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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

I. To Write and to Laugh

The Jailhouse Baby Blues”, or Literal and Literary Prisons in Glyph by Percival Everett:1 Allegory, Irony, Self-Reflection, and Socio-Academic Analysis

Jacqueline Berben-Masi

Résumé

The story is a first-person narrative by a baby genius and is just too clever by far: codes beg to be cracked, philosophy seeks application and interpretation, tidbits on the mores of academia and the vanity of literary research titillate us even as we follow the tale of a kidnapping for scientific purposes. Throughout, the child is a prisoner jostled from one cage to another, from one form of captivity and experimentation to yet another even more sinister ordeal. No casual, leisurely entertainment but an intellectual challenge from beginning to end, this paper attempts to a multi-faceted reading.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999. Other titles include: Suder (1983), Walk Me to the Distance ( (...)

1A prefatory word of explanation about my title: the porte-manteau or coat-tree word, “blues,” like the work that inspires it, is a cross-referential allusion to the multiple versions of jailhouse blues songs composed and sung by black inmates, and to various manifestations of “post-partem” depression, as well as to the age of the narrator-protagonist, each of these in turn bearing upon the theme of this seminar, trials and prisons in literature. With bits of song incorporated in the text, a silent echo of that phrase imposes itself in the imagination before each new peripety, as in the classic AAB blues pattern. And while Glyph is admittedly a far cry from texts like Richard Wright’s Native Son, Lloyd Brown’s Iron City or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, indeed, myriad other titles by African or African American writers with a more realistic setting and less fanciful exploration of the ramifications of trials and incarceration, this allegory of American society relies upon those earlier works as a palimpsest to drive home some similar messages while extending the lessons drawn to all aspects of life. The Quaker reformers’ notion of prison as a time out from normal life, a hiatus to put the soul into contact with the conscience to achieve purification and rehabilitation is not absent. In addition, prison as punishment by denying freedom of movement and action certainly gets more than lip service in Glyph. At the same time, by portraying his black hero literally as a little boy, Everett reminds us of the long denial of responsible adult status for dark men in mixed-race societies, be they colonialized from without, within, or both. The novel ends with an adult mind still imprisoned in a boy’s body, the hero having come to a kind of philosophical patience and serenity while awaiting physical maturity and release, much like Candide in his garden.

  • 2 Probably a pure Everett neologism on the basis of “holarctic,” “holandric” would logically indicate (...)
  • 3 Not to leave aside the existence of a periodical entitled Glyph: Textual Studies, published in the (...)

2With apologies to Monika Fludernik, Glyph offers the most “unnatural narrative” conceivable, for the narrator himself never engages in speech per se, and the entire text is elaborately contrived, albeit with an occasional line that could have been expressed orally, but scarcely ever in the first person. For example, baby Ralph’s note to Boris (Badenov?), “I will need some type of hard crackers. I’m teething and I’m getting cranky.”(64) Notice the humor of displacing these banal lines from the perspective of an adult caretaker in the third person to that of the infant himself in the first person. For those unfamiliar with this multi-genre work, the reader must suspend disbelief that a child could be born with the innate ability to read and write at a post-doctoral level, equally at home with the “hard” or exact, the social, and the human sciences, even if he has as yet to discover elementary lessons of day-to-day living, or the wonders of his own body and its functions, especially those he attributes to “some holandric gene” (14).2 The case study before us is that “enunciated” by the hypothetical, autobiographical author, Ralph, a name of which the initial lateral and final consonants nearly coincide with those of the title, Glyph.3 He has chosen not to speak, although he is not “dumb.” He does not “tell” his story, but orchestrates its written composition, which he embeds with forceful allusions.

  • 4 Homonym for a character in the Everett short story, “Age Would Be that Does.” (Now collected in dam (...)

