuck, Everett does return to Monk’s world, which is growing increasingly bleaker. His mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and ceases to recognise him. There is a vacancy in her eyes and her periods of lucidity shorten. At the same time his surviving sibling, his brother Bill, whose marriage has recently collapsed after he came out as being gay (though Monk knew of his sexuality for years), is becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with Monk. Never particularly close, their mother’s illness, instead of bringing them together, drives the brothers further apart. Monk also manages to torpedo his budding relationship with a woman he is attracted to.
A neat parallel is set up. As Stagg becomes a literary sensation, Ellison fades from the picture, his life curls into itself, growing ever smaller and emptier. He is forced to impersonate his creation, first on the phone, then in person (which leads to some barbed and amusing, though perhaps not entirely justified, swipes at a certain talk show host with a popular book club segment, here named Kenya Dunston).
Everett is an academic, Professor of English at the University of Southern California, and the world of academia is also the source of some of the novel’s humour. He also finds the space to target the excesses of post-modern writing, and the book is peppered with little exchanges between various historical figures and artists of the past, the most seemingly significant of which includes Jackson Pollock in a discussion about the creation, erasure and possession of a work of art.
For all its bitter bite the novel – intentionally, I suspect – works best, or is at least at its most potent and affecting, when it is at its simplest and Erasure contains within it, beneath the satirical blanket, a moving portrait of a son coming to terms with his mother’s life – her having lived a life he will never fully know and appreciate – and her impending death. Monk discovers his father had a longstanding affair (which resulted in a child, though this is revelation is rather thrown away) and comes to understand more about the reality of his parents’ marriage. This helps him to understand his mother as a person just as she ceases to be that person, just as the woman she once was is obliterated, and, with it, her memories of her son. Memories, identity, creative output – all are eroded, all fall away, until, for Monk, there is nothing left.