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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

I. To Write and to Laugh

The One That Got Away: a Number Adventure, or a Semantic Experiment?

Maïca Sanconie


In this counting rhyme about a herd of numerals, “one” becomes a signifier that can be interpreted in many ways. The desire to strip all representation from the naming process in order to construct a riddle is embedded in the desire to deconstruct literary language. As representation is entrusted to the illustrator, the text seems part of a transfigured discourse that associates the representation of desire with the desire to paint/draw with words.

Texte intégral

1The One That Got Away is an album for children aged from four to eight. It is a ballad that tells the story of a whole herd of numerals, “ones,” to be exact, that are rounded up by three cowboys. In the night, the biggest one escapes from the corral. The cowboys look for him all over the place, then see him at the top of a mountain, but fail to capture him again. When they go back to the corral, the rest of the herd has undergone a transformation. Instead of several ones, there is only an eight, whose shape also represents a double zero. The book is illustrated by Dirk Zimmer, a German-born artist and writer. This article does not examine how the album was created but the synergy created by the symbiotic interaction of text and illustrations.

  • 1 The One That Got Away is not an isolated example of the author’s multiple interests. His curiosity (...)

2In the tradition of wordplay and nursery rhymes, this album revolves around the ambiguity of the simplest word: “one”. But both text and images contribute to make the counting process impossible and disorganize the reader’s sense of space. By playing with perception and nonsense in clever switches of words and digits,1 Percival Everett asserts that our perception of the world is totally subtended to its semantic representation.

3Everett explores the figuration of words, mischievously choosing “one” as a signifier that can designate anything and contain an extraordinary possibility of meanings. By homonymy, “one” can be a person, an object, or a numeral; it works as a grammatical substitute as well as a point of departure for all types of narratives. The children reading this album are confronted with a riddle that can only be solved by an adult, explaining the different meanings and uses of the word “one”.

4The laid-back presentation of the text and Dirk Zimmer’s illustrations, referring to popular ballads of the wild West, aim at seducing the reader and deny the possibility of a simple and straightforward narrative, putting logical language under constant erasure.

The characters

5The characters are divided into three groups: the hunted and the hunters, and the observers. The hunted are multiple “ones”, that is to say creatures recognizable as the same species who have a chunky geometrical form evoking the numeral one. In the story, two creatures play an important role: the first one to be caught, (“a strong one”, “a good one”), who is captured and photographed, and “the biggest one”, who escapes the corral, and is the “one that got away”. The other ones or the herd of ones are qualified as “one and another one”, or “many ones”. The group of hunters are the cowboys, who are not named. They are just called “they”, or “he”. Two of them have black beards, the third looks rather feminine, has long straight hair and wears glasses. His appearance is a cross between a hippie and an intellectual. They all have ropes and one of them has a guitar.

6There are also the animals. Horses, of course, the cowboys’ dog, and the inhabitants of the landscapes: birds, mice, lizards, insects, snakes, rabbits, coyotes, bats, and snails. They appear only in the illustrations, and contribute to divert the reader from the story, as they are often playful, but function as witnesses of this strange search. Some of them evoke danger, such as the obvious fear of the rabbit looking in at the right angle on the bottom of page 4, expressing the sense of dread and impotence the captured “one” must feel. And on p. 7, a vulture is perched up on a branch in mid air: both the bird and the branch are represented as silhouettes, totally blackened. Most of the time, animals are just observing the scene, turned towards it either from the forefront or from the background. They are often associated with the various colored numerals frequently appearing as well, in the trees, behind the rocks, shown talking together, arguing, looking at the humans’ doings, frowning, crying, trembling, growling, moving within the space of the margin as if they were able to come at will in and out of the pictures. For example, on p. 3 there are three “twos” scuttering away in the left angle, as the first “one” is struggling against the rope; p. 5, five “sixes” are rolling in the grass at the left angle, while a “five” and a backwards “five” seem hung over a rock at the right angle; p. 6, two backwards “sixes” seem to play on a rock near a deep crevice. The fact that the numerals appear backwards, as if one were looking at them in a mirror, emphasizes their playful dimension and introduces doubt. What are we looking at, really? This cannot be real and is only the produce of the author’s imagination.

