Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1653
Percival Everett has developed a reputation for frustrating expectations with each new work he brings to the public. The experimental chances he takes in his writing make his novels difficult to classify and therefore difficult to publish through mainstream presses. Although he has made the shift to major publishers, he has been consistently published by the small, nonprofit Graywolf Press and maintains a relationship with his editor there, Fiona Macrae.
Everett’s first novel, Suder, met with success in part because it was readily identifiable as “African American” literature. The main character plays third base for the Seattle Mariners baseball team and embarks on a series of unlikely encounters during a dry spell in his career; Suder works in the tradition of the picaresque, and he is not unlike Charles Johnson’s protagonist in Middle Passage (1990). Everett readily acknowledges his debt to Laurence Sterne, and in particular to that author’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), an eighteenth century classic considered by many critics as the first postmodern novel.
Critiques of Everett’s work often question his reconstruction of the dialogue around race. Novels such as Cutting Lisa and Frenzy contain no racial markers, and others, such as Glyph, Wounded, and Erasure, implicitly or explicitly challenge assumptions about race. The writing of Erasure, in fact, was partly motivated by Everett’s wish to respond more fully to what he regards as the narrow categorization of his fiction.
Everett also thematizes violence in his novels, sometimes in the form of dark humor and sometimes in more troubling ways. In Erasure, the narrator’s sister is the victim of random violence in the poor Washington, D.C., neighborhood she serves as a doctor. In Frenzy, the bloody rites of the worshipers of Bacchus are vividly detailed, and For Her Dark Sin incorporates the murders associated with the stories of Medea, including the murders of her children. This theme surfaces in Watershed and Wounded in the more traditional setting of the murder mystery, but even so Everett brings out the moral dilemma raised by the need for self-defense and revenge.
With each successive novel, Everett has changed paradigms; Walk Me to the Distance and Cutting Lisa in some ways fit the genre of the problem novel, featuring troubled characters struggling with their own violent natures. Zulus operates within the expectations of science fiction but bends those expectations. Everett revises the story of Medea in For Her Dark Skin and takes up the stories surrounding the god Dionysus in Frenzy. With Watershed and Wounded, Everett continues the revisionist reading of the American West that he began in God’s Country.
Despite Everett’s reputation as an iconoclast, each of the novels contains a recognizable narrative thread around human relationships; even Frenzy, which features a god as its central character, narrates through a character who is struggling to become human and to connect with the all-too-human worshipers and enemies of his master, Dionysus.
In God’s Country, a parody of the traditional Western, Everett pairs black scout Bubba with broadly drawn white rancher Curt Marder to set off on an eventful exploration of the myth of the West. Everett characterizes this novel as following in the tradition of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) and E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times (1960) in terms of its manipulation of the conventions of the Western. The novel opens with the narrator, Marder, looking at the ruins of his ranch, which has been destroyed by “fake Indians.” This evocation of John Wayne’s role in the 1956 film The Searchers is quickly undercut by the encounters between Marder and his peers, which show his lack of heroic qualities and the contempt in which they hold him. The scout, Bubba, emerges as the hero, and the surprise ending of the novel suggests that he is larger than life: Marder shoots him repeatedly but is unable to kill him. Bubba may well represent the inescapable presence of racism in white society while at the same time embodying the resilience of African Americans within that racist world.
With Glyph, Everett takes up the parody of the academy, joining that tradition as represented in Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis and more recently revised in David Lodge’s Small World (1984) and Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring (1993). The protagonist, baby Ralph, embodies the novel’s critique of poststructuralist theory because Ralph is, himself, a sign, a glyph. He comes into the world fully formed in terms of written language and is able to read anything. This prodigy chooses writing as his only form of communication. Ralph, like the figures in many of Everett’s novels, rushes through a series of unexpected and hilarious adventures. He is kidnapped and caged by a psychology researcher who wants to study him, then taken by federal agents, and is finally rescued by a childless couple who want him to become their own son. Here, as in all the novels, violence plays a role, however humorous it may seem. The reader may laugh while Ralph manages to elude exploitation by scientists and government officials, but the fact that he is imprisoned as a baby still evokes a darker response.
