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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

II. To REwrite and to RElaugh

The Pitfalls of Parody: Melancholic Satire in Percival Everett’s Erasure

Fritz Gysin

Résumé

The central text within the text of Percival Everett’s Erasure is a parody of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Sapphire’s Push. This essay analyzes the parodic processes involved in the production of this fake text, traces its fate in the context of the fictional author’s complex life, and interprets that author’s uneasy performance in the disguise of a black folk hero as a melancholic satire targetting the publishing industry, African American essentialism, and the concept of parody itself. Intertextual references to Ellison’s Invisible Man are intended to confound an audience that no longer understands the function of irony and satire.

Texte intégral

  • 1 To complete the allusive melee, we later learn that his mother’s maiden name was Parker (Everett, E (...)

1At the end of the first paragraph of his secret journal, the author/narrator of Percival Everett’s thirteenth novel introduces himself with a statement that rings several bells at once: “I am Thelonious Ellison. Call me Monk,” he writes, and the echoes crisscross each other in fascinating and bewildering waves (Everett, Erasure 3). The name combines references to a musical and to a literary giant: to the eccentric bebop pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, whose innovative style influenced scores of Jazz musicians,1 and to the complex modernist writer Ralph Ellison, who with a single novel challenged the standards of African American writing. In contrast to his two illustrious “ancestors,” however, Thelonious (Monk) Ellison is an unsuccessful postmodern novelist, whose erudition and intelligence have had no great impact on his readers and critics, because what he writes is not “black enough,” and who has therefore developed an attitude towards his compatriots that may be described as a combination of arrogance and melancholy. Moreover, as the novel documents in quite some detail, he is burdened with a problem-ridden family. His brother, a rich plastic surgeon in Arizona, leaves his wife and children and outs himself as a homosexual; his sister, a gynecologist who performs abortions out of a devotion to the disadvantaged, becomes the victim of a fundamentalist killer; his mother is rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease; and then there is also a remote father, whose death by suicide seven years earlier still haunts him, not least because it has left him with a half-white illegitimate sister. The financial difficulties caused by these events, together with his anger at the publishing success of a young woman’s fake novel about the “ black experience” and the continuous complaint of his relatives and his agent about his difficult, white-influenced writing, prompt him to write a parodic ghetto novel and publish it anonymously with an obscene title. To his dismay, the novel wins the National Book Award, and he is forced to admit his authorship.

  • 2 “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that sombre city—and go at things as I have taught myself, (...)
  • 3 “I could never tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe” (Mark T (...)
  • 4 “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (...)

2Monk’s erudition reaches back to the classics (some of whose works he rewrites in postmodern disguise), but also to philosophy, art, and literary theory, as is testified by sundry anecdotal and imagined inserts in his “journal.” Above all, it shows in the allusive style reminiscent of his literary ancestor, Ralph Ellison. His self-introduction calls to mind Ellison’s initial allusion to Melville. The first sentence of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 23), is, after all, echoed in “I am an invisible man” (Ellison 3) (both statements, to spin the echoes further, returning in Augie March’s “I am an American”2). Similarly, the book’s epigraph on lying from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator3 can easily be related to Huck Finn’s metafictional self-presentation.4 In such ways, the narrator’s proclamation of his ambiguous name is related to disguise and role-playing and thus made to anticipate additional identitarian complexity as well as the parodic program of the novel.

3In her Theory of Parody of 1985, Linda Hutcheon defines the term “parody” as “a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodicd text” (Hutcheon 6). She emphasizes its “multiple coding” (Hutcheon 13), insists that “all parody is overtly hybrid and double-voiced” (Hutcheon 28), and mentions as its “central paradox” that “[i]n imitating, even with critical difference, parody reinforces” (Hutcheon 26). Its “irony can cut both ways. Ironic versions of ‘transcontextualization’ and inversion are its major formal operatives, and the range of pragmatic ethos is from scornful ridicule to reverential homage” (Hutcheon 37). More recent approaches do not go so far, even if they, as in the case of Dentith, acknowledge “the paradoxical effect of preserving the very texts that [parody] seeks to destroy” (Dentith 36). Dentith’s more “inclusive” concept of parody also tolerates “multiple coding,” yet it still insists on some kind of polemical function of the mode (Dentith 17); the polemical target may thus be a text, or, via a text, the “world.” Thus the success or failure of parody, it seems to me, depends quite a bit on the ratio between the intent to preserve and that to “destroy” the “precursor text” (Dentith 7), as well as to the degree to which both processes can or will be recognized.

4Like his author, the protagonist of Erasure is a master of parody, of postmodern parody, as a matter of fact, for his imitations of other people’s texts, styles, and forms of behavior are not only hybrids of mockery and respect, of signifyin’ and emulation, but they also foreground and mirror the parodic process. Such a procedure has an impact on the relationship between the real author and the fictional one and thus causes certain ambiguities in the narrative voice, for whereas “conventional” parody functions in first-level reality or at the discourse level at best, the moment parody is foregrounded by highlighted insertion in another text or even by performance, the boundaries between the narrative levels are blurred and the fictional author/narrator/protagonist may also assume autobiographical traits.