3The realization and discovery of Ralph’s unique gifts filters first from his parents on upward to the level of the mad, behavioral scientists and from there on up to the national defense level. Spatial organization in the novel gradually shifts from one form of prison to another, from the baby’s body to his crib and playpen, to the animal cage where he is kept by Dr. Steimmel, to an actual adult carceral facility, where his fellow inmates wonder “what the kid is in for.” That is, until “the kid” makes a daring prison escape, aided and abetted by a disconsolately childless Chicano guard, named “Mauricio la Puente (“the Bridge”),4 and his wife, Rosenda Paz (“Peace”). Once “back on the outside,” the tiny hero contemplates his new situation:

If language was my prison house, then writing was the wall over which I climbed for escape. But climbing the wall either way meant, finally, the same thing, and so language was the prison and the escape and therefore no prison at all, any more than freedom is confinement simply because it precludes one from being confined. Indeed, my much regarded and remarkable relationship and facility with language had caused my incarceration, but it had also freed me, though I was still confined in the car of my new adults. I was still a prisoner to my size and to my inability to fend for myself. I was called a genius, but I was not. A genius, as far as I was concerned, was someone who could drive a car. (145-146)

  • 5 Homonym for a split-personality character in the eponymous short story, “Chacón, Chacón”, in The We (...)

4Combined with the “Me drive!” phase of child development is an intertextual reference to the life of Malcolm X and his discovery of freedom through literacy gained in prison. But the break-out only leads to illusory sanctuary in a Spanish mission church (shades of Bartolomé de Las Casas who first proposed substituting African blacks for the indigenous Indians suffering from colonial enslavement), and then television transmission, “captured” on the small screen. This final “take” on the prisoner leads to his ultimate “liberation” into “Mo’s” (like Bro’ for Brother or as in the “Mo’ Better Blues”) for “Mom’s” arms, a close call with all the baddies closing in on him. Had the recognition-craving doctors, the national security specialists, or the “well-meaning Roman-collar clan,” had their way with him, on the allegorical and literal levels, Ralph would have been “been in for” capital punishment for daring to be born brilliant, black, and unique or for soul-destructive exorcism at the hands of a Joycean triumvirate, Fathers O’Blige, O’Boie, and O’Meye, led by the demonic Father Chacón.5 Alternately, baby Ralph serves as

  1. subject of experimentation by the social and medical scientists, who submit him to test after test, putting his credibility as well as his skills on trial and caging him like a chimp;

  2. “prisoner for his own safety” in a true adult jail, again subject of tests and interrogations, “Defense Stealth Operative” or human “camera” in the U.S. army for the multifarious Uncle Ned (Uncle Sam, playing on the dual value of the paternalistic “Uncle” used for old, submissive Negro slaves), a.k.a. Colonel Bill, and Nurse Nanna, half nurturing nipple of the plastic variety, half sorcerer’s apprentice obeying in adulation all commands issued by her military boss;

  3. surrogate child for the iconoclastically sterile Catholic Latino couple who are his penultimate abductors and would-be, self-serving saviors;

  4. intended victim of a pedophile priest, held captive in the cleric’s bedroom.

5Thus does little Ralph compose his terse bildungsroman from ages 0 to 4 years, inviting us to ponder several hypotheses, all ostensibly of equal import to the narrator-author:

  1. American society is fundamentally racist, from the reader of the present work to the highest echelons of society, and every interaction that takes place in the mainstream culture is a reciprocal test or trial by the adversaries;

  2. Any deviance from the perceived “norm” is worthy of punishment, the sentence varying from incarceration to dissection (consider the sequence title “incision”) (see below);

  3. The unrecognized potential of our society will remain “imprisoned” until we, having matured from our intellectual and cultural infancy to a state of knowledge, tolerance, indeed, recognition, for the truths we overlook, are ready to assume our responsibilities;

  4. Meaning is a relative value, more or less valid in the culture that produces it (i.e., if there is a fourth dimension of global, cultural values, they are extremely reductive);

  5. Mother-wit and trickery remain the only viable weapons of the vulnerable over the powerful.

6The list could continue, but these five heteroclitic concepts cover the basics. The question henceforth turns on how the author incorporates them into the structure of the novel and then mirrors them in his style in a manner that espouses the topic of this seminar.

  • 6 Should one point out that the French stylo for pen is actually a shortened form of stylographe. bot (...)
  • 7 See The American Journal of Human Genetics, Vol. 16, N° 4 (December), 1964, 455-456. It is a safe b (...)