Douglas, Ralph’s father, is a university professor angling for tenure who considers himself a sophisticated poststructuralist theorist, only to have his pretensions undercut by his infant son. His self-image is further eroded by a wickedly funny encounter with Roland Barthes, one of the major figures of poststructuralist thought. The marriage between Ralph’s parents falls apart in tandem with the disintegration of Douglas’s career. As Douglas becomes more uncertain of his intellectual ground, Ralph’s mother begins to explore her gift for visual art. She makes herself independent of her husband and can then offer Ralph a home. Reunited with his mother in a chaotic final clash of all the forces that pursue him, Ralph makes the decision to step away from his identity in writing and become an ordinary human baby. This choice is mediated by Everett’s interruption of Ralph’s story with quotations, poetry, and imaginary dialogues between famous figures. These apparent digressions provide a running interpretive commentary on the main narrative. Glyph closes with the single observation “The line is all,” returning to Everett’s commitment to that narrative thread of human experience through time.
In Erasure, his most widely known novel, Everett takes on the giants of the African American literary canon, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. The main character, Thelonius Ellison, nicknamed “Monk,” embodies a revision of Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), in addition to paying homage to the jazz musician for whom he is named. Monk is a writer whose novels have been neglected because they fail to reflect the “African American experience” accepted in popular culture. On an impulse, Monk pens My Pafology, a thinly disguised parody of Wright’s Native Son (1940), and this novel makes him a huge success. The full text of My Pafology appears within Erasure, and Monk’s alter ego, Stagg R. Leigh (the pseudonym under which he publishes My Pafology), begins to take over his life, erasing the boundary between fiction and reality.
Everett parallels the story of his protagonist’s trials in the publishing industry with the story of Monk’s trials with his family. His sister, a doctor serving a poor community in Washington, D.C., is murdered, leaving Monk to care for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Through the course of Monk’s interactions with his sister before she dies, with his brother, whose homosexuality has alienated him from the family, and with the lifelong family servant, Lorraine, a complex and nuanced portrayal of one particular African American experience balances the stereotypes of My Pafology. To complicate the questions of race and class further, Monk discovers that his father has an illegitimate daughter, the result of an ongoing affair with a white woman. He seeks her out and finds her living a very impoverished life in comparison with his own. Ironically, Monk’s creation, Stagg Leigh, seems to have the last word in the novel: Monk looks into a mirror and sees the face of his creation rather than his own familiar face. Throughout Erasure Everett picks up themes from Ellison’s writing, and this figure, Stagg Leigh, reprises Rinehart from Invisible Man, the troubling alter ego of Ellison’s nameless narrator.
The Water Cure
Another example of Everett’s ongoing experimentation in the genre of the novel, The Water Cure recounts the harrowing story of the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl told through the perspective of her father. Like his other novels, the story contains multiple layers, one of which can be read as an allegory of the American condition in the age of the war on terrorism.
The narrator, Ishmael Kidder, earns his living writing romance novels under the pseudonym Estelle Gilliam, but he has submerged his work and identity into finding and punishing his daughter’s killer. The man has been freed on a technicality, allowing Kidder to find and kidnap him. He subjects the man to torture, interrupting the narration of revenge with philosophical discourses featuring Socrates, René Descartes, and Pope Gregory as he interrogates both the kidnapper and the nature of evil. The novel also contains passages of Joycean language experimentation in which the narrator transforms ordinary speech through a process of multilingual puns and interchanging of syllables. The blending of words reaches the edges of intelligibility, as does the blending of identities between criminal and victim. The pages of the novel also contain progressive line drawings that gradually build up to readable images, once more raising the theme of the written word versus the drawn image seen in Glyph. This question, of course, as the narrator of The Water Cure makes explicit, originates in Plato’s discussion of the arts in the Republic.
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