7The play between form and meaning is everywhere. For example, p. 12, the cowboys’ boots take on the shape of the numeral “one”; p. 13, the cacti look like waving human figures, and on p. 14, where we learn that “on a night when the moon was full, one jumped the fence and got away” (in fact it tumbles —probably noisily— over the fence), we see cowboys sleeping serenely under a starry sky (and so does their watchdog!), grinning horses, an intrigued owl perched alongside with opossums sleeping soundly, hanging heads down from a leafless branch far too weak for them to be safe. This interplay of form and signification producing multiple meanings emphasizes a decisive aspect of the album based on the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

The setting

8The setting is that of a Southwestern adventure, with canyons, mountains, waterholes, cacti, and some barren trees in a generally green landscape. Architectural elements such as stairs and bridges materialize the various passages that articulate the narrative. The most strikingly nonsensical of these elements is the episode of the missing stair on the mountain:

Partway up, a stair was missing. ‘Oh dear’, they said, looking around. We must find a stair. They decided which of them should go back down the mountain and he took off like a shot. He went to a hole in the ground and dropped down the loop of his lariat. He pulled up a stair. It was a stairwell. He took the stair back up the mountain and they put it in place (21-24).

9Zimmer’s illustrations emphasize the fantastic aspect of the story. The missing stair is a deep crevice in the rock against a background of high-peaked mountains. The cowboy who “takes off like a shot” rides down a sloping diagonal that seems almost vertical, and the angle of the stairs seems horizontal. Everything is amiss, except the generous providential “stairwell”, which works as another destructuring element of reality. Zimmer literally represents a broken wooden stair with part of a handrail lifted out of a man-built hole, a well, in the ground. The association between the depth of a well and the height of the mountain is drawn to seem totally unrealistic.

10In the other part of the jagged landscape, even though obviously already conquered by men, only a few fences and the corral attest to human presence. There is only a village in the distance, and it resembles a typical European hamlet with steep-roofed houses rather than a Southwestern town. Compared with the stereotypical rendering of the wild West landscape, it obviously stems from the illustrator’s German origin and culture. For that matter, the representation of stairs carved in the mountain or down in the ground may allude to the presence of pre-Colombian civilizations.

The language

11The language used by the cowboys is a country language of the Far West, with such words as “howdy” and “lariat”. The cowboys’ ideas seem as simple as their language: they want to find and capture “one”, then a herd of them. They start counting them up only when one “one” is missing. This is how we learn that there were nine “ones”, since eight are left. The original herd shown in the illustration before the capture was composed of fourteen “ones”, seventeen in the scene of the capture on p. 10 and nine inside the corral on p. 11. The book thus functions as a counting-out rhyme, but in a disorderly way, as if to confuse the reader. The title of the book suggests an absence even before the reader knows who is missing. And the whole book is built on this absence and on the desire to catch and keep the missing “one”. The world where the pursuit takes place is full of symbols and dangers such as holes, missing stairs, crevices, not to mention the act of pursuit itself, with lassos and corrals. There is no safe place and there is no way “one” can be held in captivity. The hunters/cowboys are constantly surprised by spatial restrictions, whether they are expressed in the text (i.e.: “a stair was missing”) or in the illustrations (i.e.: several crevices, and p. 16, in the middle of the grass, a strange square hole from which a flight of stairs runs down into the darkness beyond).


12The images follow the hide and seek play with signification that is present within the text, and the illustrator constantly plays with the form of the zero. On the title page, we see a cow-boy fishing with his lasso into a hole as two birds look from a dead tree and his dog watches him intently. The line drawn by the lasso evokes the form of the numeral one. Then the circle of the black hole evokes the circle of the letter O that is in the word One. This circle also symbolizes ZerO. In other words, the “one” is both present and absent. We know that there was “one” but we are informed that he has gone away, and therefore we see no one, which is a zero, or a hole. Consequently, the word “one” is equal neither to its representation nor to its sign. It also reminds us of the game consisting in recognizing a form hidden in a landscape. Where is “one” in this picture? In the form of the rope? Within the hole? The text reinforced by the images can be read as saying something quite different from what it appears to be saying: “where is the reader looking at this text? what is the act of reading? which illusion are we in?” Especially as the book cover we have just turned open shows a mounted cowboy looking through a field glass from the top of a bluff, while the back cover shows another rider sleepily smoking a corncob pipe, his guitar with a broken string slung over his back.

