‘Look at me. I on TV’
- Erasure by Percival Everett
Faber, 294 pp, £14.99, March 2003, ISBN 0 571 21588 2
With its energetic cast and insistent street score, it still manages to be poignant without becoming bathetic, and violent without being exploitative. The movie ends as happily as it can, while being true to the statistics: ‘One out of every 21 black males will be murdered before he is 25 – most will die at the hands of other black men.’ Of course, realities hide behind statistics. And these Boyz are real.
The twists and the turns of the novel are fascinating, but the real strength of the work is its haunting verisimilitude. The ghetto is painted in all its exotic wonder. Predators prowl, innocents are eaten. But the novel is finally not dark, as we leave the story, with Sharonda trying to raise enough money to get her babies back from the state. Sharonda, finally, is the epitome of the black matriarchal symbol of strength.
The first quote is from a review in the Washington Post by Rita Kempley, staff writer, of the 1991 movie Boyz N the Hood, written and directed by ‘homeboy’ John Singleton; in Kempley’s words, ‘a rude, insistent rap, an unflinching, often funny, always compassionate look at coming of age in Central Los Angeles’. The second is from a review ‘in the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers’ of Juanita Mae Jenkins’s runaway bestseller, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, as quoted in Percival Everett’s new novel. We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is a fictional fiction modelled on more than one recent rendering of ghetto life, and has just been made a Book Club Selection on the Kenya Dunston Show (‘Girl, that is some writing,’ Kenya says). The only significant difference between the reviewers is that Everett – implausibly and slightly unfairly – has denied his the assistance of a subeditor.
Everett’s narrator, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, is an academic and a writer who struggles for not struggling enough. His inaccessible novels don’t sell, and his latest book has been rejected by 17 publishers; one of his previous efforts was rewarded with the comment: ‘one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience’ (the infelicity of the phrase ‘one is lost to understand’ is another injection of unnecessary cruelty unfairly administered). When Monk’s sister, a doctor who runs a loss-making clinic in one of the poorest parts of inner-city Washington, is shot by a pro-life protester, and his mother’s Alzheimer’s becomes disabling, he sits down at a typewriter and bashes out ‘My Pafology’, a parody of a ghetto novel which, to his agent’s horror, he sends out (under the name Stagg R. Leigh) and which, to his own (partial) horror, is bought by Random House for $600,000; the movie rights are sold for $3 million.
The eighty-page ‘My Pafology’, which the elusive and super-scary Leigh insists is published as Fuck, appears as the centrepiece of Erasure. It is narrated by 19-year-old Van Go Jenkins, who has four children by four different women and whose life has looked bleak ever since he was kicked out of high school for beating up a teacher who told him he’d never amount to anything. He has dreams about stabbing his mother (‘I stab Mama cause I love her. I stab Mama cause I hate her. Cause I love her. Cause I hate her. Cause I ain’t got no daddy’) and he wants to get hold of a gun to rob a K’rean muthafucka who doesn’t trust him. Things look up briefly when he gets a job as a houseboy for a rich lawyer; the real downturn begins when he rapes the lawyer’s daughter. He is invited onto a talk show – Rikki Lake rather than Oprah being the model here – and is confronted by all four of his women, an audience baying for his blood, and the police, sent to arrest him. He runs, and kills a couple of people; the helicopters come circling in. The last paragraph is: ‘I looks up and see the cameras. 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 Pafology’, designed to be a false narrative, is worryingly satisfying. It has a direction, a downward spiral with gathering drama; every action has a consequence; it shouts out a single message. The black everyman Van is supposed to represent is trapped by his circumstances: there is no way out of the box he is in. Or none he can find on his own: the right-thinking demand a single sacrifice of him – to be prepared to accept help, to know that he is damned if he isn’t available for salvation. It’s the AA creed. Van’s way out is the job with the lawyer, which he is offered as a favour to his mother. Hard as he tries, he fluffs it: the (black) lawyer’s daughter tempts him by treating him as an anthropological – or zoological – curiosity. He believes that fame or notoriety (it doesn’t matter) is his escape; but it is his final trap, in which he becomes entirely what he represents for the audience: a thug, a negligent father, a rapist, a murderer.
The satirical story that surrounds ‘My Pafology’ is not so very different: it is readable, it fulfils and exceeds narrative expectation. Monk has always been cast by other people into a mould he doesn’t fit: ‘the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race.’ But he can’t dance and he could never play basketball; he likes fishing and woodworking. As a teenager, Monk says, he wanted badly to be accepted. ‘I watched my friends, who didn’t sound so different from me, step into scenes and change completely. “Yo, man, what it is?” they would say. “You’re what it is,” someone would respond.’ After writing ‘that awful little book’, he is forced to perform his alter ego. A Random House editor (Paula Baderman) insists on talking to Leigh, a film executive (Wiley Morgenstein) insists on meeting him, he takes his turn on the Kenya Dunston Show from behind a screen: everyone likes a thrill. There’s a sense of escalation. Monk is one of the judges of the National Book Award, and despite his protestations (‘offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless’), his colleagues insist on shortlisting Fuck. The award ceremonies arrive. The last line is: ‘Egads, I’m on television.’