7From the first chapter with its prefatory label of “Deconstruction Paper,” the second word crossed out, Glyph promises an act rather than an analysis, a parody of the often misunderstood and misapplied French critical theories a la mode when author Everett came of age.6 Indeed, the amalgamation of quotes, pseudo-dialogues between living and dead public figures and authors (refreshingly not all white nor male), long intellectual digressions and flights of poetry look rather like a cut-and-paste job at first glance, much like an unsuccessful graduate student’s paper with lengthy footnotes peripherally connected at best to the body of the paper. Upon closer inspection, these footnotes enrich the text and constitute a repertoire, theme and variations, a wink of complicity, not so off the subject as it might seem on the surface. Some of the leitmotifs border on the scatological, such as the reference to an actual article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, with a slight change in the credits, as one author’s name is misprinted or “edited” to be slightly more suggestive. The research trio of “Stern, Centerwall, and Starker,” are cited as the writers of “New Data on the Problem of Y-Linkage of Hairy Pinnae” —footnoting Ralph’s first venture into masturbation and his father’s angry disapproval (see “holandric gene” above). The real piece deals with men who have hairy ears, Italians, Indians, Israelis, and Muslims, and the writers’names are Curt Stern, W. R. Centerwall, and S. S. Sarkar. The article is a survey on the existing scholarship of “penetrating paper[s]” “on pedigree” on “Y-chromosome penetrance” or the “probability” of human males with congenital hirsute ears (alliteration and double-entendre in the original text).7 Traditionally, the threat against practicing masturbation is that it will make hair grow on one’s palms, but why not the ears as well, given how many elderly gentlemen have fuzzy, aural apertures? Again, there are echoes of James Joyce and his mixture of low-level jokes and high-level artistry. The protagonist must retain the attributes of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, including puns on sexuality, latent or extant.

  • 8 Cf The film, “A Room with a View,” the cliché, “the straight and narrow” (path to salvation for one (...)
  • 9 Adapted from Josette Rey-Debove, Lexique sémiotique, Paris: PUF, 1979; Gerald Prince, Dictionary of (...)
  • 10 Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as in Lewis Carroll who also played with language and logic to explore t (...)

8Structurally, it should be obvious that there is meticulous method behind the apparent madness of the plot. This is no “Voyage autour de ma chamber” itinerary, nor an armchair adventurer’s flirtation with an elite criminal element. Although comically presented, the kidnappings, trials and incarcerations occur on the literal as well as metaphorical and metaphysical levels. Granted, the composition resembles an encyclopaedia with multilingual headings in no particular alphabetical order. Still, they recur throughout the eight chapters, the latter all punning on icons of popular culture, e.g., “A Plot with a View,” “The Straight and Narrative,” “Lost in Place,” “Shades Are Just Dark Glosses,”8 etc., each prefaced by a linguistic or semiotic model that loosely corresponds to the organization of the chapter, each lettered rather than numbered from A to H, as in “Hyoid Bone” (see below). For baby Ralph is on a quest for meaning, which, like Ralph himself, often “goes missing,” with a footnote musing on the putative media headlines, “Missing Meaning Turns Up Found” or “Meaning Found to Be Missing.” (178) As in an earlier Everett work, Zulus, whose chapters run from A to Ζ with a rigorously alliterative abstract of each division, there are internal sequences that reflect key motifs to clue the reader in, provided he or she invests the effort to make the connections. For example, each chapter begins with a section labelled “différance,” straight from the terminology of Jacques Derrida, Grammatology’s author: i.e., that which determines one form in relation to others or permits the articulation of signs among themselves within a given abstract graphic or phonic order or between two orders of expression, “parole” or “utterance” and “writing.”9 Save the last chapter, which is headed by “difference”—the narrator-prisoner being “freed” from the shackles of others’ ambitions or pretentiousness. In large part, the work does deconstruct, beginning notably with the creation of a commedia dell’arte caricature of Roland Barthes: the lowbrow comic term is used deliberately as the author of S/Z is depicted as the American stereotype of the self-infatuated, French intellectual, ever looking for a lay, as opposed to his equally ridiculous if less successful and famous counterpart, baby Ralph’s father, Douglas (as in Frederick?), most often referred to as ‘Inflato’ because of his flabby cheeks that are sheer temptation for a child to pinch—turning the tables and setting them at the same time.10 An example in point is precisely the word “table” that the parents mouth exaggeratedly in an attempt to get baby Ralph to imitate and speak, whereas their son has already made the leap from the signified and its signifier to the higher level concept of “tableness” (5-6). “Food for thought” for overachieving parents, whose efforts often miss the mark.

