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Percival L. Everett. Erasure.

Hanover: UP of New England, 2001 265 pp. $26.00.

A provocative satire on the impact of the publishing industry on the authority, authenticity, and agency of autonomous, non-conventional contemporary African American novelists in particular and on the double-consciousness of middle-class African Americans in general, Erasure is probably Everett's most wryly humorous and disturbingly semi-autobiographcal and metafictional novel. Since the zany examination of modern black-male mid-life identity crisis in his first novel Suder (1983), Everett has published two collections of short stories, a children's book, and ten additional novels, including the prize-winning science fiction narrative Zulus (1990) and adaptations of the ancient Greek myths of Medea and Dionysus in For Her Dark Skin (1990) and Frenzy (1997). Like Thelonious "Monk" Ellison--the avant-garde novelist who reworks Greek myths, college professor who parodies Roland Barthes's poststructuralist criticism in S/Z, and protagonist whose name is a conflation of the highly innovative black modernist bebop musician Thelonius Monk and the expressionist novelist Ralph Ellison--Everett chooses in Erasure to erase or nullify his African American identity in his transgressive quest for freedom and wholeness as an artist. In contrast, white publishers of both Monk and Everett paradoxically erase their individuality by rejecting their books as not black enough. "Monk's experience is very much my own," Everett tells an interviewer, "though he of course is not me at all. Yes, I have been hit with the 'not black enough' complaint, but always from white editors and critics."

Because his own most recent experimental novel has been rejected by publishers as not black enough, Monk is outraged at the national success of Juanita Mae Jenkins, an amateur black middle-class writer with little knowledge and less actual experience of living in an urban black community, and at her exploitative first novel in the neo-realistic vernacular tradition of the ghetto pulp fiction of Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck and Donald Goines, We's Lives in Da Ghetto. With self-righteous indignation, Monk, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and with little or no intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical distance between himself and the implied author of Erasure, writes MyPafology, an outrageously scurrilous parody in eye dialects, and its authenticity and authority are acclaimed by white editors and critics as well as a popular black TV talk-show hostess as a commercial and critical prize-winning success. In contrast to Monk's judgment that the parody, whose title Leigh has blatantly insisted that the publishers change to Fuck, is "offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless," the white judges on the Book Award Committee consider it "the truest novel" that they have ever read. "It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It's the real thing." Ultimately, the huge commercial success of the parody and pseudonymous Stagg R. Leigh, engineered by a multi-million-dollar movie contract and the Book Club of Kenya Dunston, the nationally popular TV talk-show hostess, results in Monk's complicity with the media in the erasure of his integrity and individuality.

The story-within-a-story structure and style of the paradoxically double-voiced satirical attack in Erasure on African American double-consciousness, African American neo-realism, Eurocentric poststructuralism, and popular culture in the United States are both a clever and crude imaginative construction of the disturbing socialized ambivalence and identity crisis of the implied author and protagonist of the novel. Readers are struck first by the stark photo on the book cover of a smiling little black boy pointing a gun at his head in what is ostensibly a mock suicide, with the book title in lower-case letters and the sign of a red "x" under the photo, suggesting the child's violent self-erasure. The satirical structure and style of the novel are suggested by an epigraph from Mark Twain's travel book Following the Equator: "I could never tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe." The frame-story begins as a wryly humorous, metafictional first-person journal with the structural irony of abruptly shifting, alternating sub-sections of flashbacks and retrospective narrative that reveal in various lengths separated by three "x's," rather than specific dates, his childhood ambition to become a serious writer and his modernist literary aesthetic. The chapter divisions and all of the letters, except "A," in the title that is included on odd-numbered pages are also marked with "x," the sign of erasure.

The ironic voice of the protagonist sustains the tragicomic mood of the pretextual signs and paradoxical motif of the self-erasure of his racial identity and existence as an artist in the opening sentence of the frame-story. "My journal is a private affair," Monk wryly introduces himself, "but as I cannot know the time of my coming death, and since I am not disposed, however unfortunately, to the serious consideration of self-termination, I am afraid that others will see these pages." Based on his biological appearance and slave ancestry, the dominant white society and popular culture racially classify him as black. But he immediately challenges this apparently stereotypic racial classification and affirms his individuality by describing himself as "no good at basketball," a music fan of "Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder," and a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard who cannot dance. He also proudly declares that he "did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south" and that not only were his grandfather, father, and two siblings doctors, but his family also owned a summer bungalow near Annapolis. However, when a book agent tells him that he could sell many books if he would "forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life," he responds with dramatic irony: "I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one."