The satire – the well-made story – and the equally well-made parody it depends on are only part of Erasure: distractions fly off in all directions. It turns out that Monk’s dead father had an affair, the secrets of which are hidden in a box he had instructed his wife to destroy. It’s not clear what effect this has on Monk other than to show that the father, too, always played a false role. Monk’s sister, Lisa, dies early in the book, too early for there to be much drama or regret, and her death has no consequences – no family disintegration, no quest for her killer. Bill, the brother, comes out as gay, but it’s not much of a revelation: Monk always knew and their mother is too far gone to take the fact in. Monk stumbles into a late-flowering romance with a neighbour at the family’s house in Martha’s Vineyard; it doesn’t last long (he finds a copy of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto on her bedside table). These half-happenings signify Monk’s (perhaps increasing) isolation, but that is their only large novelistic message, and it’s a message that is in any case telegraphed convincingly by the story of the terrifying success of ‘My Pafology’.
The episodes from Monk’s disintegrating personal life – and the flashbacks that demonstrate that he is unable to be like other people, or unable to be the person other people want him to be – don’t cohere or persuade, not because they aren’t like life but because they aren’t like fiction. Monk, teasingly, knows that his story isn’t a winning one. ‘Perhaps, for dramatic effect, I should have had to wait longer for my windfall, given my brother’s newfound flakiness and my sister’s debt (both what she owed and what I owed her), but it didn’t happen that way. The news of the money came and I breathed an ironic and bitter sigh of relief.’ When indications of drama come, they are misleading. The grey tin that contains the secrets of Monk’s father’s affair is glimpsed in the corner of a room before it is opened, and the mood is set for revelations. But only one or two take place. Monk relates a memory of going to ask his father whether he was allowed to tell someone’s secret if he had promised not to. ‘You should not betray a confidence,’ his father said, and then: ‘Does this have anything to do with Bill?’ It didn’t have anything to do with Bill, Monk says, but we never find out what it did have to do with.
Erasure is designed to feel like a novel, and Everett uses the whole box of novelistic tricks. The dialogue is disjointed: people are characterised by the questions they choose not to respond to. Monk remembers his first dance: ‘Her thighs brushed my thighs and as it was summer I was wearing shorts and could feel her skin against mine and it was just slightly too much for my hormonal balancing act.’ That unpunctuated sentence with its three ‘and’s, an acceleration of breath re-created by an acceleration of language, is the sort of heightened mimetic style that is one of a novelist’s most useful tools. Generally, it becomes unremarkable, part of the fabric of a book, but this is the only instance I could find in Erasure: it’s just a gesture. There are larger gestures: Everett manages a sense of threat. Lisa and Monk mention having seen something on TV about ‘the sniper who shot the nurse through the clinic window’ in Maryland. A man outside Lisa’s clinic shakes his fist at Monk; a man watches her in a restaurant. These glimpses of a dangerous element, thrown in at the end of a section, represent a destabilising, doubt-inducing presence that unsettles what has gone before. This is the artifice of tension, used in novels to represent an explosive social situation, the threat to order; it’s also a formal pattern, used for its own sake: a moment in a minor key.
But Everett complicates the function of the sniper; there is another loose cannon at large: a man called Gimbel who sends Monk death threats and lurks outside his hotel, beating his chest like an ape. Gimbel, a writer of experimental novels, takes exception to a paper Monk delivers to the Nouveau Roman Society (the paper, which is subtitled ‘F/V: A Novel Excerpt’ and is naturally reproduced in full, is a terminally digressive discussion of Barthes’s S/Z): it’s hard, therefore, to take the threat he poses seriously, and Monk doesn’t. Nevertheless, Gimbel’s contorted anger reflects the blank fury of the anti-abortion demonstrators who close in on Lisa. Gimbel is incensed by fiction, the killer by reality. The message of Monk’s ‘awful little book’ is similarly mixed: it deals with entrapment in two senses – the social entrapment of a man unable to escape his background, and the fictive entrapment of a character unable to exist other than as a mere narrative function.
Everett’s unfaultable novelistic techniques are performances, but they don’t aim to dazzle. They are modes he speaks in temporarily, like the modes (gangsta, streetwise kid) Monk has tried to speak in, and they take their place among the more spectacular ventriloquising performances scattered through the book: ‘My Pafology’, the paper on Barthes, the transcript of a quiz show, the biographical blurbs on the NBA judges, Monk’s CV, his ideas for stories, the letters his father received from his lover. Everett has written 11 novels. There’s one narrated by a four-year-old with an interest in semiotics, one about a hydrologist, one set in the 19th-century West, one about Dionysus. They don’t sound the same. The naive, unreflexive novel of which ‘My Pafology’ is a distorted and extreme representation demands a certain kind of sincerity and bravery to write (or, looked at in another light, falseness and cravenness). Erasure is brave in a different way. On the first page, Monk apologises for presenting a book that has a writer as its main character – something he has always hated. You wonder why he doesn’t have the same reticence when it comes to woodworking and his own raptures over the smell of sawdust, the lie of the grain, the efficient beauty of his tools: carpentry is a little too deliberate a metaphor. But Everett is generous enough with his unfinished and abortive thoughts to be allowed a few flights.