In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Phenomenologically FuckedAlex Abramovich
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
I Am Not Sidney Poitier 
by Percival Everett.
Graywolf, 234 pp., $16, June 2009, 978 1 55597 527 2
Show More
Show More

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.)

This is sharply pointed, perfectly plotted satire; if anything, the layers fold a bit too neatly. But the greater irony – which Everett himself would grudgingly come to appreciate – is that Ellison’s exploitation novel is no less alive than the experimental novel which surrounds it. (‘Despite all my efforts to the contrary, it works in some weird way,’ Everett told the Observer in 2003.) Yet another irony? Like most experimental writers, Everett tends to publish with independent presses, or academic ones, but in this instance the real-life editors of Random House came calling, hoping to make Erasure the lead title in their new, ethnically oriented Harlem Moon imprint. ‘It was tempting to have them invalidate themselves with their first publication,’ Everett would say. ‘But, you know, I really couldn’t do that to my work.’

Everett’s new novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, is a bookend, of sorts, to Erasure. A coming-of-age story – narrated by a character named Not Sidney Poitier, who nevertheless grows up to look and sound just like the film star – it, too, is a book about entrapment and negation. Not Sidney is the product of a symbolically long pregnancy. His father may or may not have been Sidney Poitier. His mother is a bit touched, but savvy enough to have invested, early on, in Ted Turner’s media concern. When Not Sidney is seven, Turner himself pays the family a visit. Soon afterwards, the mother dies – ‘an illness came over her,’ the son is told – and the mogul takes Not Sidney away to live with him in Atlanta. ‘To Turner’s credit even he was not comfortable with the scenario of the rich do-gooding white man taking in the poor little black child,’ Not Sidney explains. ‘Television was polluted with that model, and it didn’t take a genius to understand that something was wrong with it. My situation was somewhat different as I was in fact extremely wealthy.’

Sitcom conventions aside, Not Sidney has a fairly unconventional childhood – made more unconventional by furtive glimpses of a bikini’d Jane Fonda slinking around the swimming pool. But form is Percival Everett’s bread and butter, and it isn’t long before other conventions come into play. Not Sidney’s name (which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Preston Sturges movie), with the blurring of identities it inspires, lends itself to the kinds of exchange you find in the screwball comedies of the 1930s:

‘My name is Not Sidney,’ I said.

‘Not is a part of Not Sidney’s name,’ Maggie said.

‘Knot, with a k?’ he asked.

‘Not with a k,’ I said.

‘That’s what I said,’ he said.

‘N-O-T,’ Maggie said.

‘Sidney?’

And as Not Sidney comes to look more and more like Sidney Poitier, the conventions that governed Sidney Poitier’s movies begin to apply. Arrested in Peckerwood County (for the crime of ‘bein’ a nigger’), Not Sidney finds himself in a Georgia chain-gang, shackled to a redneck who looks a bit like Sidney Poitier’s costar in The Defiant Ones, Tony Curtis. A bus overturns; the prisoners escape. They survive a river crossing –

‘Thank you,’ I said.

‘For what, nigger?’

‘For pulling me out.’

‘She-it, I ain’t pulled you out.’ He hacked and spat. ‘I kept yo ass from pullin’ me in.’

– and fall into a subplot drawn from Sidney Poitier’s 1965 film A Patch of Blue. That night, Not Sidney sleeps and dreams that he’s the hero of Raoul Walsh’s 1957 bodice-ripper Band of Angels; on other nights, he dreams himself into the plots of No Way Out and Buck and the Preacher.

The novel cycles through one Poitier movie after another: when Not Sidney accompanies a girlfriend home for Thanksgiving, Everett’s Bildungsroman turns into a domestic comedy, a 21st-century update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Later on, Not Sidney gets tangled up in the plotlines of In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field. All the while, questions present themselves: if Percival Everett is casting Not Sidney Poitier in a series of Sidney Poitier films, then Not Sidney is, in fact, Sidney Poitier. But who was Sidney Poitier, if not a phantom projection of everything America once wanted a black man to be?* And if Sidney Poitier wasn’t Sidney Poitier (‘Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant,’ Cary Grant once said), who is Not Sidney Poitier supposed to be? The novel’s ever doubling negations carry an echo of W.E.B. Du Bois’s definition of double-consciousness – the ‘sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others’. Among other things, this is also the sense that good actors possess.

We never learn who Not Sidney’s father was. But I Am Not Sidney Poitier features two father figures: the first, Ted Turner, tends to speak in non sequiturs; the other, a character named Percival Everett (I’ll call him Everett II), appears as one of Not Sidney’s college professors and teaches a course in ‘Nonsense’. That he’s teaching it at a black college is one of the novel’s better in-jokes. That he appears at all is one of its more cunning conceits: after all, insofar as Not Sidney is the product of Percival Everett’s imagination, Everett is Not Sidney’s father. And when Not Sidney finds himself investigating a murder – and the murder victim turns out to look exactly like Not Sidney (and, by extension, Sidney) Poitier – Everett II is momentarily (and, in a sense, mistakenly) mistaken for the murderer.

