Thursday, March 07, 2013

[Books] Book Look: Erasure, by Percival Everett

Book Look: Erasure by Percival Everett: A gem. This book stands as a fine example of the what I would like to see more of in novels, so regular readers are going to get an eyeful of repeat commentary.

Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is a literature professor, a skillful wordsmith who riles up academia with unpopular tracts on the sorts of post-modern literary theories that are completely undifferentiated from the schizophrenic rants of street people. He comes from an upper middle class family -- nearly blueblood -- he has a sister and a gay older brother who are both doctors, his father has passed and his mother is deteriorating, he likes woodworking and fly-fishing. In short, he is the perfect picture of the bourgeois. He is also black.

Here we have the formula for some heavy-handed socio-political commentary (Everett is also black) and education on the correct ways of thinking, but instead we get sharp and funny satire with outside the box characters. A very pleasant surprise. The socio-political angle is that Ellison, a skilled experimentalist, a man who is truly passionate about literature, simply cannot deal with the fact that the latest bestseller is an abomination of a illiterate ebonics that is being celebrated as a gritty, genuine take the authentic black experience, entitled We's Lives in da Ghetto. It disgusts him both personally and artistically.

So, in a fit of spitefulness, Ellison writes a novel: My Pafology, an illiterate, profane, recounting of the life of an animalistic ghetto-dweller. A parody that no one will see as such. He invents a false identity (Stagg R. Leigh) under which to publish it and proceeds to get rich -- disgusting himself in the process, but also providing for family and loved ones.

While that is the clever and quite humorous scaffolding, the meat of the novel -- and what appeals to me so much -- is that it is deeply personal. By that I mean much of the novel is taken up with Ellison's personal life. His siblings, though loving, have unresolved issues with him, since he was always the favorite, the special one. His elderly mother is quickly descending into senescence. His gay plastic surgeon brother is deep in debt and is in a legal battle to see his children. He discovers his late father had an affair that produced a child. His sister is killed in the bombing of her abortion clinic -- even this is not treated as a socio-political event but a personal loss. He is fighting to just to stay engaged with a world where he really has no kindred souls, or at least feels he doesn't. The big open issue is whether he is truly out of place or has separated himself. And, by the way, much of this is terribly funny.

The key take-away: All the bombastic societal satire has less meaning than the personal tale of a family no more or less unusual than any others. In the midst of the seemingly boundless social symbolism he embodies, his normal life is what counts. For me (as you know by now) this is huge. It's as if all my whining about the subjugation of the personal to glorify to socio-political is the arts has been heard. Well, was heard: Erasure is 12 years old now.

Should you read Erasure? Yes. I can't imagine anyone not getting a kick out of it. Everett has a lot in his bag of tricks -- imagined dialogue between historical figures, POV shifts, fantasy sequences, and of course, the entire novella-within-a-novel of My Pafology -- and these can at times seem pretentious, but since his lead character is a bit of a pretentious academic it's appropriate. Nice comedy. Good stuff all 'round. Makes me want to check out his other titles.

Aside: A bubbling sentiment running through Erasure is the apocalyptic frustration an author feels when he tries to write with subtle insight and intelligence with an eye towards illuminating some sliver of humanity, only to see some formulaic sixth-grade level potboiler or vampire novel soar to the top of the bestseller list while his sales are confined to friends and family. It's an ugly sentiment, one rife with arrogance and pettiness, one we know to suppress, but we all have it. Good on Everett for having a bit of fun with it.