- “Out of Place”:Reading Space in Percival Everett’s Erasure
Percival Everett’s twelfth novel, Erasure (2001), satirizes America’s eagerness to consume racialized images of the ghetto, especially within an increasingly commodified literary marketplace. The main protagonist, an experimental African American novelist named Thelonious Ellison and known as Monk, pens a satire of ghetto glamour titled My Pafology, the story of Van Go Jenkins, a young African American man with four children by four different women, which Monk retitles Fuck just before publication. To Monk’s horror, the novel, written under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh (a nod to the folk anti-hero Stagolee) is fêted as “gritty realism” by critics and general readers alike. It is even awarded a prestigious literary prize by a panel of experts that includes a disillusioned Monk among its members. Given the prominence of metafiction and parody in the novel, it is hardly surprising that most criticism has focused on Everett’s postmodernist playfulness, with a particular emphasis on the novel’s iconoclasm.1 What this emphasis on newness misses is the political seriousness that underpins Everett’s sustained intertextual engagement with a diverse political tradition of African American urban writing. Erasure abounds with allusions to and revisions of the writings of prominent mid-century African American novelists, including Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, who shared a thematic preoccupation with spatial confinement and liberation. Everett’s recourse to the imagery of subways, high-rise hotels, airplanes, elevators, and cars signals his investment in a tradition of excavating the spatial imaginary (often by way of such motifs as manholes, airshafts, kitchenettes, and sewers) in order to explore issues as diverse as the psychological impact of segregation, the relationship between literature and politics, and America’s tendency to whitewash its multiracial history.
To some extent, Everett’s backward glance to African American fiction that is marked, in various ways, by the social and political pressures of Jim Crow carries political implications. Taking aim at a cartography of racial division in contemporary American society and a segmented literary marketplace where multinational chains such as Borders, “the Wal-Mart of books” (Everett, Erasure 33), separate “African American Studies” from “Literature” and [End Page 117] “Contemporary Literature” (34), Erasure refuses to conform to the demands of a racially bifurcated publishing industry that trades in constricting notions of authenticity. Not only does Everett create a moving family drama, which focuses, among other things, on Monk’s mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his sister Lisa’s murder at the hands of anti-abortion protestors, but he also reprints My Pafology in full alongside extracts from Monk’s latest novel, philosophical musings about woodwork and fishing, and letters from Monk’s dead father to his secret lover.
Yet Erasure does not simply offer a celebratory vision of spatial transgression that cuts across symbolic if not literal color and class lines in such diverse spaces as ghettos, suburbs, basketball courts, television studios, and bookshops. Allusion to Ellison, Himes, and Wright underlines Everett’s participation in a continuing debate about the relationship between politics and literary activity. More specifically, he introduces comparative insights that dramatize the difficulties of mounting an effective political critique amid a hollow consumer culture that has, according to Paul Gilroy, “largely superseded the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (Darker 8) that formed bedrock concepts for the earlier novelists. In this context, Everett’s intertextual revisions are freighted with ambivalence and irony. Even though his satire is motivated by anger at the runaway success of a novel that trades in stereotypes about ghetto life, Monk becomes implicated in the cultural commodification of blackness when My Pafology, “a book on which [he] knew [he] could never put [his] name” (Everett, Erasure 70), is so commercially successful that he is forced to masquerade as Stagg, a theatrical (if rather insubstantial) authorial persona that capitalizes on “the political and commercial value of blackness” (Gilroy, Darker 2). Furthermore, Everett raises searching questions about the limitations of satire, especially with reference to the reception of African American literature in a literary marketplace that tends to misread, and consequently erase, any kind of political critique.