9Other recurring subheadings include (1) “pharmakon” for sections that seem to provide a “chemical” analysis of the ingredients of the story, (2) “unties of simulacrum” for sequences furthering estrangement and separation of characters, (3) “supplement” which seems to indicate physical and intellectual “nourishment”, (4) “bedeuten”, the German verb “signify” with dual Saussurian and black English subtexts, (5) “Mary Mailon,” a.k.a. “Typhoid Mary” in American chronicles, an inadvertent criminal figure who killed families she worked for by spreading the disease, for passages where Ralph is being “held” by Dr. Steimmel or Nurse Nanna; (6) “ennuyeux” or the French for “boring” punctuated with the first of a series of five-lines of vocabulary, all beginning with A, then later B, then C, etc., but not necessarily under this heading. The first in this series deals with ‘Inflato’s’ frustrated attempts at publishing a paper on “Alterity” –a delicious irony given his inability to accept his son’s difference-différance. For purpose of illustration, a quote:

  • 11 Roughly translated, “somewhat stands for something contained in something else.” Pseudo legal Latin (...)
  • 12 Cf. “Altarity”: “[re]think[ing] the difference and otherness that lie beyond absolute knowledge. Th (...)
  • 13 In English, “abolition” in the legal sense.
  • 14 Opposite of topos or commonplace (Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Middle Ages, 19 (...)

Aliquid stat pro aliquo11
Alterity
12
Aufhebung
13
Atopos
14
A (12)

10Might this be Ralph’s own primer, another parody on boredom or on the manner in which such books are written, i.e., “A is for aardvark, “B” is for bison, etc.”? Breaking the pattern, two sexually suggestive subheadings appear immediately thereafter in the first chapter: “libidinal economy” and “peccatum originale.” The motif continues, ranging the scope from innocence up to infidelity in “ens realissimum.” Other sequences include the obvious like “seme,” “bridge,” or “incision” to the obtuse like “ephexis” (perhaps a variation on “ephesis,” the Greek for law, appeal, or inclination), or again “exousai” which might be a neologism concocted by Everett on the basis of ex-for “out of” ous/aus “ear” or “listen to” in Latin, “hare with dropping ears” in Greek (baby Ralph has Uncle Toby’s remarkable ears, whether bald or “harey”) or to the German words “Vexierbild” for deforming image (Lacan’s mirror mocked, given that the child has no problems with his own double). Not to overlook Umstände or circumstance.

  • 15 Many thanks to Chabot College math and symbolic logic professor, Milton Rube, for helping me out of (...)

11The “compleat” reader, at ease in letters and numbers, may quickly come to grips with an unusual (recurring) formula: (x) (Cx) → ~ Vx) | — (x) [(Cx & Px) → ~ Vx] (32, 59, 96, 138, 165). For the common mortal, text literacy here requires some knowledge of symbolic logic to unravel and arrive at the reconstruction of the “rebus” of symbols used.15 Cx is a prepositional function containing the variable x. The possible values of x comprise the domain of discourse. To wit, C(x) by itself is not a statement or a proposition since its truth or falsity depends on the value assigned to x. Thus, a statement in logic might be “For every x, C(x) implies NOT V(x).” while another statement might be “There exists an x in the domain for which C(x) implies NOT V(x)." The result seems to be a tautology, i.e., a compound statement that is always true, no matter what truth values are assigned to the components. Here, the interpretations are almost limitless, given the multiple themes of the novel. Interestingly enough, the sentence that precedes its first appearance could be so represented: “No Children are Volunteers Therefore, no children being tested by Psychologists are volunteers.” (32) The concept of Ralph’s not being a volunteer is what he is repeating at the other locations in the text where he uses that notation. It reappears in each case when he is subjected to some psychological “interrogation.” Whenever he cooperates, as a child, he is not truly capable of giving real consent. Hence, he is a victim of all systems, including one reliant upon trials and prisons to arrive at its ends, be it under the rule of law or chaos. Indeed, death and revenge round out the picture in the following paragraph, which it introduces in its reference to Menalippus and Tydeus. Both the line and the formula also serve as a reminder of Ludwig Josef Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the opening lines of which are the first words read to baby Ralph by Mo after she has grasped his extraordinary abilities: “One: The world is all that is the case. One-point-one: The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” A footnote proclaiming these words to be “complete nonsense” but beloved by their author, for