5This complex, multi-faceted approach becomes evident early in the novel, when Monk delivers a paper at a conference of the “Nouveau Roman Society,” in which he analyzes the title and some phrases from the first paragraph of Roland Barthes’ S/Z. Generic confusion starts already with the title and subtitle of his paper: “F/V: PLACING THE EXPERIMENTAL NOVEL” is the title, “F/V: a novel excerpt” the subtitle. The confusion is due to Everett’s removal (or, to remain within the terminology of the book, his erasure) of the initial explanation and the long comment that he provided when he published this text in Callaloo two years before the novel came out. In this comment, a plea for (rather old-fashioned) “distancing of the artist’s self from the work” (Everett, “F/V” 22), Everett argues in favor of (noncommercial) new novels that take as their subject material " the critical theory which has pretended to uncover the novel’s so-called tricks” (Everett, “F/V” 21). So, despite his claim to be writing a simple story, what he produces in this excerpt in Callaloo is a parody of S/Z, which, we might add, is itself a parody, if not of Balzac’s text, then at least of the critical rigor displayed by Barthes’s structuralist colleagues. And while satirizing, in this manner, the tendency of writers of literary theory to give analytical priority to other theoretical texts over literary ones, Everett, in fact, stresses the importance of the literary text.

6In the novel, however, Everett strips the Callaloo text of its commentary and has Monk perform his parody in front of an audience of —we must assume— postmodernist writers, in this way (i.e., by withholding important information about the speaker’s motivation and intention) allowing an unexpected response from one participant, who calls Monk a “mimetic hack” and throws a bail of keys at him (Everett, Erasure 22). What that person does not seem to realize is that the paper is full of meta-theoretical comments, such as the concluding sentence:

And so we come to dismantling of the endeavor as the endeavor of the text at hand, Sarrasine, not being chosen as a model at all, but accepted as one treated in a way which in turn is a model for the treatment of other texts, as is this text. A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious. (Everett Erasure 21-22)

  • 5 See http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=59293&pageno=11; and http://www.gutenb (...)

7There is an additional turn of the screw, however, which concerns the title of the paper. In Chapter 7 of Erasure, i.e., immediately after the long major parodic insert, Monk presents some new ideas for a novel on the Satyricon (Everett, Erasure 153), which are almost literally based on the first two chapters of Petronius’s account (“Adventures of Encolpius and His Companions”)5 and in which he mentions a certain Fabricius Veiento, who, as we learn from Tacitus, was banished from Italy by Nero in AD 62 (and whose books were burnt) for satirizing senators and priests in parodies taking the forms of wills (cf. Forbes). Thus the “F/V” may well imply the dual parodic impulse on yet another level of discourse. Monk’s reaction to the hostile gesture of his colleague (and generally his attitude towards the entire audience at that conference) aptly reflects the quoted ending of the paper: it is a mixture of condescension, sadness, and indifference.

8Altogether, such a combination of double (or actually triple)-voiced discourse (Dentith 8) and ironical performance is paradigmatic of Everett’s use of parody in Erasure. It shows most conspicuously in the composition and fictional treatment of his central parodic text, the pseudo-naturalistic novel with the hilarious title My Pafology, which Monk has soon after changed to Fuck. Not only is this text inserted in its entire length, as a novel within the novel, but after “F/V” most of the minor parodies in Erasure are in some way or other related to My Pafology. There is, for example, a caricature of Oprah Winfrey in the presentation of Kenya Dunston’s talk-show with the successful female author of an “authentic” slice-of-life novel about the black experience (Everett, Erasure 60-62), which triggers Monk’s writing of his own parody of the ghetto novel; there is, later in the book, a raving review of Fuck by a certain Wayne Waxen in the New York Times (Everett, Erasure 288); and there are, above all, various activities related to the success of his book and its nomination for the National Book Award, which include several appearances by Monk in the mask of his mock author, Stagg R. Leigh, whose name, of course, is an allusion to Stagolee, the famous African American folk hero. Critical and public reception of parody are in this way parodied in turn, if one can still talk of parody at this point, which causes a multiple mirroring of textual and performative levels. For analytical purposes, it makes sense to separate these processes and to look first at the text within the text, the central parody, and discuss the performative aspects later. But even in the first step of this analysis, the distance between Everett as “real” author and Monk as “fictional” author sometimes demands a distinction between the two as far as the attribution of parodic acts is concerned.

I

  • 6 See Gysin, 1975:27-29, 134-142, 159-160.

9Despite its intriguing realistic account of Monk’s family life, Erasure is dominated by My Pafology, a parody based most conspicuously on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Sapphire’s Push, two texts which, apart from the fact that they deal with life in the black ghetto, have relatively little in common. Native Son is the first African American protest novel, covering a few weeks in the life of Bigger Thomas in Chicago, from the incidents leading to his accidental murder of white Mary Dalton to the moment before his execution. It combines a gripping crime story with scathing social critique, gothic landscapes, and intellectual debate, culminating in the creation of a grotesque figure who represents the exact opposite of the proverbial Uncle Tom.6 Push is a therapeutic novel taking place in Los Angeles and tracing the upwardly mobile progress of the multiply abused, illiterate pregnant teenage mother Precious Jones, helped by a concerned lesbian teacher to reach a point where she can write creative prose and handle her own fate. At first sight, it looks as if My Pafology makes use of plot elements of the first and of the narrative voice and language of the second. But the matter is, of course, more subtle.

