Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The concept of “erasure” is central to Percival Everett’s novel, since each of its characters offers evidence of some form of personal deletion. Ironically enough, for example, the main character achieves his greatest success, both critical and popular, when he assumes the identity of a fictitious alter ego. Much of the poignancy of the novel is derived from the main character’s belated attempts to reconnect himself to his parents, his siblings, and his racial identity, only to be left in the end with an overwhelming sense of displacement.

The novel’s other characters also offer evidence of erasure. Thelonious’s brother Bill had felt pressured in his early adulthood to erase his identity as a gay man to conform to paternal and societal expectations. Lisa’s life is erased by an ideological terrorist who thinks that he is saving lives by taking lives. Mrs. Ellison’s memory is gradually being erased by a degenerative disease of the brain cells.

In addition to the main character’s simultaneous journeys of personal discovery and deconstruction, the novel enacts its author’s abiding preoccupation with the prevailing definitions of the nature of mainstream African American literature. Ellison’s career mirrors much of Everett’s own résumé as a writer. Everett’s many novels, all of which reflect his ongoing exploration of content and form, posit the question of whether the common reader, regardless of race, will ever be receptive to a writer whose work resists popular expectations and aspires to the status of art.