“He loved the words, the pregnancy of them, how they swelled with meaning and at once fell stillborn from the page. I mention this to underscore that the reading was in no way speaking. Reading, amplified, is no crime, though it is unnecessary, not a luxury, just something that is not bad.” (9)

12Promises unfulfilled. Notice once again the preoccupation with the ethics of common, daily activity: speech, but not reading, by implication falls under the Seven Capital Sins (luxury), indeed, verges on a criminal pursuit.

13Wittgenstein’s influence does not stop here, however, as Ralph follows a similar pattern under “Are Meanings in the Head? (Ralph’s Theory of Fictive Space)”: like the Austrian-English philosopher, whose entire Tractatus is made up of propositions and comments so numbered, Ralph provides “an appendix within the text for the purpose of serving the last sentence.” (194) With the exception that Ralph uses letters instead of numbers for each of his propositions. Intertextuality, blurring the lines between plot and metatext, Glyph is, as Salmon Rushdie once proclaimed about his novel, Grimus, “too clever a work by far.”

14Returning to both theoretical models and recurring sequences, viewed as a set, they resemble the cells of a prison, “pigeonholes” or subjectively imposed categories, irrespective of the gravity of the crimes committed or the degree of deviance from the norm. Hence, the social, the literary, the linguistic, the penal, all concur. “A sign is a sign,” a prison is a prison. This is no single-dimensional work: each aspect depends on the others for its significance and message. A writer can no more divorce the socio-linguistic side of his work from the creative than a Michelin starred chef de cuisine can separate the aesthetic appeal from the gustatory from the nutritional. If this flies in the face of Art for Its Own Sake, then so be it. The bone of contention opposing Richard Wright and James Baldwin, i.e., that of militant fiction v. art for art’s sake no longer holds sway. African-American writers have discharged themselves of the straight jacket of the 1960’s and a pure Afro-American aesthetic in exchange for a universal one, albeit from an African-American perspective

15But let us return to the question of structure in Glyph. The sequences or “cells of story” that subdivide each chapter do not disappear in the final chapter, which relates the “liberation” of the hero from his various forms of captivity. “Unties of simulacrum” here depicts the failure of the cease-fire between the factions that desire absolute control of the baby, “dead or alive” in Colonel Bill’s words. A knock-down, drag-out fight pits the female psycho-biologists, Steimmel and Davis against one another and all others present, save “Ootheca,” the seed case, “Mo,” who instinctively saves her offspring during the row. “Incision” gives us another primer, this time of H words (the title of the chapter):

  • 16 Defined as “one of two sets of Japanese syllabaries of the kana system, having a cursive form. Also (...)
  • 17 Here, we come full circle, back to the original play on the meanings of every single vocable, a doo (...)

habit
hiragana
16
hyperbole
heritor
hinge17

16Other subsection titles recurring in the concluding chapter include “subjective-collective” wherein mother and son are reunited and escape together; “vita nova” or the compromise to escape further harassment for the pair, he simulating normalcy while she is bereft of her painterly inspiration, reduced to holding a simple job at a drugstore, enhanced only by her exchanges with her son who hides his gifts from the children of her new friends while she drives the most conservative and economical vehicle on the road, a Dodge Dart. (It was the typical vehicle of the untenured faculty member, a dependable workhorse which cost little to “hire-purchase,” run, and maintain, like its driver.) Vexierbild, “the deforming image,” the final subsection, brings us full circle, from the opening sarcastic model of baby Ralph equating “signifier” over “semantic clock” to “liar” over “time,” before embarking upon his picaresque tour through the models of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes to those of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Morris, Algiras Greimas, and Louis Hjelmslev. Now the “initiated” Ralph can see life and its meaning as a prosaic straight line, a sign equal to a sign (203). Which is exactly how the novel ends: “The point is whole, the point is complete, but the line... the line is everything. The line is everything.” (207-208).