10Most of My Pafology consists of rough action and even rougher dialogue. The action Monk lifts from Bigger Thomas’s story is exaggerated and vulgarized at the same time. Nineteen-year-old Van Go Jenkins, the protagonist of My Pafology, is a school drop-out who does not only exasperate his mother but dreams of killing her. He not only masturbates in the movie house but pursues an active sexual life: he boasts of having four babies from different women. He not only hangs around in a pool room with two friends and plans to rob a store; he gets into fights with the new lovers of his former girl friends, and towards the end he even kills the owner of a store. Under pressure he finds menial work at the villa of a rich real-estate agent by the name of Dalton, but the man is black. His daughter Penelope has him drive her and her boyfriend to the ghetto and forces him to join them for food and drinks in Ernie’s Kitchen, and, returning home, he has to carry the drunken girl in. Like Bigger, he is momentarily disturbed by her blind mother, but when she leaves, he does not kill the girl but “only” rapes her. Allusions to Bigger’s careful, though clumsy, attempts at blackmail and his murder of Bessie Mears are left out, as is the earlier famous gothic scene in the furnace room. Van Go is swiftly trapped in a TV talk show, where he is blamed for withholding “alimony.” He is accused of rape and chased by the police, sleeps in an abandoned building, shoots a Korean store owner, and for good measure also the junkie who claims to be his father. And while hiding out in a post office with seven hostages, he is trapped again by an artificially triggered air bag in the escape car provided for him. Thus, in terms of plot, My Pafology imitates only the first book of Native Son (“Fear”) and fragments of the second one (“Flight”), whereas the last one (“Fate”), covering Bigger’s trial, its socio-political ramifications, and the political and philosophical arguments between the state attorney and the defense lawyer, are left out. What might refer to a court scene is presented as a shallow television show, and, unlike Wright’s longwinded conclusion, Monk cuts off his account at the moment of Van’s capture. Some plot elements are trivialized, other ones are distorted, and some (especially the dreams) are displaced. A few of these transformations may be late 20th century adjustments to Wright’s protest novel, whereas others, such as the comparatively brief description of Van Go’s callous killings, seem to show the influence of TV crime movies with their tendency to telescope endings.

11Despite these parallels of plots, the most significant transformation in Monk/Everett’s parody of Native Son is that of the narrative voice. The selection and conversion of the plot elements is strongly tied to the way Van Go Jenkins is presented and to his asymmetrical fluctuation between victimizer and victim; as a matter of fact, some of the problematic issues of narrative voice in Native Son seem to have left their mark on the way Everett (or Monk) tells the story. In an illuminating article of 1987, Laura Tanner uses the contrast between the elegant metaphorical language of the narrator of Native Son, on the one hand, and Bigger’s painful attempts to concoct a ransom note in a half-way decent (white) English and his inability to explain his actions in front of white people, on the other, in order to expound the tension between the narrative voice and the main character (Tanner 133-35). Since rewriting Bigger’s thoughts in sophisticated language would distort them, Wright’s narrator attempts to transform them into emotions (Tanner 137). The rhetoric in this way tries to blend two different world views, a symbolical one and one based on experience (Tanner 138-39), which nevertheless fails to totally overcome the “distance between Bigger as character and Bigger as symbol” (Tanner 140). And this, in turn, has an impact on the “link between violence and articulation” (Tanner 141), especially with regard to the justification of Bigger’s murder of Mary as an act of creation, which has remained a central critical issue of this novel. Whether or not Wright’s novel thematizes the generic insufficiency of novels to deal with social matters that demand more direct protest cannot concern us here; suffice it to say that in Native Son the distance between the narrator and his protagonist produces a figure that is in turn characterized by its dualism, by inner tensions, which can be interpreted as a source of weakness or as a source of vitality, depending on the ideological or aesthetic position of the critic.

  • 7 The Faber & Faber edition has additional pagination for “My Pafology.” These page numbers are given (...)

12In contrast to Bigger, Van Go is able to tell his own story. This allows additional parodic distortion, especially by means of the language, whose satirical potential shows in the witty reductions of dialogue, e.g., the multiple exchange of expletives (Everett, Erasure7 86 [16], 110 [40]) or the hilarious names given to Van Go’s real and potential children (Everett, Erasure 94 [24], 131 [61]); on the other hand, it raises certain problems of transmutation. For one, it is no longer possible to justify violence as compensation for communicative inability. Secondly, there is none of the liberation of the character that one can, e.g., witness in Mark Twain’s shift from a third-person account of Huck Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Huck’s own telling of his life in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. On the contrary, largely due the first person narrative voice, Van Go comes across as a rather stereotypical ghetto youth, full of egoistical self-pity and casual disregard for his surroundings: “My name is Van Go Jenkins and I’m nineteen years old and I don’t give a fuck about nobody, not you, not my Mama, not the man. The world don’t give a fuck about nobody, so why should I?” (Everett, Erasure 74 [4]). A lot of this big talk is mere rhetoric, of course. In fact, as the following two passages show, Van Go remains in a similar social and economic rut as Bigger, although he seems a little more eloquent and less emotionally vague in phrasing it.

13In the passage from Native Son where Bigger is forced to enter Ernie’s Kitchen Shack with Mary Dalton and Jan Erlone, we read:

Bigger felt trapped. Oh Goddamn! He saw in a flash that he could have made all of this very easy if he had simply acted from the beginning as if they were doing nothing unusual. But he did not understand them; he distrusted them, really hated them. He was puzzled as to why they were treating him this way. But, after all, this was his job and it was just as painful to sit here and let them stare at him as it was to go in. (Wright 62)

14Van Go Jenkins emphasizes his financial situation and even tries to wax poetic, but his dilemma remains the same:

I be trapped. I be feelin like a little animal they found on the road some damn place. I’m pissed as hell now, but they gots money and I realize how important that be. Mr. Dalton got all the money in the world. And I ain’t got shit. I don’t wanna go in, but I do. I’m wonderin why they so interested in me and be actin so nice to me like this. The sun be bright and I feels like I be caught in a web of light. I follow them into the place called Ernie’s Kitchen. (Everett, Erasure 120 [50])

15To be sure, there are moments when even this simplified character shows inklings of a dual personality, for example when he thinks about one of his girl friends:

I love Cleona and I hate Cleona. There be two lil’ niggers in my head. Nigger A and Nigger B. Nigger A say, Be cool, bro, you know you ain’t gots no money, so just let this girl go on back to school and through maf class and English class and socle studies so she can get out and be sumpin. Just let her have a chance, one chance to be that nurse she always talkin about bein. But Nigger Β be laughin, say, Shit, take this bitch home to her house and hit it one times, two times. She got the nerve to be talkin to Jeep-nigger in front of you. Fuck that shit. (Everett, Erasure 78 [8])

16Van’s trouble comes from too often heeding the advice of “Nigger B”; Monk’s apparent lack of interest in “Nigger A” may point to the parodist’s indifference to the norm; whereas Everett, it seems, is more strongly concerned with the tension between the two than pulp fiction would allow. This also shows in the command of the written language that Monk attributes to his protagonist. And it shows especially in the use of the second target text that My Pafology parodics.