13Turning to the title page again, we can also see another “one” in the shape of the barren tree on the right. So that would make two “ones”. There are also two characters: the cowboy and his dog, two insects: the butterfly and the bee, and two birds on the branch. The wheel shape of the letter O is echoed by the shape of the capital G and the other O in Got, so that the words seem actually to move from left to right, while the eye is invited to read the image from the red letters in One, that lead to the lasso, then to the tree. So we already have the terms of the riddle on this first page: “One” can be anybody and be anywhere. And, as “one” can also be added to another type of “one” to make a pair or to suggest the possibility of a double, or even a multiple that is either of the same nature or even identical, “One”, then, becomes a disturbing figure of ubiquity.

14The illustrator also plays an important role in representing all types of numbers so that the child reading the book is invited to recognize these numbers, or find them within the pictures. This could lead us to the conclusion that Everett has written a parable of the impossibility or invalidity of any unilateral interpretation of any text. There is never only “one” meaning, signification or interpretation; but rather, the work is always open (again, the “O”, “Open,” the circular form) to multiple interpretations and offers many different meanings to its readers. Its appearance or its designation are one and same thing. The numeral “one” should be only the beginning of a series but it exists here only in relation to “many”. In that herd of ones, there is no beginning and no end. “One” cannot be counted, cannot be defined by its situation after zero or before two. It can be qualified (“first”, “big”, “new”), added to or substracted from other “ones” whose nature is identical. For that matter, human characters in the story do not have names either, and the place they ride in is not named. Landscape is described in a very vague, generic way: “the canyon,” “the waterhole”, “a mountain”. The story is predicated on the desire to strip all representations from the naming process, in order to reconstitute a riddle clearly expressed on p. 25: “Finally, they reached the top, but no one was there.” This evokes Odysseus’s name riddle to the Cyclops, when he said that his name was “No One.” The author thus organizes the very disappearance of his main character, “the one”, with a simple grammatical turn into the negative, “no one”. The ballad becomes a parody of the Homeric epic as well as a veiled message to the reader where the author himself refers to his literary heritage. On the title page, there already is the representation of an absence. It is a hole again, but a vertical one, a crack in the wall, almost a gigantic keyhole to peep through. The reader then reads the page from the bottom up, from the title and names up to the stage level, or the bridge level where the cowboys ride. This setting is meaningfully organized. For at the bottom of the crack, half hiding behind the rock and in the company of a lizard, a parrot, a frog and a snake, is the “one” that got away. It is smiling too, so the reader can be reassured that this is only a game, in spite of the threatening gap in the wall, the presence of strange animals and the proverbial snake —a satanic interface in biblical iconography. These associations also evoke a lost paradise. The reader is invited to look through the keyhole, into the subterranean world above which the adult cowboys ride endlessly. The keyhole also suggests a forbidden story, one that must not be seen, thus establishing two levels of reading: the apparently playful level, and the hidden, dangerous but fascinating level.

Object of desire

15The time cycle of the story is unclear, as in most fairy tales or nursery rhymes. There is only the evocation of day and night: “On the first day out” (p. 3), “Then, on a night when the moon was full” (p. 12), and “In the morning” (p. 14). The sense of time is elusive and although the rope-armed cowboys/hunters symbolize strength and power, they fail to subordinate their prey. Hierarchy seems as impossible between humans and animals as it is for the counting process. The reader is constantly brought back to the hidden signification of language that seems to be totally unreliable in this representation of nature where man is an intruder, trying to impose a logic which, obviously, does not count...

