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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

Abstracts, as the Essays Appear in the Volume

Texte intégral

1Jacqueline Berben-Masi: “Getting to First Base: Baseball as Organizing Metaphor in Suder.

2As a first novel, Suder’s promise shines through. Baseball provides an informative metaphor while jazz furnishes the ultimate clue in the wandering protagonist’s search for identity. Like many a bildungsroman, this book follows the thematic pattern of an underlying heroic quest. It is rife with intertextuality and nods at the author’s favourite literary models. The humor is sometimes a bit slapstick, but it is never gratuitous. Despite any shortcomings, the novel executes the implicit contract with the reader: in exchange for the latter’s suspension of disbelief, the author entertains and informs us in our everyday living experience.

3Anne-Laure Tissut: “Moments of Control: Reading Percival Everett’s Short Stories”

4Through the analysis of the complexities of deceptively-simple-looking stories, this paper aims at showing how the specific features of the short story genre are made instrumental in bringing to the fore some major tenets in Percival Everett’s conception of creation and reading. Above all, irony and the grotesque, both relying on deviation and polysemy, testify to the author’s ever-increasing perplexity towards a world the meaning of which eludes all explanation systems. Yet readers are encouraged to keep raising questions and exploring the many allusions or innuendoes, though they may turn out to be pointing to nowhere. The diversity of relations onto which they open trains readers to think in terms of process rather than disjunction, while the format-related dramatic intensity of the stories offers an invitation to play with the unexpected.

5Maïca Sanconie: The One That Got Away: A Number Adventure, or a Semantic Experiment?”

6In 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

7Jacqueline Berben-Masi: “‘The Jailhouse Baby Blues’, or Literal and Literary Prisons in Glyph

8The 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.

9Fritz Gysin: “The Pitfalls of Parody: Melancholic Satire in Erasure

10The 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.

11Kathie Birat: “Ordinary Voices: The Mocking of Myth in Percival Everett’s For Her Dark Skin.

12This article explores Percival Everett’s use of the Medea myth and the way in which Everett’s ironic treatment of the myth reveals essential aspects of the use of myth in a postmodern context. While the characters in Everett’s rewriting of the Medea myth seem incapable of understanding the nature of myth as Mircea Eliade describes it, as the « various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred (or the “supernatural’) into the world », they find themselves trapped by language, which in the postmodern view of narrative has become the equivalent of fate. While Everett’s approach reinforces our awareness of the fictionality of all that was formerly seen as reality (and myth was initially seen as real), it also lays bare the survival of myth at an unconscious level in modern society. Most importantly Everett shows the way in which questions of gender and race lie rooted in the mysterious past of humanity, in the dark region where myths were born.

13Michel Feith: “Black Bacchus? Signifying on Classical Myth in Percival Everett’s Frenzy”

14A variation on ancient Greek mythology, Frenzy defies traditional notions of African-American literature and the “blackness of the text”, predicated on the “black experience”. The myth of Dionysos and the Orphic cycle are rewritten and woven together in a fragmentary patchwork, mediated through an original narrator, Vlepo, Bakkhos’s companion. The self-conscious intertextuality of the novel will allow us to probe first the “theoretical” dimension of myth, the articulation between the human and the spiritual worlds. As a work of “mythic metafiction”, Frenzy sheds a light on the processes of reading and writing, and on the ideological frames of interpretation. The myth can then become a basis for historical allegory and parody, marking the return of the “signifying black difference” (H. L. Gates, Jr.) as a rewarding interpretive option.

15Claude Julien: “Text and Paratext Interaction in Watershed

16Robert Hawks is one of Percival Everett’s more race-conscious characters who helps uncover federal government abuse of Native American rights while remembering his youth in KKK-dominated South Carolina. This essay shirks these fictional and historical issues as such. Instead, it scans the paratextual segments (quotes from the past, from books, catalogues, pieces of governmental statutes, medical information, etc.) from a structural standpoint. By collating these segments against the story’s discourse, one realizes they seem to produce a “funnel effect”. This text and paratext mutual bolstering builds discursive cohesion out of fragmentation.