  • 8 Bernard Bell mentions possible additional precursor texts. See Bell 475-476.

17Circumstantial evidence permits the assumption that Van Go’s narrative voice and his language are modeled on Sapphire’s Push;8 yet in this case, the parody makes use of a transitional text, the fictional author Juanita Mae Jenkins’s We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, the bestseller that raises Monk’s hackles, which appears in Erasure in the form of two quotations and a review and thus causes additional complexity. Certain details in My Pafology, such as names or mental handicaps refer to either of the two precursor texts, the real one and its fictional parody. For example, Van Go’s surname is the same as that of the author of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto; his mother’s first name, Clareece, refers to the first name of Claireece Precious Jones, the heroine of Push (Sapphire 3). One of Van Go’s babies suffers from Down’s Syndrome (Everett, Erasure 74 [4]), as does the first daughter of Precious Jones (Sapphire 3); in We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, the heroine’s younger brother is mentally retarded (Everett, Erasure 46). But a closer look reveals remarkable differences between the three texts.

18Push is an uplift novel, starting with the narrator in a desperate situation and tracing the gradual improvement of her social and mental condition, which is accompanied and expressed by frequent contemplations of her personal problems and those of her class mates, and, what is most important, showing this improvement by means of her increasingly competent command of written English. Thus, what may be said to be parodicd in Everett’s novel is only the language of the early chapters of Sapphire’s book:

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ’n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.
I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’! (Sapphire 3)


I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t knowbody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am— vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for. (Sapphire 33)

19Strongly influenced by The Color Purple, this is an attempt to foreground the process of writing; it is thus different from the traditional use of black dialect in fiction. It is characterized by inconsistencies in grammar and spelling, but also by a wish to write correctly, as can be seen in the use of apostrophe, in the sporadic “correct” progressive forms (“getting,” “sucking”), and in the writer’s attempts to improve her vocabulary, as in phrases like “I don’t exist” or “vampire sucking the system’s blood.”

20Everett’s first parody of this kind of writing is characterized by exaggeration and ridicule. The heroine of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Sharonda F’rinda Johnson, whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story is praised by a fictional reviewer for its “haunting verisimilitude” (Everett, Erasure 46), writes in a style that is almost illiterate, at any rate much closer to direct speech:

My fahvre be gone since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover Juneboy. In da mornin’Juneboy never do brushes his teefus, so I gots to remind him. Because dat, Momma says I be the ’sponsible one and tell me that I gots to holds things togever while she be at work clean dem white people’s house. (Everett, Erasure 34)

  • 9 Informed readers may, of course, find sly allusions to the fiction of Everett’s friend John Edgar W (...)

21In this case the use of the apostrophes makes much less sense, especially, of course, since the reader is not supposed to assume that there is a development in writing skills in this novel.9 And spellings like “fahvre” and “teefus” seem to me instances of wilful exaggeration on the part of the parodist, rather than an attempt to show a protagonist’s fight with the language. I am no specialist in Black English, but “never do brushes his teefus” or “I gots to holds” seem to me hilarious distortions of spoken dialect. Together with the trite content, this callous use of the language provides the occasion for Monk to feel like vomiting.

22Monk’s own parody of Juanita Mae Jenkins’s style, combined with Everett’s of that of Sapphire, leads to yet another kind of writing, as is evident in one of the few introspective passages, describing Van Go’s emotions before he shoots his apparent father:

I can feel the rage swell up inside me. I hates this man. I hates my mama. I hates myself. I’m seein my face in his. I see the ape that stupid girls say they be fraid of. I see my long arms hangin down. I see eyes that dont care what happen tomorrow. I see myself rockin on my heels, waitin, waitin, waitin for sumpin I won’t recognize when it come. My only cure gone be death. I heard it all my life. I be hearin it now. I see Mama bleedin in my dream. I see my babies. I see Rexall, wifout a brain, growin up and axing " Why not me?" I see my daddy. I see myself. I shoot the muthafucka. Pop! In the gut. (Everett, Erasure 142 [72])

  • 10 Except, of course, for the hilarious enumeration of the chapters: Won, Too, Free, Fo, Fibe, Sex, Se (...)

23The use of anaphora, the tendency to use simple, loose sentences, the “false” verb forms, together with the self-reflexive impulse of the speaker/writer, may be interpreted as parodic allusions to Push. Compared to We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, however, the diction of My Pafology seems much less flawed;10 it is as if Monk, despite his effort to write a trashy novel, were trying to keep at least some modicum of effective command of the language. Or one might even say that the use of an intermediate parodic text serves Everett to invert the parodic process by allowing him to show the relative linguistic superiority of his own protagonist.

