Phenomenologically Fucked

Alex Abramovich

  • I 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.)

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.

[*] 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.