Percival Everett by Virgil Russell 
by Percival Everett.
Influx, 271 pp., £9.99, September 2021, 978 1 910312 99 5
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Erasure 
by Percival Everett.
Faber, 294 pp., £8.99, August 2021, 978 0 571 37089 4
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The Trees 
by Percival Everett.
Influx, 334 pp., £9.99, March, 978 1 914391 17 0
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No American novelist​ has devoted as much energy as Percival Everett to the proper noun, its powers as engine, instrument and index. Towards the end of Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (first published in 2013), a story about storytelling in which nobody is called Percival Everett or Virgil Russell, one of the narrators gives a list of 516 gerunds that encompass the whole of human activity. ‘Naming’ appears first and last – and seventeen times in-between. Everett’s first novel, Suder (1983), ends with the main character, a baseball player in a terminal slump, uttering the words ‘Craig Suder’. The hero of I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009) goes through life being called ‘Not Sidney’, and battles with his resulting inclination towards passivity and victimhood. Everett has expressed opposition to labels, categories and genres. ‘I never think in regions,’ he said, during an interview for a book about writers from the American South. Once something is named, its potential is limited, its freedom compromised. In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, a father-to-be tries to persuade his wife to leave their son unnamed in order to spare the child ridicule. (‘You can’t mess up ———.’) The painter in So Much Blue (2017) has spoken the title of his long-gestating work-in-progress just once ‘under my breath while I was alone in my studio’ and fears that his children ‘might try to name it and so ruin it and everything’.

There are various ways of accounting for this obsession. Percival Everett was named after his father, an imposition liable to get you thinking about labels and identity, and the name itself is striking, bringing with it narrow and misleading connotations. When Everett was hired as a professor at the University of Southern California in 1998, one of his new colleagues complained that the ‘last thing we need is another fifty-year-old Brit’, only to be informed by the department secretary: ‘He’s a black cowboy!’ (Everett had worked as a rancher and mule trainer.) In his essay ‘Hidden Name and Complex Fate’, Ralph Ellison, who reduced his middle name (Waldo) to a ‘simple and mysterious “W.”’, argued that African Americans – ‘especially if we are potential writers’ – may be ‘more than ordinarily concerned’ with the associations their names carry with them.

Everett was born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina. He studied with the logician Howard Pospesel at the University of Miami, where he read Frege, Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, but abandoned postgraduate study after deciding that fiction offered a more fruitful way of thinking about how ‘meaning gets constructed’. ‘I start with something that bugs me, some philosophical problem,’ he has said, ‘and then I look for a way to explore it.’

Everett’s work – 23 novels, as well as stories and poems – can be read as a series of parting shots at his abandoned vocation. The litany of gerunds in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell surpasses the mere fourteen offered by Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind (‘knowing, learning, discovering’ etc). The narrator of Glyph (1999) has yet to mark his first birthday but can already outsmart his poststructuralist father. Philosophers of language have been frequent subjects of his onomastic play (‘afrege’, ‘Grice-told’, ‘eQuine’); the name Alfred North Whitehead is deemed ‘unfortunate’. At one point in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, a small girl who is asked to identify herself says: ‘My name is Name. My name is my name and the name of the word name and Name, my name.’ The response to this is ‘I’m getting out of here,’ and the reader may experience the same urge. But not all the time. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell represented an extreme – it was conceived as a response to Frege’s essay ‘Sense and Reference’ – and in works published before and since, Everett has successfully mined the puzzle or paradox for drama and conceits. It was after reading Everett, and making a tacit contrast between his work and that of other contemporary writers, that Joyce Carol Oates tweeted about the ‘wan little husks of “autofiction” with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer’.

Oates was complaining not just about bad taste but what it serves to exclude. Everett is routinely described as underrated or overlooked, an outsider, the creator of a body of work too eccentric or discomfiting or higgledy-piggledy to attract a readership, or retain one. It’s certainly the case that no one else has written comedies about deconstruction, revisionist Westerns, dystopian fantasies and retellings of ancient myth. Everett shares his taste for marrying comedy and philosophy with Thomas Pynchon and the Joseph Heller of Catch-22 and Good as Gold. But there’s only one writer who resembles him in any significant way. Like Everett, J.M. Coetzee was a student of logic who turned to fiction. ‘My name is Eugene Dawn,’ the narrator of his early story ‘The Vietnam Project’ announces: ‘I cannot help that.’ Reflecting on his role in Vietnam War propaganda, Dawn says: ‘I am not ashamed to name things by their names.’ Everett and Coetzee both view reasoning as circular or tautological, a human invention posing as a discovery about the nature of all things, as well as a source of rationalisations for acts of dominance. And both have exhibited a resistance to realism, along Barthesian lines, as a literary impulse that struggles to recognise its own partiality, or man-made status.