24The parody of the two female novels, the real and the fictive one, reveals a mixture of scorn and competition, which is to a large extent based on disgust and envy. It can be explained in terms of the internal logic of the plot of Erasure (Monk’s financial needs, his and Everett’s indignation at the success of trash fiction, etc.) and might also be interpreted as a polemic against the prevalent obsession of some contemporary African American authors with the black vernacular. The parodic parallels to Native Son, on the other hand, need additional internal and external justification. First of all, they make it possible for Monk to change the genre of his parody, namely to replace the uplift novel with a comparatively absurd black version of the “American Tragedy.” In this way he can counteract the therapeutic impulse on yet another level of discourse and imply a much gloomier social context. Secondly, they allow Everett to present the victimizer at least in part as a victim and thus to retain a certain tension within the stereotypical, character, which may evoke some degree of momentary sympathy on the part of the reader, despite Van Go’s aggressive behavior and his foul mouth. And thirdly, they provide a vehicle for the expression of a mixture of frustration and anger, especially on the part of Everett that goes beyond mere envy and disgust and that is probably the source of the piquant force of the text (Cf. Russett 364). The triple-voiced character of the parody thus allows Monk to protest against the imitation of protest and to use imitations of the vernacular against imitation of the vernacular in general, but the commercial success of the parody is due to its failure as a parody, and this causes his predicament as an author.

II

25My Pafology ends with the protagonist’s televised capture and his elation at being on public display: “The cameras be full of me. I on TV. I say, ‘Hey Mama.’ I say, ‘Hey, Baby Girl. Look at me. I on TV’” (Everett, Erasure 150 [80]). A terribly ironic transformation of Bigger Thomas’s black existentialist justification of his killings at the close of Native Son, this last comment by Van Go Jenkins provides a link to the plot of Erasure, at the end of which Monk says: “I chose one of the TV cameras and stared into it. I said, ‘Egads, I’m on television’” (Everett, Erasure 294). It also provides a link to the second aspect of my analysis, the performance of parody, or more specifically, Monk’s performance as best-selling author and the parts that the editors, critics, producers, and journalists play in dealing with the fate of the dubious book. Despite a number of parodic inserts and despite many literary allusions, this part of the general plot of Erasure does not involve the actual imitation of other texts but the handling of a parody, the interactions of its author with the publication industry, and so “satire” may be a better term to use in this context.

26Typically enough, even the concept of satire has undergone significant revision in the last few decades, especially in a poststructuralist context. Reaching from lenient amusement to harsh anger, satire (or its explanation) as a mode or as a device has developed from the censoring of folly or vice by means of irony or wit to provocation and scapegoating in the context of ritual and magic (Cf. Elliott, Gill, Griffin). Whereas in earlier theory and practice the standards and norms of social, political, and cultural behavior were clearly recognizable and thus the aims straightforwardly related to praise and blame, recent views have begun to emphasize the complex and paradoxical qualities of satire. Whether intended as calculated inquiry into a state of affairs or, more multifariously, as a mode of provocation, satire, as it is conceived today, includes calculated “difficulty,” makes use of “unstable irony,” and tends to acquire “a momentum of its own” (Griffin 64). In this way, especially with regard to the multiple processes it is said to include, the definitions of satire seem to have moved in the same direction as those of parody. The satire in Erasure should be seen in this context, although compared to the rambunctious tone of his parody and compared to the comical accounts of the meetings and discussions of the award-giving procedure, Monk’s performance as a fake author (and Everett’s satirical description of it) is comparatively restrained, which has a lot to do with the rather bleak condition of his professional and family life.

27Against his own convictions and against better judgment, Yul, Monk’s agent, sends the manuscript of My Pafology to Random House, and the next thing Monk learns is that he is offered an advance of $ 600’000 and that a senior editor wants to meet “Mr. Leigh” (Everett, Erasure 155). This triggers off his performance of a pathologically shy author, who only communicates on the phone, Monk being torn between his need to have all that money and his “hostility toward an industry so eager to seek out and sell such demeaning and soul-destroying drivel” (Everett, Erasure 156). He gives one reading in person, but then, agreeing to appear in Kenya Dunston’s talk show, he insists on hiding behind a veil and refuses to answer any questions. Only when he has to meet a producer who will pay three million dollars for the movie rights does he show up in person, but he concocts a fake identity and impresses the man by a mixture of stylish behavior and aggressive stance. Later even his insistence on a new, obscene, title for the novel is accepted, and the climax of the farce is reached when despite his remonstrations as a member of the panel of judges, his anonymous book is selected for the Award.

28The anger and frustration that feeds Monk’s performance seems to come from two different sources: first of all, from reactions to the novel, by editors, journalists, and business people, who praise its rawness and honesty, its authenticity, who seem to be unaware that it is a parody, let alone know anything about a novel called Native Son; and secondly, from the financial duress under which he suffers, which forces him to give in to the economics of success that he so much abhors, and which compels him to consider his parodic novel “not as a work of art, but as a functional device, its appearance a thing to behold, but more a thing to mark, a warning perhaps, a gravestone certainly” (Everett, Erasure 234). Hence the new title, Fuck, is not only a parody of Sapphire’s Push (and, perhaps of other four-letter titles like Jazz or Love), but it is also an expression of the ultimate provocation of a hypocritical society that is ready to sacrifice its cultural and behavioral standards to the laws of profit.