16“One” thus turns into a figure of speech, a trope, a destabilizing logic. The referential use of language is questioned, and meaning is displaced from one literal sign to another. This displacement directs us to the différance defined by Derrida, as opposed to logocentrism within the system of signification: “What we note as différance will thus be the movement of play that produces (and not by something that is simply an activity) these differences, these effects of différence.... Différance is the nonfull, nonsimple ‘origin’; it is the structured and differing origin of différences. Rien n’est à l’origine”, Derrida said. There is nothing at the origin, and the readers are confronted to this zero, the empty circle that will become double at the end of the album. “One” is designated as an arbitrary sign that can be interpreted in many ways, and the whole album shows how language is unable to reflect truth in an absolute way. Everett deconstructs the literal language he uses and demolishes the principle of unity that underlies the structure of being one. Interpreting the text even further leads us to consider another form of “one”, the Roman numeral for one that can be written as “I”, the nominative case of the first person. Thus the one in the text is the author himself, who appears as an object of desire who cannot be caught. One can only wonder whether Everett asserts in this album his function as an author, an “object of appropriation” as defined by Michel Foucault in What’s an Author?:

It is as if the author, at the moment he was accepted into the social order of property which governs our culture, was compensating for his new status by reviving the older bipolar field of discourse in a systematic practice of transgression and by restoring the danger of writing which, on another side, had been conferred the benefits of property.

17Everett deconstructs his own literary discourse while constantly alluding to its uniqueness. An author among many, as the “one” in the album, he plays with language to refer to the mythical “No one”, at the top of the mountain, thus reminding the reader of the author’s status. “Of course,” as Roland Barthes affirms in The Pleasure of the Text, “it very often happens that representation takes desire itself as an object of imitation; but then, such desire never leaves the frame, the picture; it circulates among the characters...” The object of desire in this album is both the language itself, that cannot be entirely mastered, and the author in his quintessence: the “one”, unique and yet part of the broader community (or shall we say herd) of authors. Additionally, the very words of the title of the book are ambiguous and could refer to the title of a romance: the “one” then is the (obscure) object of desire, that got away and that is regretted or mourned.

18This album also plays with the Heideggerian notion that “language speaks us”, rather than the opposite complacency, that we speak the language. By coming within the framework of the oral tradition of nursery rhymes, it reinforces the pleasure proposed to children while learning the language. “[M]an speaks in that he responds to language”, Heidegger said. Children are encouraged to respond to these pulls and counting jingles to penetrate the mysteries of language and its poetic dimension.


19Dirk Zimmer’s illustrations contribute to enhance the complexity of this communicative discourse, by playing with volumes and using broken lines. The drawings are built on a variety of levels to create perspective within a frame. In the title page image, the only perspective is the black hole at the center, with the rope, held by a cowboy on the left, plunged into it. It makes an angle with the cowboy’s arm in order to represent the shape of the numeral one, echoing the shape of the barren tree on the right. Between these two “ones”, there is the hole in the shape of the zero, or the representation of the infinite. Another hole is represented just as the story is about to begin under the aegis of a shooting star. This hole is a gash in the soil opening vertically onto a simplified representation of paradise: next to a smiling “one”, several animals, a snake, a lizard, a bird and a frog are perched on a tree as if in a nature untouched by man. This angular gash, reminiscent of a keyhole, is opened in the black wall of a mountain. It is closed on the top by a wooden trestle, over which the three cowboys are riding. An enormous yellow blob of a moon hangs on the left among the stars, echoing the round shape of the hole on the title page. The whole scene is contained within a blue and pink frame, as if to signal the theatrical aspect of the whole story. The characters are on stage. Now the play opens and counting rhymes seem to call for country rhythms.

20The illustrator’s calculated intention is to represent (or is it to caricature?) a world that can be easily recognized, the mythical West. The first image associated with the text, on the following page, represents a dozing cowboy, his pipe upside down in his mouth, riding towards the right side of the page, with his guitar attached vertically in his back. The pegs and cords at the top of the guitar configure a head with a curl of hair on the top, ears, and an opened, singing mouth (the same cowboy is pictured singing and playing the guitar in the same landscape at night near the end of the book, celebrating the fact that they have “eight left”; whilst he was shown singing sadly at the foot of the mountain earlier). The artist therefore clearly states that we have entered the place of action, among the twisted trees and angular rocks all around, with animals and numbers, three fours, frolicking in the margins. The colors are primary, as if applied with oilsticks, the shapes angular and neatly outlined.