If there’s a form that offers a natural home for the novelist scornful of ‘convenient thinking’ (Everett’s term) and of what Coetzee calls ‘the mimetic pretensions of fiction’, it’s the Menippean satire, a mixture of sermon, colloquy, catalogue, games, dreams, digressions. Coetzee has tended to emulate writers with Menippean traits, such as Beckett (the subject of his PhD thesis), Defoe and Dostoevsky (about whom he has written novels). Almost all of Everett’s favourite books seem to come from this tradition: Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, Alice in Wonderland, Sartor Resartus, Huckleberry Finn, The Way of All Flesh, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Satire is an obvious recourse for the lapsed logician, but even more so this farraginous subtype, which, as Northrop Frye wrote, furnishes ‘a good many devices turning on the difficulty of communication’, and treats the ‘diseases of the intellect’ that ‘impede the free movement … of society’. The overturning of formal conventions serves as a challenge to ‘fossilised beliefs’, stereotypical definitions and hierarchies.

But there’s one element of the Menippean inheritance – its topical or journalistic character – that both Everett and Coetzee are keen to resist, on the grounds that it has become a kind of orthodoxy and obligation. ‘They want me to be a realist,’ Coetzee complained while writing Foe, his reworking of Robinson Crusoe. ‘They want my books to be-about. Specifically, to be-about South Africa.’ And sure enough, when Foe was published, one reviewer accused him of indulging in ‘postmodern games while Soweto burns’. Everett has said that his second novel, Walk Me to the Distance (1985), which never explicitly states the ethnicity of the central character, was criticised for ‘avoiding the hard stuff’, while Frenzy (1997), about Dionysus, was rejected for lacking relevance to African American experience. ‘I thought: “Wow.” I’m relegated to writing about only things that deal with black people.’ Both writers have been engaged in rejecting a received discursive vocabulary of social and political analysis in order to examine the classificatory tendencies that license oppression in the first place. Yet direct confrontation has proved easier for audiences to parse and digest. Coetzee won his Booker Prizes for portrayals of South Africa (Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace). Everett gained recognition for a novel about an African American novelist, Erasure (2001), and was included on this year’s Booker shortlist for The Trees, a counterfactual comedy set in 2018, in which Emmett Till returns to Mississippi to avenge his lynching.

Everett is keen to explore how racialisation works in a literary context. Some way into Glyph, the novel that came after Frenzy, the narrator asks the reader, ‘Have you to this point assumed that I am white?’, since convention dictates that a black character is ‘required to comb his Afro hairdo, speak on the street using an obvious, ethnically identifiable idiom, live in a certain part of a town, or be called a nigger by someone’. And as Brandon Taylor points out in his foreword to the new edition of Erasure, the narrator, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, introduces himself first as ‘a writer of fiction … a son, a brother, a fisherman, an art lover, a woodworker’, and then again in collective or generic terms:

I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race.

Monk proceeds to explain that, because he was no good at basketball and did not grow up in an ‘inner city or the rural South’, he joined the Black Panther Party while at Harvard to ‘prove I was black enough. Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.’ Monk has recently completed a novel which bears some resemblance to Everett’s Frenzy and is met with similar rejection. This is the sense in which he is black – as a function of the way he is treated by white people. He considers himself ‘a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art be defined as an exercise in racial self-expression’. Exasperated and increasingly poor, he puts aside his current project, a novel based on Barthes’s S/Z, and writes a pseudonymous parody of a recent hit, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. He initially calls the book My Pafology and later renames it F*ck. It achieves instant commercial success and critical acclaim.

Erasure clearly has designs as a polemic, targeting publishers, reviewers and readers, but also black writers, for their collusion. It’s a latter-day intervention in the mid-century debate about the duties and burdens of African American writing initiated by Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). In essays such as ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’, ‘Alas, Poor Richard’ and ‘Many Thousands Gone’, James Baldwin rejected the role of ‘Negro writer’ and ‘categorisation’ more generally; Irving Howe defended Wright in ‘Black Boys and Native Sons’; then Ellison, caught in the crossfire as the author of Invisible Man, shot back at Howe in ‘The World and the Jug’. It’s clear which side Everett takes. In an imagined exchange, D.W. Griffith tells Wright: ‘I like your book very much.’ (The Chicago Defender compared the film version of Native Son to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.) But Erasure doesn’t merely thumb its nose at Native Son and its descendants – Sapphire’s Push, for instance. Everett rejects naturalism in order to present alternative paths. In the lengthy excerpt from Monk’s Barthes project, he depicts the black writer as the author of a meta-literary or verbal art. And in the novel’s wider emphasis on Monk’s existence as a brother and son from a middle-class family, he offers a portrait of ‘the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro’ – ‘the best-kept secret in America’, according to Zora Neale Hurston in her 1950 essay ‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’.

InThe Trees, Everett extends his critique to contemplate the end point of racialisation, a reductio ad absurdum that is all too real. The novel takes place in Money, the town in the Mississippi Delta that Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting in August 1955 when two men kidnapped him, beat him, shot him and threw him in the Tallahatchie, a cotton-gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. His offence was the way he interacted with a white woman in a store, and Everett’s novel begins in 2018 with Carolyn Bryant, the woman in question, at a family barbecue. ‘I didn’t say he said something to me,’ she announces; her husband and his half-brother ‘insisted that he did, and so I went along with it’. (The real Bryant, who is still alive, admitted as much in 2007.) Soon a body that looks very much like Till’s is discovered together with the corpse of Carolyn’s son Wheat. Then the body disappears. But Till keeps popping up at crime scenes.