29Like the book he has written, the mask Monk puts on, or the role he assumes, causes more problems than he has bargained for. This has something to do with the name he has chosen for his fake author, Stagg R. Leigh. As Cecil Brown shows in his illuminating recent study, the name Stagolee encompasses the transformation of a famous criminal into an authentic African American folk hero. Lee Shelton, the St. Louis pimp who on Christmas day, in 1895, shot Billy Lyons in a bar because he grabbed his white Stetson, became the object of “ritualistic performance” (Brown 7) in ballads, blues, folksongs, and rap, “one of the earliest examples of the antihero,” a representative of the counterculture working outside and against the white system (Brown 13). He is the Bad Nigger stereotype (Brown 201-6) transformed into a “model for achieving manhood” (Brown 208); a paradigm of black militancy, his sexual energy invested with dignity and pride. Moreover, through his critical acclaim in countless black performative genres, he has become a cultural and political hero, and above all a powerful archetype of the African American oral tradition. Like other trickster figures in black folklore, he is an embodiment of ambiguity and paradox: sexually promiscuous and callous in his actions, he at the same time represents strength, endurance, and courage; above all, despite his showy attire, he remains invisible:

Stagolee is looking at the world, but he is not visible; these facts account both for his “hidden” social history and for the persistence of the myth, for Stagolee is antimyth, the discontinuous, the speech act, and the blues aesthetic. Stagolee becomes the allegory of the “player,” the mack, who never can be destroyed because his existence is conditioned on his not being noticed. He is the shadow....

It is this status of being both the viewing subject and the subject incapable of being viewed that creates the powerful energy known as the African-American male. Thus, Stagolee is a perspective, a point of view. (Brown 225-227)

30Monk’s assumption of this illustrious name as a pseudonym for the author of his book and his performance of the part are fraught with irony and additional ambiguity. On the one hand, the figure represents the sense of exclusion and the subversive attitudes that relate it to the precursor text and the parody itself, i.e., to Bigger Thomas (Brown 201-6) and, in a limited way, also to Van Go Jenkins; on the other, Monk’s arrogation of such an extremely powerful mask contrasts strongly not only with the pathetic performance of his protagonist but also with his own performative caginess as fake author. The only reason, one must assume, that the disguise works at all is the apparent total ignorance of his interlocutors and audiences as to the origins of his name. But, of course, why should they know of Stagolee, if they don’t even have an inkling of Native Son? The irony of this state of affairs is beautifully demonstrated when Monk, in his role as Stagg, convinces the movie producer Wiley Morgenstein that in spite of his comparatively pale skin, his smart attire, and his fashionable choice of food he is the “real thing” by probably cribbing from another variant of the Stagolee story, one appearing in a blues version, in which the hero “bullied two Chicago police down/with a ten cent pocket knife” (Brown 151, 198): “They say I killed a man with the leather awl of a Swiss army knife” (Everett, Erasure 245). Moreover, whereas Cecil Brown observes a development in the use of the Stagolee myth from a third person account to a first person narration (Brown 221), Monk is careful to shift to a third person account every time he assumes the part of Stagg, in this way creating a kind of distance that allows him to tell the tale as if he were a reciter of a Stagolee toast or ballad as well as to cover up his ego on the written page. When the two functions, that of Monk as a person and that of Monk as a performer of Stagolee, join, the author becomes the butt of his own satire.

31But Monk’s self-satire is of a melancholic kind, and this, to be sure, has to do with the disparity between his two forms of writing, the postmodern one and the naturalistic/vernacular one. It is one thing to satirize the vernacular, but it is another thing to have to perform in the role of one of the archetypes of the oral tradition, if one’s writing is steeped in the intricacies of postmodernist literary concerns. How uncomfortable he feels is evident when he prepares himself for his first appearance as Stagg R. Leigh:

I wondered how far I should take my Stagg Leigh performance. I might in fact become a Rhinehart [sic!], walking down the street and finding myself in store windows. I yam what I yam. I could throw on a fake beard and a wig and do the talk shows, play the game, walk the walk, shoot the jive. No, I couldn’t.
I would let Mr. Leigh continue his reclusive, just-out-of-the-big-house ways. He would talk to the editor a few more times, then disappear, like down a hole. (Everett,
Erasure 184)

32It is at this point that the influence of one of his two patronymic ancestors becomes manifest. Like the Invisible Man, Monk is momentarily beguiled by the possibilities offered by B.P. Rinehart, Ralph Ellison’s inverted parody of Melville’s Confidence Man, a combination of professional lover, hipster, zoot-suiter, killer, numbers runner, pimp, and “spiritual technologist.” In Invisible Man, Rinehart does not appear in person; rather, the protagonist is mistaken for him, when he dons a pair of dark sun-glasses. These glasses not only transform him in the eyes of his beholders but also transform the world around him. Rinehart, as his two initials (which stand for Bliss and Proteus) suggest, may be taken as a metaphysical version of Stagolee, with ties to the Legba figure of Vodoun and the false savior myth. When the Invisible Man looks at the world through these dark glasses, he begins to doubt the reality of truth and the truth of reality and becomes aware of the mask’s infinite possibilities (Ellison 364-377; Cf. Gysin, The Grotesque 254-258). Rinehart, as the personified mask, puts the mirror up to the Invisible Man’s identitarian dilemma, which the latter cannot solve, but from which he can escape into a cellar.