  • 18 The image, for those too young to remember or not from the American culture, is captured best in Jo (...)
  • 19 Paul Root Wolpe, “Explaining Social Deviance,” Course No. 675, The Teaching Company, 1998, audio-ca (...)
  • 20 Compare, too, Inflato’s early convictions about his son as “mildly retarded.” We never do learn whe (...)

17This closure takes us back to the applications to discourse suggested by the formula examined, if not exactly articulated above. “Line” is another word with multiple denotations, connotations, associations, and collocations. Indeed, the line is essential not only to the story, to words spoken or written, to truth or falsehood, but to longevity, to suspect identification, to jokes, to links, to painterly expression, to the shape of the concept of time. That the line connects disparate aspects of our universe provides Ralph the occasion to indulge his insatiable appetite for the pedantic while engaging in puerile word play. Spanning the apparent chasm between the two is left to the resources of African American tradition and the need to cast off stereotypes that continue to haunt post-1970s’ blacks. To begin with, we cannot divorce the standard, pre-1960’s image of American blacks from the stereotype that reigned until then.18 Ralph, the black baby genius, like the first black “Mongoloid” child studied, is a discomforting anomaly to social Darwinism, one that undermined long-revered theories of racial hierarchy and atavism as studied in the history of social deviance and criminality. The belief that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e., dogs do not beget cats, though never without its critics, long enjoyed broad influence that continues to exercise its hold among certain revisionists. For memory, the generally received idea was that the Negroid race was at the bottom of the hierarchy, Mongolians at a more advanced evolutionary level than blacks, and of course, Europeans were at the apex of human perfection.19 Miscegenation was long held criminal because it allegedly undermined this “natural order.” “Natural order,” consequently must be set on its ear, hence, the overcompensation in the complexity of the vocabulary and structure, to escape from relegation to this dread categorization as subnormal, uncivilized.20

18At the risk of “over-reading,” in Ralph’s first poem which leaves his parents stunned and in total disbelief, there is a sense a rape, reminiscent of that which accompanied “miscegenation” in times of slavery:

The Hyoid Bone

Brace the words,
the delicate instrument,
the tongue for sweet kissing,
upsilon.

Arch of bone,
greater cornu, reaching,
reaching, stretching
above the lesser.

Fracture this bone,
by the violence,
feel the sick
pain of swallowing.

Fracture the bone,
compromise the support,
feel the true anguish
of speech. (17-18)

  • 21 American Heritage Dictionary, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1969, 1981,647.
  • 22 Ibid, 297.

The contrast between the gentleness one expects from a Chaucerian or Shakespearean “sweet kiss” in the first stanza and its sadistic, shock conclusion conveys the notion that speech is torn from the throat, an unnatural and unpleasant reaction to forces that get out of control and destroy. The syllabic count for each stanza is nearly identical, varying between 16 and 19, not formal, three-line haiku, although an approximation. Similarly, the stress patterns are fairly regular, if not consistently iambic, anapestic, or dactylic. Other Ralph poems are on various parts of the body, all in free verse like the above; they continue the notion of deconstruction, but this one example will suffice to illustrate the style and complexity of what we must believe the baby can conceive and compose. Once again, there is a misnomer in the term “free verse” in that the recurring, rhythm patterns and frames force our attention on a certain distribution, depriving the reader of the choice of imposing intonational meter. “Freedom” – even of verse – is an illusion, a compromise between two opposite poles. And just what is the “hyoid bone”? None other than “A U-shaped bone between the mandible and the larynx at the base of the tongue.”21 “U-shaped” as in “upsilon.” “Cornu” as in “A protuberance of bone resembling a horn.”22

  • 23 “I was constantly afraid that some adult would fry me in a skillet. Frying is very much like huntin (...)