17Patrycja Kurjatto-Renard: “Zulus: the Body as Otherness and Prison”

18This article on life from A to Ζ concentrates on the way the female body is portrayed in Percival Everett’s Zulus (1990). It examines the conflation between body and landscape and the shame associated with the difference of the main character’s obese body. It also analyses the issues of visibility, control, power, the abject, bodily change and pregnancy.

19Yves Bonnemère: “God’s Country: The Mythic West Revisited”

20God’s Country (1994) is narrated by Curt Marder, a white cowboy whose wife, Sadie, has been kidnapped —presumably by Indians. Curt decides to hire a black scout, Bubba, to guide him through the Wild West, hoping to find Sadie. The relationship between boss and former slave is reversed as Curt turns out to be a mean simpleton, and Bubba a genuine hero in an anti-western that resorts to mock epic mechanisms to develop into a sustained satire of white Americans. Custer’s army consorts with uncouth, violent and racist drunks. The book, a take-off of the mythic West plays with words and discrepant situations, moves from hyperbole to understatement and uses parody and stereotypes to achieve a devastating comedy.

21Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris: “‘Follow Your Heart’ (NBC, 1990): the Mirage of an Adapration of Percival Everett’s 1985 novel Walk Me to the Distance

22The problem with the word adaptation is that it implies —or should imply— some kind of coherent vision or revision (which is most often the case) of an original narrative but Noel Nosseck’s made-for-TV movie adapted from Percival Everett’s Walk Me to the Distance obviously lacks the unicity of structure and vision of the text. Once on screen, there seems to be little trace of the literary hero’s self- imposed imperative “Go West, young man!” when the latter finds out he can no longer call Georgia home upon returning from Vietnam. Nor is there much left of his near-Frontier experience when he gets involved in the backwoods lynching of a rapist in Wyoming —except, maybe, in the rather long introductory “Big Sky country” sequence of the television film and in its rather weak echo of the Frontier Code of its inhabitants. The essay will therefore take a close look at Nosseck’s adaptation choices and show how the protagonist’s original journey through an internalized and phantasmagorical West has been notably altered and thwarted.

23Françoise Clary: Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera: The Representation of a Mixed People”

24With novels such as Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera Percival Everett has explored not a mere “description” but a “representation” of facts and people involving a mixed use of relativistic signifiers. This paper analyses metaphors that tend to be auto-referential and memory records with gaps and ellipses that provide the technical frame within which icons of greater abstraction translate the relations between people into three dimensions: true selves, masks and false masks. It pays close attention to the way in which the past revisited becomes a mode of approaching the world that emerges from the margins. It also investigates how the representation of a mixed people (in black, red, yellow and white) fits within the compelling puzzle of narratives whose fragmented technicality is constitutive of the books’ diegetic haunting patterns.

25Michel Feith: “Manifest Deathtiny: Percival Everett’s American Desert of the Real”

26A quasi-surrealistic novel about a man who died and came back to life, American Desert is also a scathing parody of American myths and the contemporary media. The desert of the title is first of all a place, reminiscent of the Manifest Destiny. That this space is peopled by religious nuts and military fools cannot be a coincidence. Then, the important role given the media, especially television, alludes to an emptiness and superficiality in everyday American life, a life and a Dream which the protagonist had repeatedly failed to fully make his own. These are the paths that our study will attempt to follow. A reflection on the tall-tale/tell-tale nature of Theodore Street’s strange state of un-deadness will lead us to a discussion of American society as a parodic media desert. In such a context, the defamiliarizing tactics of humor can become both a debunking of empty images and narratives, and a sort of initiation beyond these disquieting mirrors and doubles, into a more human awareness. We will also be led to wonder if the surrealist reference is not more than a superficial comment on the strangeness of the plot, but also a possible Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinthine web of the text.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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