33The story of the Invisible Man hovers in the background of Monk’s increasingly difficult life, shining through in momentary flashes of fragments from the earlier novel. This is a different kind of parody, if it is a parody at all. These allusive parallels from Chapter 9 onwards begin to act as signals and signposts of the progressively ambivalent condition in which Monk finds himself, a condition which is dominated by the clashes between political radicalism and aesthetic experiment, between commercial success and artistic betrayal (Everett, Erasure 176, 182): “I was a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art defined as an exercise in racial self-expression.” (Everett, Erasure 238) In order to maintain his artistic integrity, in order to save himself, he realizes, he is forced to get rid of his alter ego, to kill Stagg R. Leigh by revealing his real identity; the parallel to Invisible Man is again obvious: “I had to defeat myself to save my self, my own identity. I had to toss a spear through the mouth of my own creation, silence him forever, kill him, press him down a dark hole and have the world admit that he never existed” (Everett, Erasure 287; cf. Ellison 422-423). And so he decides to accept the prize in person, without disguise. Most of these parallels stem from the last chapters of Invisible Man, in which the protagonist is confronted with riot, chaos, and existential crisis. Towards the end of Erasure, cryptic captions such as “Bread and Wine,/Bread and Wine,/Your cross ain’t nearly so/Heavy as mine,” “Behold the Invisible” (Ellison 334, 374; Everett, Erasure 238, 245), or references to the hole in the ground (Everett, Erasure 184, 265, 287) give way to linked allusions to the Invisible Man’s apocalyptic nightmare of castration on the last pages of Ellison’s novel. Stagg Leigh’s final appearance is as a mirror image, confronting Monk with the words that Jack, the white leader of the Brotherhood in Invisible Man, addresses to the protagonist after his castration: “‘Now you’re free of illusion,’ Stagg said. ‘How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions?’ / ‘I know those lines,’ I said aloud, knowing I was saying them to no one. [...] ‘The answer is Painful and empty, I said” (Everett, Erasure 293). That the chimera of Stagolee speaks the words of a white betrayer is the ultimate irony; it presents the avatar of vernacular power as a pawn in the hands of the white commercial establishment.

III

34Significant novels about African American writers are not too numerous. Two of John A. Williams’s works come to mind: The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), the imagined biography of Richard Wright, with its haunting “discovery” of a secret national plot to eliminate the black population of America, and his !Click Song (1982), a more mainstream approach to the problems facing a gifted black writer. Ishmael Reed touched on the theme in his postmodern slave narrative Flight to Canada (1976). More germane to the thematics of Erasure may be two other postmodern approaches. Clarence Major’s fourth novel with the telling title My Amputations (1986) anticipates Everett’s concern with the predicament of the African American novelist because of its interest in role playing, in the relationship of writing and art, and in the “conflict between ghetto values and artistic ambition” (Roney 70). Moreover, it also relates back to the author of Invisible Man, the name of the author/protagonist being Mason Ellis, a fragmented acronym of “Ma(jor) Ellison.” Despite the different plots of the two novels, there are additional significant thematic links, such as the many inserts of fragmentary conversations between artists and philosophers in Erasure. Swindling in literature (Major 72), the theme suggested by Everett’s epigraph from Mark Twain, is one of the recurrent themes of My Amputations as well. The ambiguity of the relationship between author and work is suggested in the complex role Mason Ellis is playing: he is either an impostor pursued by the real author or he is the real author pursuing an impostor on an extended lecture tour across the globe; in addition, the abbreviation M.E. can be read as ME, whereas the alter ego is called C.M., which are the real author’s initials (Klawans 77-78). As Stuart Klawans points out, “Mason, too, banishes the author” (Klawans 84), or, as one might say, he puts him “under erasure.” And, Major, as a matter of fact, does the same thing with his protagonist. The end of the book finds Mason in an African village, carrying a secret letter that says “Keep this nigger!” The old chief, who discloses this message to him, tells him: “‘One can carry the disease one covers oneself against on the fingers one uses to secure the cover. You, my son, have come to the end of your running.’” Considering that Mason has been trapped in Liberia, the one African nation founded by returning American slaves, the last sentence of the novel assumes additional ironic significance: “The hut smelled of, of, cow rocks, turtle piss and smoke”" [sic!] (Major 204-205; cf. Gysin, “Enigma” 187).

35Ten years later, Paul Beatty published The White Boy Shuffle, in which a pitch-black Californian bourgeois whiz kid is transplanted into inner-city Los Angeles, where he confuses his peers by his intellectual superiority and his precociousness as a writer. A highly allusive spoof on the family novel and especially on the current obsession with black autobiography, Gunnar Kaufmann’s tale covers the boy’s transformation from a sarcastic, insolent, and occasionally cynical teenager into a baseball star and poet with a desire for cross-cultural decency. The poem he sprays on the wall separating the ghetto from upper-middle-class housing turns him into a representative of the downtrodden, but the publication of a book entitled Watermelanin and the speech he delivers against the acquittal of the policemen who mistreated Rodney King has frightening side-effects: his endorsement of freedom by self-destruction causes a number of suicides, including that of his father. He discloses a secret plan of the white establishment to get rid of the black population by means of a third atomic bomb and goads the perpetrators of US state terrorism by having white concentric circles painted on the roofs of the neighborhood, with his own home as the bull’s eye. Again the success of an African American author has inverse effects; the combination of “white” intellectualism and hiphop jargon reflects the precarious position of the late postmodern writer on the boundary between literary and vernacular traditions.

36All three novels, My Amputations, The White Boy Shuffle, and Erasure thematize issues of the African American writer’s identity and art, such as problems of authenticity, the tensions between literacy and orality, the classical tradition and the vernacular one, realism and postmodernism, and more specifically the absurdity of having to write in a racial idiom, be that black, white, or rainbow-colored, and they debate these issues in styles that are highly allusive. All three protagonists come to some kind of dead end, denying the rebirth that Ellison still envisages as a possibility in the Epilogue to Invisible Man. Different from the other two, Erasure highlights the process of parody in making the fate of a text imitate and satirize other texts central to the fate of the author. Its satirical elements are less bizarre, also less mordant, perhaps, than those of its two predecessors, and yet the outlook for the author/protagonist is just as forbidding, for despite his decision in favor of truth and honesty, the sacrifice of his alter ego does not actually release him from his obligations to the publishing industry; it rather seals his fate by betraying him as a serf of the system.