21Among the elements of folktale, the figure of the lasso appears for the first time on the following page. Flying in the air in the shape of an eight, it seems to be the thin shadow of the coiled shape of the rope on the ground. The action still takes place on the right side of the page, as one of the cowboy is straining to pull the rope that has caught the “one”. But the number is not shown in the picture. We see only the shape of the rope forming a figure eight, announcing the final page of the album. For here, too, there is “no one”, only an eight, grown out of a double zero. On p. 10, when they “captured many”, the lasso reappears in its distorted eight shape looping in the air, while the herd is represented as a chaotic mass of struggling “ones”. The whole story is presented as an illusion, as if the hunters were pursuing their own desire, seeing preys in what can also be a tree, or a rope. Counting is presented as an illusion too, a fruitless desire to exercise complete mastery over nature.

22After the first “one” has been caught, the scene is then displaced within two spaces: the corral on the one hand, a round shape echoing the shape of zero or the moon or the hole, and the wild space on the other hand, representing canyons, rocks, mountains, where the gone away “one” is hiding. The space of the corral is broken by the fleeing “one”, which is shown jumping over the gate. Two puzzled cowboys are mulling over the broken gate, which will be fixed in another image. In the background, a bunch of cacti seem to wave joyfully to the reader as if to celebrate the “one’s” escape. The restricted space of the corral is thus shown as unfair and totally unbalanced with the vastness of the land. By comparison, the following page (p. 16) shows the guitarist riding in a totally unrealistic space sliced in two by a geometrically jagged crevice, and a square hole in the grass with descending stairs. The quality of this landscape, with a lizard in the left angle, is prehistoric, and the stairs allude to some subterranean world, which could be ancient or simply the representation of the unconscious. A cactus is also waving on the right, as if inviting the reader to go on with the search.

23The wild West is represented as a place where the “one” plays hide and seek and scoffs at danger. The fugitive also defies his pursuers by planting a red flag on top of the mountain, mimicking a conquest. And as a matter of fact, the whole album relates the conquest of freedom and reveals the absurdity of private property.

  • 2 “I am a painter myself.”

24The representation of desire attains the dimensions of the Lacanian model of desire as a lack. The association of text and images reinforces this aspect, all the more so when one considers Percival Everett’s own drawings. An amateur painter himself, Everett seems to share with Zimmer the same fascination with jagged lines, neat outlines, weird creatures, and depth of planes to create perspective. The choice of an illustrator who could be a double, or a figure of the double, emphasizes the polymorphism and the complexity of this work, otherwise apparently so innocent. The question that lies before us now is to know, through a thorough examination of his body of works, whether or not Everett has produced a transfigured discourse in this album that associates the representation of desire with the desire to paint with words. Shall we see here a filiation with Diderot, who admitted in a letter to W. Meister that “If vanity did not forbid it, the real epigraph to La Religieuse would be Son pittor anch’io’”2?

25By featuring an evanescent object of desire sneaking off between rhetoric and logic, this constant exchange, or collaboration, between text and images goes beyond Everett’s simple involvement in the field of literature for children, making this number adventure a reflection and an experiment about the self and alterity, about the author as a painter dismantling the primacy of his own text to measure up to the prevalence of representation.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1975. [Transl Richard Howard]. The Pleasure of the Text. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Everett, Percival and Dirk Zimmer, illustrator. 1990. New York: Clarion.

—. 1996. Watershed. Saint Paul, MN: Gray wolf Press.

—. 1999. Glyph; Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Transl. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. What’s an Author? In Donald F. Bouchard ed., Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.


1 The One That Got Away is not an isolated example of the author’s multiple interests. His curiosity for logic, mathematics and the sciences surfaces in many a passage in his fiction. For instance, Glyph plays with logic, as in the following syllogistic proposition: “(a) assume: Ralph does not exist, (b) Ralph is not Ralph, (c) therefore: Ralph exists” (29). Another instance is Watershed, in which some of the paratexts describe the formulae for mescal molecules (76-77), or describe the Golgi bodies in the brain (127), or again define the Real Number system: “A partially ordered set A is said to be well ordered if and only if every nonempty subset X of A has a greatest lower bound in X” (129).

2 “I am a painter myself.”


Holds a Ph. D. degree from the University of Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle where she defended a dissertation on Black American Painters: 1945-1980. A writer, translator, and independent scholar, she has delivered papers on and published several essays on African-American artists, translation and the relationship between literature and the arts, and has also published two books of fiction. She is currently an editor for The Benezit Dictionary of Painters and Sculptors (Editions Gründ, Paris).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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