annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal
In his 2001 novel, Erasure, Percival Everett makes brilliant and sophisticated use of satire to examine questions of race, family and the vagaries of the publishing business in contemporary U.S. society. The author creates a compelling and conflicted protagonist, Thelonious Ellison (“Monk”), who functions as both the vehicle and the purveyor of the satire. The author uses his protagonist and his predicaments, the novel’s structure, and the parody Monk writes to convey different aspects of Everett’s incisive rage at the crippling nature of prejudice on individuals and society.
Everett embeds satire in the character of the protagonist himself. The novel is ostensibly the private journal of Monk, a highly intellectual professor and writer of fiction. Everett gives Monk a trenchant, mocking wit. When the professor presents his predicaments, the author simultaneously uses them to illustrate larger social problems he wants to mock in order to change. Monk does not match many of our society’s stereotypes. He lists his “failings” as follows: he’s relatively athletic, but not good at basketball; he listens to “Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder”; he’s good at math, but he can’t dance. As Monk puts it:
“Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I’m not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.”
In particular, Monk is told he’s not black enough by editors, who have rejected his novels, and by reviewers, whom he has perplexed with his work. One reviewer compliments the excellence of one of Monk’s novels, but ends by saying,
“…but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.”
It’s both funny and pathetically off point that this brilliant man is questioned because what he wants to write about isn’t considered “appropriate,” and Everett extracts every satirical gem from Monk’s perpetual “wrong in every context experience.” The professor’s quandary also illustrates an underlying irony of prejudice.
Everett also uses the novel’s structure to heighten the satire and ensnare the reader in the experience of prejudice itself. Everett employs the frame story structure in an audacious way. In the outer frame, Monk grapples with the issues of race and stereotyping which make it difficult for him to publish the sort of academic work and fiction he writes. Simultaneously, he is caring for his mother with Alzheimer’s, who is being “erased” by the disease, just as Monk’s individual self is being erased by society.
Enraged by the three million dollar sale of a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk writes a parody. My Pafology, later renamed Fuck, is a hilarious, but deeply disturbing send up of what Monk calls “the shit that’s published” as authentic black writing and the public that gobbles it up. The inner frame is that story.
Everett takes the familiar device of the frame story structure, and uses it in an audaciously humorous way to expose and criticize the mostly unconscious prejudice and stereotyping most of us fall into despite our best efforts. Monk won’t sign his own name to Fuck and instead credits it to “Stagg R. Leigh.” When his agent asks if he’s serious about sending it out and it if should have an explanation, Monk replies,
“Send it straight,” I said. “If they can’t see it’s a parody, fuck them.”
Ironically, Fuck becomes a huge success, and Monk is embroiled in an ever more complicated scam in which he pretends to be the elusive, barely literate author, Stagg R. Leigh. The reading public can’t tell it’s a parody and gives the fictional Stagg R. Leigh the kind of fame and respect that continue to elude Monk. Readers of Erasure are put in the very uncomfortable, but edifying position of reading the inner story, Fuck. Everett holds this uncomfortable mirror up to us until we are forced to confront our own limitations and biases. We come to care for the inner story’s central character, Van Go, no matter how exaggerated a character he is. Everett employs this ancient story form, the frame story structure, to take his readers, laughing uneasily all the way, to a more profound and disturbing understanding of the pervasive and destructive nature of unconscious prejudice – and their own unwitting participation in its perpetuation.
It’s brilliant and effective satire, channeling Everett’s considerable rage into a biting and effective call for change. By employing his incisive anger as subtext, as the emotional through-line that underpins the story’s plot (and the novel within the novel), the author transmutes into a far more powerful and effective tool than if the rage had been simply stated.
The novel also stands out for the inventive, subversive way the author uses language in this story. Everett confidently claims a wide range of linguistic territory – from formal, academic diction to informal, colloquial speech. He moves in and out of these linguistic counties with elegance and savoir-faire. His approach in this novel also clearly illustrates the difference between the limited power of a polemic versus the far greater persuasive power of an experiential novel.
In fiction it is often hard to communicate raw, yet nuanced ideas about race, injustice, or persecution without offending or alienating the very audience the author wants to persuade. Erasure succeeds brilliantly because Everett embeds his sophisticated satire in a form that both amuses and challenges, enticing us to do what none of us really want to do: confront our own ignorance and unconscious prejudices. He never lets us off the hook, but he takes us on a wild, bracing ride before he catches us and kills our old, more primitive selves so that we can be reborn in a new state of greater awareness and enlightenment.
After reading Erasure, I am inspired to play with the frame story structure to see what can be achieved within that particular narrative form. Like Everett, I’d like to experiment with embedding one narrative inside another, especially if they’re told in distinctly––if not jarringly—different voices, points of view, and tones. What effects can be achieved through such juxtaposition? How would the strictures of this particular narrative form limit and torque the story? I’d like to figure out how to use this nesting structure to make my novel more potent and emotionally resonant for my readers. Finally, I’d like to steal Everett’s tactics for transmuting rage, through wit and raw intelligence, into biting satire with the capacity to take readers beyond understanding to actual change. How do you make your writing crack open someone else’s brain and heart so that they finish your novel bigger, better and more humble than they were before? Now that’s art.