Everett keeps upping the ante: ‘I hate colourisation,’ Everett II tells Turner, deliciously, when the characters finally meet. ‘I have mixed feelings about it myself,’ Turner replies.

‘Didn’t you write a book called Erasure?’

Everett nodded.

‘I didn’t like it,’ Ted said.

‘Nor I,’ Everett said. ‘I didn’t like writing it, and I didn’t like it when I was done with it.’

‘Well, actually, I loved the novel in the novel. I thought that story was real gripping. You know, true to life.’

‘I’ve heard that.’

Erasure’s appearance within the pages of I Am Not Sidney Poitier marks the end of Not Sidney’s Southern adventures – and, in a sense, his identity. In the novel’s concluding chapter, Not Sidney flies to Los Angeles. At LAX, he sees a chauffeur, holding a placard that reads ‘Sidney Poitier’. ‘Are you not Sidney Poitier?’ the man asks. ‘I am,’ Not Sidney replies, and goes along for the ride.

The chauffeur drives Not Sidney to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where everyone knows him as Sidney Poitier. He’s recognised by autograph-seekers and passers-by. Finally, he arrives at the Shrine Auditorium – a sometime site of Hollywood’s Academy Awards. (A small discrepancy: when Sidney Poitier won his Best Actor Oscar, in 1963, the awards took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.) There, Not Sidney is embraced by Elizabeth Taylor; Sidney Poitier’s friend and rival Harry Belafonte kisses Not Sidney on the cheek. ‘Was I Not Sidney Poitier or was I not Sidney Poitier,’ he wonders, but the distinction’s become meaningless; the ‘special award for Most Dignified Figure in American Culture’ is announced, and Not Sidney takes a final turn on Everett’s stage:

Applause erupted. I was pushed to standing by the people beside and behind me. I walked down the aisle and then up the stairs to the podium. I was handed an award – a statue of a standing man, gold in colour, his arms bent and his hands disappearing in front of him.

  I faced the microphone. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say:

I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.

Given the novel’s internal logic – and its phenomenologically fucked protagonist – the ending is inevitable: like Thelonious Ellison, who disappears into Stagg R. Leigh, Not Sidney can’t help but turn into his fictional Doppelgänger. But if you come to I Am Not Sidney Poitier after having read Erasure, you’ll see that the ending’s a bit more complicated. ‘I look up and see the cameras,’ the narrator of Fuck says, in that novel’s last scene:

I get kicked again while I’m bein pulled to my feet. But I dont care. The cameras is pointin at me. I be on the TV. The cameras be full of me. I on TV. I say: ‘Hey, Mama.’ I say: ‘Hey, Baby Girl. Look at me. I on TV.’

‘My steps were difficult and my head was spinning as if I had been drugged,’ Thelonious Ellison tells us, as he wins the National Book Award and Erasure draws to its close.

Cameras flashed and people murmured and I couldn’t believe that I was walking through sand, through dream sand … I looked at the faces, all of them, from time and out of time, but it was my mother to whom I spoke most directly … I looked at the television cameras looking at me … I chose one of the TV cameras and stared into it. I said: ‘Egads, I’m on television.’

These are sad, claustrophobic endings – drownings, almost. Or, to put it in cinematic terms, dissolves: I Am Not Sidney Poitier dissolves into Erasure – becomes a novel about a novel about a novel about race – and, out of the three novels in question, Fuck is the only one that doesn’t to some extent negate itself.

This, too, is sad: not because of what it says about the novels (which are excellent), but because of what it says about how far American fiction has to go before it arrives at a fully post-racial identity. In the meantime, the only way to write a truly post-racial American novel is to do what Percival Everett has been doing for most of his career: writing about characters who aren’t necessarily black, or aren’t described as such, or are only described as such in passing, and incidentally, as if their race doesn’t matter. It doesn’t, of course. Except insofar as it does.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 31 No. 24 · 17 December 2009

Alex Abramovich, in his review of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sydney Poitier, discusses Everett’s earlier novel Erasure, in which his protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, uses the pen-name Stagg R. Leigh (LRB, 19 November). Abramovich doesn’t mention it, but this is surely a reference to Stagolee, the protagonist of the song of that name. The first verse runs:

Stagolee was a bad man,
Ev’rybody knows.
Spent one hundred dollars
Just to buy him a suit of clothes.
  He was a bad man
  That mean old Stagolee.

The song then tells how Stagolee shot Billy de Lyons, who had stolen his Stetson hat, despite his pleas on behalf of his ‘two little babes’ and his ‘darling, loving wife’. The sixth verse goes:

Twelve o’clock they killed him
Head reached up high
Last thing that poor boy said:
‘My six-shooter never lied.’
  He was a bad man,
  That mean old Stagolee.

Tim Leggatt
Leamington Spa

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.