Phenomenologically Fucked

Alex Abramovich

  • BuyI Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
    Graywolf, 234 pp, $16.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 1 55597 527 2

I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.

Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, in Percival Everett’s Erasure

Race is America’s most enduring fiction. And for all the relieved, Obama-era sighing over America’s new, nominally post-racial century, that fiction can be infuriatingly hard to shake, or look past, or write one’s way around. Take the career of America’s pre-eminent post-racial novelist, Percival Everett. Everett – who was born into a family of doctors in South Carolina in 1956 – started off writing about characters who weren’t necessarily black, or weren’t described as such, or were only described as such in passing, and incidentally. His 22 books include modern-day reworkings of Greek myths, genre spoofs, straight-faced westerns, broad satires, domestic novels, novel-length fables, surgically precise satires, an apocalyptic science fiction novel (‘Zulus is a difficult book to describe,’ the blurb tells us, in a rare example of truthful blurb-writing) and a mathematically inclined children’s book called The One That Got Away (1992).

‘I read the Bible, the Koran, all of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,’ the preternaturally gifted, four-year-old narrator of Everett’s tenth novel, Glyph (1999), announced, in a passage that might have doubled as an abbreviated list of the author’s own interests. (The literary ones, at least: Everett also paints, and breaks mules; he put himself through college by working as a jazz guitarist, and is indirectly responsible for the South Carolina legislature’s lateish decision to remove the Confederate flag from its State House.) ‘I read about game theory and evolution, about genetics and fluid dynamics. I read about Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Joseph McCarthy. I read the service manual for my parents’ ’63 Saab …’ And so on.

And yet, a few years ago, Everett suddenly found himself writing ‘black’ novels – or, at least, novels about black novels. Erasure (2001) was a novel about a black writer, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, whose own, racially indeterminate novels – modern-day reworkings of Greek myths etc – are invariably filed in the ‘African-American Literature’ sections of America’s chain stores. Enraged by the runaway success of a book (called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto) written by a woman who once spent a couple of days visiting relatives in Harlem, Ellison sits down to write his own, ersatz ghetto novel: the 80-page ‘My Pafology’, which Ellison, writing as Stagg R. Leigh, subsequently retitles Fuck, and which appears, in full, within the pages of Percival Everett’s Erasure.

Fuck is an overnight sensation: Random House buys the book for $600,000; the film rights sell for $3 million. The fictional equivalent of Oprah Winfrey comes calling, and despite Ellison’s best efforts – he’s one of the judges – Fuck goes on to win a National Book Award. By Erasure’s end, Ellison is no longer sure where he ends and Stagg R. Leigh begins. (In fact, Erasure and Fuck have neatly identical endings, with Ellison and his protagonist both ending up on television for all the wrong reasons.)

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[*] As it happens, the real Sidney Poitier was born, prematurely, into a poor Bahamian family. Contrary to his on-screen persona, he wasn’t de-sexed, and at first, at least, he wasn’t especially dignified. The first chapter of Poitier’s 1980 autobiography, This Life, ends with him in a crawlspace under his parents’ house, trying to rape (the word is Poitier’s) a chicken.

[†] It bears mentioning that, if Percival Everett’s novels were shelved in the ‘African-American Literature’ sections of America’s chain stores, it might have been because of the author’s photo on the dust jackets. I Am Not Sidney Poitier features a new author’s photo: Everett is shot from behind, with a crow sitting on his shoulder. His race is indeterminable.