The framed novella, My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh--Monk's and Everett's puns on the pathological model that is too often used to interpret African American culture and character and on the name of the popular black vernacular character Stagger Lee--is only 68 of the 265 pages of the novel. Van Go Jenkins, the protagonist of the novella and parody of Bigger Thomas, is a nineteen-year-old urban, unemployed, unmarried, irresponsible, self-hating, violent black male rapist, killer, and father of four children by four different women. Similar to the erasure of Monk's authentic identity at the end of the novel, the parody ends with Van Go's capture in the glaring TV lights of the evening news as he gloats: "'Hey, Mama ... Hey, Baby Girl. Look at me. I on TV.'"

The satirical events that dominate the frame-story of Monk's expressionist aesthetic as a writer and college professor and that reveal his intellectual arrogance and alienation as an African American artist are disrupted periodically with flashbacks to his childhood fascination with woodworking and fly fishing with his father. They also illuminate the origins of his existential angst, the exaggerated sense of his intellectual and artistic difference, fostered by the favoritism and pronouncements of his father, who committed suicide, and the subsequent emotional estrangement and psychological alienation from his siblings, colleagues, and acquaintances. The murder by an anti-abortionist of his gynecologist sister and the divorce of his gay plastic surgeon brother, both symbolically engaged in forms of identity erasure, confront Monk with the responsibility of moving from Los Angeles to the District of Columbia to care for his mother, whose health and authentic identity are being rapidly erased by Alzheimer's. But his family relationship, like his professional relationship to other writers and his sexual relationship with Linda Mallory and Marilyn Tilman, is in a state of erasure.

The metafictional and satirical structure and style of the novels are apparent in the parodies of the gangster pulp fiction of Ice Berg Slim, Donald Goines, and Omar Tyree, of the naturalism of Richard Wright, of the vernacular novels and romances of Terry McMillan, and of the popular TV book club of Oprah Winfrey, as well as of the poststructuralism of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Monk ultimately erases his own integrity and individuality by succumbing ironically, as Stagg R. Leigh, to the commercial values of the publishing industry and popular culture, especially TV, that he bitterly disdains. Reflecting disturbingly on suicide while viewing paintings by Rothko and Antoine de Saint-Exupery in the National Gallery of Art, Monk thinks to himself: "My self-murder would not be an act of rage and despair, but of only despair and my artistic sensibility could not stand that." At the close of the novel, Monk, who was unsuccessful as one of the judges in attacking the aesthetics of Fuck, reflects: "The faces of my life, of my past, of my world became as real as the unreal.... Then there was a small boy, perhaps me as boy, and he held up a mirror so that I could see my face and it was the face of Stagg Leigh. 'Now you're free of illusion,' Stagg said. 'How does it feel to be free of one's illusions.'" Monk's artistic sensibility and aesthetic standards thus dominate or erase other aspects of his identity.

So where does Percival Everett stand on the issue of the authenticity of racial and ethnic identities in Erasure and life in the United States? "I am a writer. I am a man. I am black man in this culture," Everett tells an interviewer. "Of course my experience as a black man in America influences my art; it influences the way I drive down the street.... I think readers, black and white, are sophisticated enough to be engaged by a range of black experience, informed by economic situation, religion (or lack thereof) or geography, just as one accepts a range of so-called white experience." The complexity of racial and cultural identities includes, of course, much more than class, religion, and geography. Contrary to the popularity in the academies of anti-essentialist arguments by postmodern critics, the authority, authenticity, and agency of the identities of most African Americans emanate most distinctively and innovatively from the particularity of our historical struggle against slavery and its legacy of antiblack racism in the United States. They also emanate from the shared cultural codes and language of our individual and collective political agency in reconciling our unique double-consciousness in the open-ended process of constructing our identities and reconstructing a new world order.

Bernard W. Bell

The Pennsylvania State University
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Author:Bell, Bernard W.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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