- Race Under Erasure
Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with thevery identity of the body writing.—Roland Barthes1
The novelist must accept his or her life as fact, realizing that it makes no difference whether someone proclaims or even believes that he or she is dead.—Percival Everett2
My title follows predictably from Percival Everett's 2001 publication, described on the dust jacket as "a novel of family, race, and publishing in America." Perhaps it is just as predictable that the second of these topics monopolized media coverage of Everett's most admired and widely-reviewed novel since his first, Suder, appeared in 1983. This is the case despite, as well as because of, the fact that Erasure questions the meaning of the descriptor. To call Erasure a novel "of" race is to note its elements of topical satire and to highlight the parallels between its protagonist—an African-American writer of "widely unread experimental stories and novels"—and its author.3 But among the many ironies that flow from such a description—of a novel so titled—is how it collapses the relation between race and writing into precisely the kind of label that both Everett and his character resist. That title surely suggests caution about conflating reference with representation, as in the notoriously problematic category of "African-American novel." I will argue, then, that "race" is not the only or even the primary concept that Erasure puts sous rature. Considered in the context of Everett's work to date, the novel raises questions about genre, mimesis, and authorial identity which exceed as well as inform, his critique of the nouveau-racism that pervades the contemporary literary market.
It is certainly easy—too easy—to identify Everett with Thelonious ("Monk") Ellison, and to read Erasure as a fictionalized account of Everett's career. This [End Page 358] temptation may partly account for the novel's popularity: whereas Everett's earlier works have rarely suggested a biographical referent, Erasure begins in the genre of the confession. Like the confessor, Everett has "dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose;" "some of [his] ancestors were slaves," he has "been detained by pasty white policemen," and so he has learned to call himself "black" (Erasure 1). Also like Ellison, Everett is dauntingly erudite, relentlessly allusive, catholic in his interests and pursuits (his musical tastes include "Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder"), and noted for his demanding style and recondite subject matter. Far from having grown up "in any inner city or the rural south," he comes from a conspicuously literate family of doctors and dentists. Black by genealogical and descriptive convention, Everett has hitherto been little known outside the circle of academic and avant-garde writers, allegedly because, like Monk's, his work is not "black enough." In Monk's case, the identity of "African-American novelist" has been supplanted by the perhaps equally simplistic label "experimental novelist," largely on the basis of The Persians, a retelling of Aeschylus which, as a reviewer comments, has no evident bearing on "the African American experience" (Erasure 2). Everett's reputation for obscurity also has partly to do with his penchant for Greek myth and his stylistic range; among the few genres he has not attempted is the "true, gritty real stor[y] of black life" which remains the hallmark of authenticity for the black writer.
The fictional Monk's frustration with this generic stereotype comes to a head when We's Lives In Da Ghetto, a first novel by the felicitously named Juanita Mae Jenkins, is featured on the Kenya Dunston Show. Finding the book's verisimilitude spurious and its use of "black" idioms simply offensive, Monk goes on to write—ostensibly as parody—the gritty, dialect-ridden novella My Pafology, which he then markets under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh. Much to his consternation, the novella is immediately picked up by a publisher, becomes a bestseller, and is optioned for a film. Monk finds himself rich for the first...