37Some scholars and reviewers have pointed out the critical significance of the title of the novel, Erasure, referring to the Derridean use of the term “sous rapture” as an indication that a specific word is unreliable and indispensable at the same time, but applying the term more generally, sometimes even metaphorically, to the matters satirized in the novel. As Christopher Norris has commented on this usage in Derrida’s work: “The marks of erasure acknowledge both the inadequacy of the terms employed —their highly provisional status— and the fact that thought simply cannot manage without them in the work of deconstruction” (Norris 69). The category put “under erasure,” in Everett’s novel, according to one of Everett’s interpreters, may be “the label ‘African-American novelist’” (Russett, “Percival Everett” n.p.) or even “race” (Russett, “Race under Erasure” 358). Yet without stretching a point unduly such a reading might also be applied to the two novels mentioned above. Most postmodern African American novels call the concept of race into question, and there are, after all, quite a few African American authors who for various reasons disdain being earmarked as racial authors. Likewise, the satirical treatment of the publishing industry, of ignorance and bad taste among the publishers and critics, of the economics of success stifling any creativity in an author, even of the fundamentalist strain in criticism, the tunnel vision focusing on “representation” of the Black Experience alone, have been lambasted by recent authors from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo onwards. What singles out the concept of erasure in Erasure is that it is the devices of parody and satire that are themselves put “under erasure,” the melancholic strain (partly caused by the disasters in the history of Monk’s family) undermining the satirical approach, just as the satirical performance of parody leads to the erasure of the implied author’s reputation. Erasure, after all, depends on the parody’s not being understood as a parody, creating conflicts not only in the author but in his readers as well. Percival Everett’s Erasure is thus a satire on the fate of parody in a literary world that exploits black essentialism for commercial reasons and caters to an audience that no longer understands the function of irony and satire.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Beatty, Paul. 1996. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Random House.

Bell, Bernard W. 2003. Review of Erasure, by Percival Everett. African American Review 37.2-3: 474-477.

Bellow, Saul. 1966. The Adventures of Augie March. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Brown, Cecil. 2003. Stagolee Shot Billy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dentith, Simon. 2000. Parody. London: Routledge.

Ellison, Ralph. 1952. Invisible Man. New York: Random House.

Elliott, Robert C. 1960. The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Everett, Percival. 1999. “F/V. Placing the Experimental Novel.” Callaloo 22.1: 18-23.

—. 2003 [2001]. Erasure. London: Faber and Faber.

Forbes, Clarence A. 1936. “Books for the Burning.” Transactions of the American Philological Society 67: 114-125. http://www.tertullian.org/articles/forbes_books_for_the_burning.htm (accessed 01.25.06).

Gill, James E. 1995 Cutting Edges. Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Griffin, Dustin. 1994. Satire. A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Gysin, Fritz. 1975. The Grotesque in the American Negro Novel: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Bern: Francke Verlag.

—. 1999. “The Enigma of the Return.” Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. Ed. Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pedersen. New York: Oxford University Press, (183-190).

—. 2004. “From Modernism to Postmodernism. Black Literature at the Crossroads.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Ed. Maryemma Graham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, (139-155).

Klawans, Stuart. 1994. “‘It was a weird example of Art’: My Amputations as Cubist Confession. African American Review. 28.1: 77-87.

Major, Clarence. 1986. My Amputations. New York and Boulder: Fiction Collective.

Melville, Herman. 1964 Moby-Dick. Ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Morrison, Toni. 1992. Jazz. London: Chatto & Windus.

—. 2003. Love. London: Chatto & Windus.

Norris, Christopher. 1991. Deconstruction. Theory and Practice. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge.

Reed, Ishmael. 1996 [1972]. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Scribner.

—. 1989 [1976]. Flight to Canada. 1976. New York: Atheneum.

Roney, Lisa. 1994. “The Double Vision of Clarence Major, Painter and Writer.” African American Review. 28.1: 65-75.

Russett, Margaret. “Percival Everett: The African-American Novelist under Erasure.” http://usconsulate-istanbul.org.tr/reppub/mewamstud/mrussett.html (12.05.2005).

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Notes

1 To complete the allusive melee, we later learn that his mother’s maiden name was Parker (Everett, Erasure 172).

2 “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that sombre city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclytus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles” (Bellow 7).

3 “I could never tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe” (Mark Twain, quoted in Everett, Erasure 1).

4 “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth” (Twain 1).

5 See http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=59293&pageno=11; and http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=59293&pageno=12 (12.05.2005).

6 See Gysin, 1975:27-29, 134-142, 159-160.

7 The Faber & Faber edition has additional pagination for “My Pafology.” These page numbers are given between square brackets.

8 Bernard Bell mentions possible additional precursor texts. See Bell 475-476.

9 Informed readers may, of course, find sly allusions to the fiction of Everett’s friend John Edgar Wideman. Juneboy is a character in Sent for You Yesterday, and the incident reported in the fictional review of the book, of Juneboy’s being killed by a “bullet passing through his cherished Michael Jordan autographed basketball” very probably refers to a related scene in Wideman’s Two Cities.

10 Except, of course, for the hilarious enumeration of the chapters: Won, Too, Free, Fo, Fibe, Sex, Seben, Ate, Nine, Tin.

Auteur

Professor emeritus of English and American Literature at the University of Bern, Switzerland. He has written two books, /The Grotesque in American Negro Fiction//: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison/ (1975) and /Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy/ (1983), has edited/Apocalypse/ (1999), /Black Liberation in the Americas/ (with Christopher Mulvey, 2001), and /Complexions of Race /(with Cynthia S. Hamilton, 2005), and has published many articles on American literature. His research interests are boundaries in recent African American fiction and the interfaces of Black fiction and Black Jazz.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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