Assumption by Percival Everett. Graywolf Press, 225 pp., $15.00.
Erasure By Percival Everett. Graywolf Press, 272 pp., $15.00.
The author of 18 previous works of fiction, Percival Everett is perhaps best known as a writer of highly ironic novels which address such topical landmines as American race and class relations (Erasure), celebrity culture (I Am Not Sidney Poitier), and even the role of critical theory in American arts and letters (Glyph). However, in his newest work, Assumption, he writes about something completely different. Though the book is listed as a novel, Assumption actually consists of three linked novellas, each a separate mystery (and mysterious) in its own right; so yes, trite as it sounds, nothing here is as it seems. In fact, Assumption is not so much a satirical takedown of a large, American bugbear as much as it is a literal exploration, a meditation on the nature of truth, violence, and the human propensity for denial and deception, self-inflicted and otherwise.
Assumption concerns Ogden Walker, a deputy sheriff in sparely populated Plata County, New Mexico, and his attempts to solve three separate murders. Deputy Walker feels trapped in a job he truly is not cut out for, one that daily exposes him to the worst of human nature, and by the time we get to the end of the third and final section of the book, readers have become so inured to odd, randomly violent acts that we realize that it’s not a question of if the proverbial train will wreck, but when. After all, each murder is a mystery with no easy or well-defined answers, one where the very things that cause the murder to be a mystery often don’t get solved. And yet, none of that matters because, as Ogden notes early on, “Nothing makes people more interesting than their being dead.” By the work’s final few pages, when readers discover the truth that this theme actually bears out, these words have come to hang heavy over many of the characters’ heads, resulting in an ending that’s—without giving too much away—equally abhorrent as it is compelling. It leaves readers with no choice but to reflect upon all that’s just happened; more importantly, they will be forced to consider why.
All to say that the writing here is good—Everett is of such talent and ability that he’d have to really exert himself to produce bad work—but the overall meaning of the story, as well as what the story represents, does not live up to the same standard (and cannot stand up to the same amount of critical scrutiny) as such earlier Everett novels as Glyph, Erasure, and Poitier. Everett is a good writer, but what is lacking here is a complex meta-narrative, a grand scale to tie Assumption’s narrative strands together.
That is to say, Everett is a genius novelist, but only an average storyteller. He’s at his best when tackling highly complicated issues from either all or odd angles, and this attempt to write a straightforward, and in many respects “genre,” work, one that depends upon a unnecessary “whodunit” constraint (although he doesn’t really follow it, anyway), feels more claustrophobic and perfunctory than it does creatively liberating. Where Assumption falls flat, like most other books written these days, is that it assumes a simple story, told well, is enough. It isn’t. Assumption is good, yes, but only good in the sense that it shows how formidable a writer Everett is, even when crafting what will unfortunately end up being judged as one of his lesser, and less important, works.
Originally published in 2001, and re-issued in conjunction with Assumption, Everett’s Erasure has garnered a reputation among the literati for its damning critique of the benignly racist attitude that exists within the publishing industry and literary culture. Widely considered to be one of the near-canonical books of the past decade, the book is underserved by the term “biting satire,” for no one and nothing is spared here. Everett works all angles to show how authors of color are often measured not according to their literary ability but according to how well they represent racial (and racist) ideas. Essentially, the novel asks the question(s): What does it mean to be black, and how black must a black artist act before she is considered authentic and legitimate, a standard-bearer for racial culture, and thus, a “credit to the race”?
Erasure tells the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an upper middle class, genius-level, Harvard-educated writer who composes novels so dense that few people can understand them, certainly not the general reading public. Unsuccessful in his career, unlucky in love, and perennially overlooked by the publishing powers-that-be, Monk encounters a series of quick tragedies that culminate in the deterioration of his mother’s health due to Alzheimer’s disease. Ellison needs money in order to place her in a nursing home, only to be told by his agent that, despite recognition of his prodigious literary talent and overall critical acclaim, Monk’s latest book has been rejected by 17 publishers. (Some of them balk at the idea of a black man writing a novel that contains numerous allusions to Aeschylus’ The Persians but no mention of “true, gritty real stories of black life.”)
To add insult to injury, while Monk languishes he witnesses the immediate, outrageous success of novelist Juanita Mae Jenkins’ We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a first novel detailing the tragically over-exaggerated lives of a generic Harlem family. Jenkins’ novel is hailed as precious, real, and “true,” although she admits to only visiting Harlem for a couple of days when she was 12 years old. Broke, in despair, and at the end of his tether after his agent tells that him work is just “not black enough,” Monk invents the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and writes My Pafology, a vulgar caricature of both Jenkins’ work and every other novel meant to convey the black social condition and “ghetto” experience. My Pafology is a horrendously written text (included in full in Erasure as a work-within-the-work), and of course, it becomes an instant bestseller. Unprepared for his pseudonymous success—My Pafology was written as an ironic parody, after all—Monk must then deal with the social and psychological repercussions of his newfound literary fame: Does he expose himself as Stagg R. Leigh, My Pafology’s author, and thus ruin his however-small literary reputation; or does he cash in by keeping up his sham for as long as he can, and thus become the very thing he hates the most, a racial hypocrite?
The answer to the above question is not what you think, mainly because the search for an answer is not what the novel is about. In truth, Erasure is about the pitfalls of identity, or at least any identity that doesn’t fit into easily understood racial generalizations. Monk cannot be a successful author without first pretending to be a “black”—as in stereotypically, über-, the-only-way-to-say-it-is-in-all-caps BLACK—author, and the irony of ironies is that Monk’s sneeringly ignorant and hyper-masculine, jailhouse posturing is seen as somehow more “real” than the reality of his background as the Harvard-educated son of a family of doctors. The novel showcases how we’re all for diverse varieties of racial representation in the arts, as long as they follow preapproved, often mildly racist notions of how different ethnicities think, write, and act. The novel is titled Erasure because for someone like Monk, whose very existence is met with derision, suspicion, and misunderstanding, the only way he can sufficiently prove he’s a member of his race is through acts of racial posturing.
But can’t we sympathize with Monk for being so incensed? Wouldn’t anyone be outraged by the posturing and the fakery of it all, the knowing complicity of everyone involved, literary culture’s willingness to support racist and racialized structures only because they are recognizable, familiar, and most important, profitable? Ultimately, the question that lies at the heart of Erasure is not what decision Monk makes in light of My Pafology’s fame. The question the novel asks us to consider is how any artist of color might manage to hang on to her creative and personal integrity, especially when an entire industry is devoted to maintaining a pathological and sometimes blatantly racist lie about them. What makes Erasure such a great book is the answer it posits, but in the grand scheme of things, as for what that answer actually means, I feign no hypotheses.
Rone Shavers is coeditor of Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. His fiction has appeared in ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, keepgoing.org, Milk magazine, and Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas. His nonfiction has appeared in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Reader, and Mosaic literary magazine, among others.
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