19While for authors of similar complexity like John Wideman, T.S. Eliot was the prime model, for his friend Percival Everett, half a generation had intervened, and the paradigms come rather from post-modernist sources. The autobiographical mode is “in,” and literary archetypes run the gamut from the confessional mode to the apologetic. With generic roots buried in the slave narrative, a plethora of other models comes to mind, to pay homage to, to “signify upon,” in the African-American sense of mocking or undercutting. As an example, the image of pancakes sizzling in butter from the now banned children’s story of “Little Black Sambo” becomes a recurring nightmare for baby Ralph.23 No direct reference is made to the classic book, but; the allusion is as unmistakable as the socio-legal intertext, a cultural wink to the initiated. As is the entire novel, Glyph. For how much longer will black brothers have nightmares of “getting fried” in “Old Sparky” while they wait on death row in myriad prisons around the USA? Glyph leaves the reader with a substantial agenda to consider.

Notes

1 Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999. Other titles include: Suder (1983), Walk Me to the Distance (1985), Cutting Lisa (1986), The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair (short story collection, 1987), Zulus (1990), For Her Dark Skin (1990), The One That Got Away (an album for children, 1992), God’s Country (1994), Big Picture (a short story collection, 1996), Watershed (1996), Frenzy 1997), The Body of Martin Aguilera (1997). At the time of this writing, a new novel, Erasure, was scheduled for publication. Is it mere coincidence that this term erasure appears three times in Glyph?
A different version of this paper appeared as “Percival Everett’s Glyph. Prisons of the Body Physical, Political and Academic’. In Fludernik, Monika and Grete Olson, eds.: In the Grip of the Law, Peter Lang, 2004.

2 Probably a pure Everett neologism on the basis of “holarctic,” “holandric” would logically indicate “all men.”

3 Not to leave aside the existence of a periodical entitled Glyph: Textual Studies, published in the late 1970’s and whose first two editions carried a dialogue between Jacques Derrida and John Searle.

4 Homonym for a character in the Everett short story, “Age Would Be that Does.” (Now collected in damnedifido, 2004.)

5 Homonym for a split-personality character in the eponymous short story, “Chacón, Chacón”, in The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair, 1987.

6 Should one point out that the French stylo for pen is actually a shortened form of stylographe. both words relating to carving as well as writing? The very instrument of literary creation contains its own deconstruction. Q.E.D., or “I rest my case.”

7 See The American Journal of Human Genetics, Vol. 16, N° 4 (December), 1964, 455-456. It is a safe bet that every Freshman on campus has had a quick go at this piece.

8 Cf The film, “A Room with a View,” the cliché, “the straight and narrow” (path to salvation for one’s soul or a parolee’s good behavior), the popular, long-running television series, “Lost in Space,” wherein the scientific member of the cast was the endless butt of all jokes, clearly out of place, and “Shades” as slang for sunglasses or “dark glasses,” as nuances of meaning, or as classical ghosts from antiquity. Not particularly hermetic if one is roughly “from the same batch of cookies” as Everett, as Woody Allen put it, but possibly obtuse for anyone younger or from another culture.

9 Adapted from Josette Rey-Debove, Lexique sémiotique, Paris: PUF, 1979; Gerald Prince, Dictionary of Narratology, Lincoln and London, U Nebraska Press, 1987; and Katie Wales, A Dictionary of Stylistics, London and New York, Longman, 1989.

10 Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as in Lewis Carroll who also played with language and logic to explore the world of Sense, it is implied that Barthes and Derrida are virtual twins, as the letter the fictive Derrida sends to Douglas is just as disdainful of the American scholar, indeed the entire American academic community, and concludes with a banal and casual American expression which detaches itself from the style of the body of the text he supposedly produced (129). And makes Derrida, as fictional creation, the spittin’image of Barthes.

11 Roughly translated, “somewhat stands for something contained in something else.” Pseudo legal Latin? Or just adapting “Quid pro quo” to fit the alphabetical scheme?

