Thelonious Monk Ellison, the narrator of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, writes obscure, but well-reviewed novels that draw on classical history, and he gives talks at academic conferences that even his colleagues can’t really follow. What he doesn’t do is write about race. He remains steadfast in this even when he knows that it could be an easier ticket to literary fame for him, as a Black man, than the more esoteric and avant-garde path that he’s chosen. And he doesn’t think much of the kinds of novels by and about Black people that seem to have captured the public’s imagination, most recently a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto by a Black woman who, much like Monk himself, has no actual experience with the ghetto.
Monk’s actual experiences wouldn’t necessarily provide much fodder for publishers looking for stories about race. His family has struggles, but they’re not the kinds of struggles in books like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Monk has recently come home to Washington DC, initially for an academic conference, but then to take care of his elderly mother as her dementia progresses. His brother is dealing with the breakup of his marriage after he came out as gay. And his sister must make her way through a line of anti-abortion protestors as she goes to work at her clinic. The struggles are real, but they’re not likely to be conveyed in bad dialect in narrative fueled by sex and violence.
But, then, eventually, in a fit of frustration, Monk gives in. He writes the book he thinks publishers and the literary community want. He titles it My Pafology and sends it to his agent, almost as a joke, and his agent sends it to publishers under a pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh. And you can imagine where it goes from there. It’s a pretty hilarious send-up of what white culture expects and wants from Black artists.
As I read, I had to wonder how much of this book — and the book within the book — draws on Everett’s own experience as a Black author. This is the fourth of his books that I’ve read, and the first two that I read — So Much Blue and Telephone — aren’t really about race. It wouldn’t make any sense to shelve them in an African-American section of a bookstore, something Monk complains about booksellers doing with his books, thus preventing him from finding the audience that wants what he writes. (Some of Everett’s other books more directly discuss race. It’s just that I happened to start with the books that don’t.)
I also had to wonder if I’m part of the problem that Everett is lampooning here. Does it mean anything that The Trees, a satire about lynching, is my favorite of his books? Certainly The Trees is doing something much more sophisticated than Ma Pafology or We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. (For one basic thing, only the white characters in The Trees speak in a ridiculous dialect.) But are there other books I’ve lauded because they seemed “raw” and “real” when they’re no more real than the books Everett is mocking here. I think it’s a question worth asking! And it’s impossible to read Erasure without asking it.
The more of Everett’s books I read, the more I like his writing and the more I want to read. Anyone have a favorite to recommend?