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literary culture

Erasure at twenty

Percival Everett’s career-defining novel Erasure turns twenty this year. Revisited in 2021, its hyper self-consciousness and metafictional acrobatics have a special resonance, chiming with a historical moment where hysteria and manipulation run rampant. A book as challenging, stylistically exhilarating, and politically urgent as Erasure offers a reading experience to help make sense of the current noise and confusion.

In January’s issue of The Baffler, Matthew McKnight suggested that ‘part of the reason Everett remains little read is that he has always taken formal risks, challenging the hegemony of literary realism,’ adding that his novels ‘unfold according to his protagonist-narrators’ internal sense of time, which often deviates from the chronology of reality.’ Perhaps Everett’s active engagement with unreality – his stylistic difficulty, his unrelenting play with components of access and distantiation – help explain why he has never dominated global literary sales like Bernadine Evaristo or Reni Eddo-Lodge did last year.

This is not to say he could not have, and Erasure would have been the likely candidate for that honour. Focalised by the experiences of Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a writer and professor of English Literature that is in many ways an Everett surrogate, the novel positions the idea of access within a story about academic and market exclusivity, the systemic oppression of African American literature, and the experiential and material erasure these all induce.

These are the living conditions for the African American writer, to the extent that Monk Ellison spends time walking down bookshop aisles to see whether he is relegated to the black authors table or if he is given as fair a chance as everyone else to be categorised as whatever he wants. Later in Erasure, his narration spells out the predicament:

The fear of course is that in denying or refusing complicity in the marginalization of ‘black’ writers, I ended up on the very distant and very ‘other’ side of a line that is imaginary at best.

Such increasingly partisan restrictions affect most Everett protagonists: Glyph’s baby genius Ralph, who is captured and caged by scientists in fear of his impossible intelligence; American Desert’s Ted Street, who becomes a global news phenomenon after sitting up in his funeral coffin, and is captured by a religious cult, evaluated at Area 51, and finally kills himself on live television so the world will leave his family alone; horse trainer John Hunt, who spends Wounded at the centre of a small Wyoming community that must compete with hate crime, homophobia, racism; or, most recently, Telephone’s Zach Wells, the ‘geologist-slash-paleobiologist’ who is helpless to save his dying daughter within three unique published editions of a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Returning to Erasure, which contains Everett’s most explicit racial commentary and most complex discussion of inequality, the sense of internal conflict manifests as Monk’s self-loathing. The entire justification behind the fictional novel (and eighty-page mock intertext) that relieves Monk’s creative block – ‘My Pafology’, later retitled ‘FUCK: A Novel’ – is in response to the perceived sell-out of a contemporary. Monk puts himself on trial for this later in the novel, worrying that he, too, has allowed himself to be pigeon-holed as a black writer only writing about this fact. He confesses that he has become ‘an overly ironic, cynical, self-conscious and yet faithful copy of Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of the runaway-bestseller-soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.’

Towards the end of the novel, Monk reinforces this self-betrayal in a conversation with his mother, conceding how ‘I promised myself I would not compromise my art.’ ‘My Pafology’ was supposed to be a response to ‘We’s Lives in Da Ghetto’, the solution to its problems of commercial appeal and mass accessibility, a correction of this intertext as much as it was of Monk’s own ‘Second Failure’: the knowingly titled ‘realistic novel’ that was ‘received nicely and sold rather well.’ Neither work does justice to Monk’s African American identity, an anxiety of duty that Everett’s work returns to time and again, which it would be not too reductive to infer as his own.

Writing about 2020’s Telephone, McKnight assigned dual responsibility of Everett’s stylistics and social conscience to ‘the churn of racialized capitalism’ generally, but perhaps precedence should be given to market reverberations inside his fiction, where a tendency to incessantly fold in on itself encourages equally deconstructive critical analysis. In 2021, the indelibility of Erasure might help to restore readerly agency and contribute to necessarily overthrowing the market conditions for black writers.

In the wake of a summer defined by Black Lives Matter protests and the mass circulation of black reading lists, Everett’s novel is the perfect candidate for a paperback escape offering an understanding of our contemporary situation, one not so fortunate to have the designation of ‘fiction’. In a 2004 interview with Rone Shivers for BOMB, he claimed that ‘every novel is experimental’: a rebuttal of the second most popular categorisation of his fiction, a catalogue of work that goes to great lengths to evade definition. Last year, he said something similar to Jared McGinnis in The White Review, claiming that ‘every novel is experimental. The term is vacuous.’

Like his response to assumptions made based on the colour of his characters’ skin and his own, Everett is rejecting any kind of literary labelling process. In so doing, his fiction is achieving the most verisimilitude it could in terms of understanding blackness, an identity that is subject to incessant scrutiny rather than left to live freely, independently, equally. If Erasure’s experimentalism threatens to bury this urgency beneath exhaustive style, it ultimately only feigns doing so. As said to Rone Shivers and as Everett’s 2001 novel communicates so convincingly twenty years on: ‘the world is unreliable. I’m just trying to give you the real thing.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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George Kowalik is a PhD candidate at King's College London, short fiction writer and freelance arts writer. He is also on the editorial team at the literary journal Coastal Shelf. His recent publications include The First Line, Lotus-eater, Luma Quarterly and Off Screen, and last year he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.

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