It’s a tough case for the local sheriff, Red Jetty (Jetty is slang for ‘neck’), and his deputies, Delroy Digby and Braden Brady. Before long they are joined by a pair of detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, and Herberta Hind from the FBI. Everett returns to the terrain of Erasure with the figure of Damon Nathan Thruff, a 27-year-old assistant professor at the University of Chicago, with a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard, a PhD in psychobiology from Yale and a PhD in Eastern philosophy from Columbia, who has been placed in Ethnic Studies (‘they didn’t know where to put him’) and given a one-year appointment as the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies. Thruff has travelled to Money to visit the archive of Mama Z., a 105-year-old resident who has gathered information about every person lynched in the US since 1913, beginning with her father, a voting rights activist:

What was most unsettling was that they all read so much alike, not something that one wouldn’t expect, but the reality of it was nonetheless stunning. They were like zebras, he thought – not one had stripes just like any other, but who could tell one zebra from another? He found it all depressing, not that lynching could be anything but. However, the crime, the practice, the religion of it, was becoming more pernicious as he realised that the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sign.

Of course, there is a means of distinguishing one zebra from another: ‘When I write the names they become real.’ The most powerful passages of The Trees – the only parts without comic inflection – are simply lists of victims, reminiscent of the catalogues of female victims in the penultimate section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. It’s typical of Everett that he expands the definition of lynching to include contemporary police shootings, but also victims of homophobia, anti-Chinese sentiment and antisemitism.

Yet in other ways he seems keen to affirm existing categories. The Trees marks a formal departure for Everett. In place of a first-person narrator, he adopts multiple perspectives, over 106 chapters. It’s an approach that should yield complication, but for all the pinballing, we never encounter anything that troubles the worldview implied in the opening passage:

Money, Mississippi, looks exactly as it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.

It’s a complacent bit of writing: the vindication of first impressions, the tautology of a ‘name’ being ‘named’, the mixture of authorial overtness and conceptual overkill in ‘ignorance’, ‘nescience’ and ‘sad’. Everett isn’t confronting us with our own hypocrisy or bad faith but with that of the unrepentant and unreflecting white South. In the second paragraph, we’re told that Wheat Bryant ‘was constantly, ever, always between jobs’. Then Everett explains the joke in a manner laborious even by the standards of joke-explaining: ‘The word between usually suggested something at either end, two somethings, or destinations, and that Wheat had held only one job in his whole life, so he wasn’t between anything.’ Wheat’s wife, Charlene, is the one to point this out, but we’re soon invited to laugh at her for working at an organisation with a long name that has ‘no commas’.

The excessive detailing continues. The governor of South Carolina tells his constituents: ‘We understand, all of us, that the actions of a few members of any group are not and should not be an indictment of an entire group. That said, all of these killers are black men who have no regard for human life.’ When Ed says that for a lot of the folks in Money it’s still ‘1950’, Jim replies ‘1850’ and Herbie adds: ‘Not just here.’ One character explains: ‘Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices.’ During a bar scene, a singer performs ‘Strange Fruit’, and Everett provides all of the lyrics. Though we are invited to condemn the university dean who denies Thruff tenure on the grounds that nobody could produce work of ‘such quality so quickly’, it’s much easier to sympathise with him. He’s making a stand for the feasible in an inflationary fictional universe.

Responding to a review in the New York Times that identified him – gratuitously, he felt – as African American, Everett claimed that he would rather face overt bigotry than the insidious racism displayed by liberals. But it’s clear what makes for more fruitful subject matter, and besides, The Trees shows little evidence of his putative preference. By the time we meet Hickory Spit, the FBI agent who led the effort to discredit Martin Luther King, who can ‘barely wipe his own ass’, considers George W. Bush ‘an intellectual elite’ and is ‘in love with the current clown’, and then the ‘clown’ himself, who gets stuck under the desk in the Oval Office (‘My knees are all pressed up against my stomach’), it seems possible that the whole thing is a kind of ruse, a test of the reader’s appetite for flattery. Everett has said that he wants to make fun of satire ‘as well as satirising social policies’, adding: ‘I shouldn’t even say this, but I write about satire.’ This is a Menippean manoeuvre, scepticism about scepticism, subjecting all exercises of ‘wit’ to ridicule. You can see how that description applies to Erasure, where we can’t be entirely sure what to make of Monk’s backfiring prank. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here. The Trees is closer to unwitting self-parody. But it’s also an inadvertent tribute to Everett’s usual cogency, in particular his insight into the ways we use language as a tool of coercion, a way of delimiting realities. Frye identified a kind of satire that contains ‘relatively little irony’. He defined it in various ways: ‘flyting’, ‘invective’, ‘name-calling’.

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