12 Cf. “Altarity”: “[re]think[ing] the difference and otherness that lie beyond absolute knowledge. The’ unheard-of’ thought of altarity provides the framework within which I cast my analysis. ‘Altarity’ is a slippery word whose meaning can be neither stated clearly nor fixed firmly. Although never completely decidable, the field of the word ‘altarity’ can be approached through the network of its associations: altar, alter, alternate, alternative, alternation, alterity.” Mark C. Taylor, Altarity, Chicago and London, U Chicago Press, 1987, xxvii-xxviii.

13 In English, “abolition” in the legal sense.

14 Opposite of topos or commonplace (Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Middle Ages, 1948.)

15 Many thanks to Chabot College math and symbolic logic professor, Milton Rube, for helping me out of the forest of symbols whose meaning changes in accordance with different applications and domains.

16 Defined as “one of two sets of Japanese syllabaries of the kana system, having a cursive form. Also called ‘kana’”, or “word.” Adapted from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston et al: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969, 1980. With ‘word’ we are back to square one of Glyph.

17 Here, we come full circle, back to the original play on the meanings of every single vocable, a door opening onto multiple corridors of sense, from that of sound to that of construction.

18 The image, for those too young to remember or not from the American culture, is captured best in John Wideman’s Damballah, where he rues his fear of categorization should he indulge in certain pleasures: “... afraid of becoming instant nigger, of sitting barefoot and goggle-eyed and Day-Glo black and drippy-lipped on massa’s fence if you took one bit of the forbidden fruit. I was too scared to enjoy watermelon. Too self-conscious.” From the prefatory “To Robby,” unpaginated, New York: Avon, 1981. The 1976 Life Magazine special issue for the 200th anniversary of the nation includes a postcard reproducing precisely this image.

19 Paul Root Wolpe, “Explaining Social Deviance,” Course No. 675, The Teaching Company, 1998, audio-cassette.

20 Compare, too, Inflato’s early convictions about his son as “mildly retarded.” We never do learn whether the narrator’s father is black, white, Native inhabitant, Asian, Latino, etc., only that Ralph is a black child, a point poignantly made when the narrator character apostrophises the reader, wondering whether the latter has assigned him a color or not. Under the subheading, “Supernumber” 2, the secret is let out of the bag as it is time to give the police a description of the kidnapped child. “Have you to this point assumed that I am white? In my reading, I discovered that if a character was black, then he at some point was required to comb his Afro hairdo, speak on the street using an obvious, ethnically identifiable idiom, live in a certain part of a town, or be called a nigger by someone. (...) But you, dear reader, no doubt, whether you share my pigmentation or cultural origins, probably assumed that I was white.” (54).

21 American Heritage Dictionary, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1969, 1981,647.

22 Ibid, 297.

23 “I was constantly afraid that some adult would fry me in a skillet. Frying is very much like hunting. The unsuspecting prey is startled by the sudden heat of attack and as I saw myself as likely prey, tender, helpless, small enough to carry back to the cave, I feared for my life. My only bad dream was discovering myself in a cast-iron pan, sitting in sizzling butter” (31). That whites and blacks interpret the story differently has a great deal to do with the perspective of the reader. Whereas most white readers fail to see discrimination in the tale, perceiving only the black child protagonist eating the pancakes made out of tiger butter, a reversal of the situation in that the boy was the intended prey of the tigers, blacks apparently see themselves as the prey of voracious white hunters. Innocence, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Is it truly unrealistic for blacks to fear being eaten by whites? In the U.S., through the 1950s and 60’s, one could still buy chocolate or licorice “babies” as penny candy, so most Americans have “devoured” dark babies. In addition, there were sing-song games that included the phrase “eating chocolate babies.” Apparently, Everett cannot resist mixing lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow, the subject of an essay included in many college English anthologies, such as that edited by Porter Perrin. These were our university-level “primers.”

Auteur

MCF d’anglais, teaches English for Special Purposes at the Faculté de Droit de l’Université de Nice: legal, economic and political English and English for business. Nonetheless, her primary research is in the literary domain. Besides Percival Everett, she has published studies on John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morisson, James Baldwin and Law and Literature in English and work on travel literature by French and English writers.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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