Greil Marcus

Hector J. Rivas / Unsplash

Percival Everett is an experimental novelist and an English professor at the University of Southern California. Erasure is his thirteenth book of fiction. He has bounced from a major New York publisher in 1983, when he was a promising young African American writer, to small houses and university presses, his face glowering from his book covers more unhappily every time.

He’s never fit. Often you can’t tell if his characters are black or white. Often, it doesn’t matter—except that black novelists are supposed to write about black subjects. To illuminate the condition of the African American in the United States at this time. To be a credit to their race—or, at the least, to be their race.

Everett has had a lot of fun with this—in 1997 in Frenzy, his delirious romp with the likes of Dionysus and Tiresias; in 1999 in Glyph, the Tin Drum–like story of a super literate but resolutely mute baby, a gang of academic kidnappers, and Roland Barthes (“I’m French, you know,” he says to cover for himself in any situation); and as far back as 1983 with Suder, where the third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, batting under the Mendoza line, turns himself into Icarus.

“Have you to this point assumed that I am white?” baby Ralph asks in Glyph, after many pages of note-writing (“Would you explain to me what Lacan means by the sliding signified and the floating signifier?”—Ralph’s father, a pathetic academic, is desperately trying to make it in the deconstruction game), footnotes, and dialogue between the likes of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. “In my reading,” Ralph says of the books his mother piles in his crib, “I discovered that if a character was black, then he at some point was required to comb his Afro hairdo, speak on the street using an obvious, ethnically identifiable idiom, live in a certain part of town, or be called a nigger by someone. White characters, I assumed they were white … did not seem to need that kind of introduction, or perhaps legitimization, to exist on the page.” That could be the complaint building in Everett’s fiction up to Erasure, in which Everett blows his cover: the cover the literary world insists on. You want black, he says, I’ll give you black. You’re going to have to stomach a deconstructionist as the narrator, his family of doctors, including a gay plastic surgeon in Arizona, but I’ll give you black. On the front of the book jacket, I’ll even give you a nice photomontage of a little black boy holding a gun to his head.

Thelonious Ellison (“Call me Monk”) is an experimental novelist and a professor in California. He tells the reader straight off that he has dark skin and a broad nose, went to Harvard, listens to Mahler, Charlie Parker, and Ry Cooder, and can’t dance or play basketball. His novel The Persians was dismissed because, as a reworking of Aeschylus, “one is lost to understand what it has to do with the African American experience.” He’s in Washington, DC, his hometown, to deliver a paper to the Nouveau Roman Society: “F/V: Placing the Experimental Novel.”

This short academic paper is a key to Erasure—to Ellison’s bitterness, his instinct for satire, his will toward impostiture and self-abasement. “There was really nothing at stake for me, or so I had convinced myself, in reading the paper I had written”; he hopes it will make people mad, but he’s not sure they’re smart enough to catch on. At first, the paper reads like a parody of postmodernist academic jargon; then it begins to get interesting. Then it is hard to follow, just as Ellison says it will be, but there’s a fervor, a commitment to language, that keeps you reading. “A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious,” Ellison finishes up.

Soon enough, Ellison’s world begins to shatter. His father was a suicide, seven years before; now his sister is shot to death at an abortion clinic. His brother, married and a father, comes out of the closet, and his life breaks apart. His mother’s Alzheimer’s destroys her personality. Through all this, Ellison is competent, resourceful, devoted—and a new book, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a first novel by a young black writer named Juanita Mae Jenkins, a searing, horrifying portrait of the degradation of the American black woman by the American black man, is slowly driving him nuts.

The book confirms white America’s simultaneous impulses toward social work and concentration camps as answers to all questions of race; it offers its black heroine uplift and its white readers the certainty that no matter how far the great mass of black Americans might lift themselves up, it will never be to their level. As the book hits the best-seller lists, as huge sums roll in for the paperback rights, then the movie rights, it burns in Ellison’s mind. He’s read this before. He’s read it all his life. This is the opposite of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, never holding still for the reader; this is what the critic Albert Murray, writing in 1965 about Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land—embraced by the literati as proof that while one young black man might have escaped from Harlem, almost everyone else would have to remain there—called social science fiction.

To drive out the horror of his sister’s death, the fatigue that falls on him every time he tries to guide his mother through her days, the sorrow that escapes the smugness with which he has always regarded his brother, in a fit of cool, measured rage Ellison offers an answer book to the one all America is reading. “When I was 12, I went to visit some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days, and that’s what the novel comes from,” Juanita Mae Jenkins tells Erasure‘s Oprah about We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. Ellison may never have been to Harlem, or for that matter Compton—but if this is authenticity, who needs it? Any Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, or Zelda Lockhart can pony up the rape/incest/prostitution/black-woman-enslaved-by-the-­black-man trope; let’s hear it for the guy who has to do all the work! In what seems like a trance—

I sat and stared at Juanita Mae Jenkins’ face on Time magazine. The pain started in my feet and coursed through my legs, up my spine, and into my brain, and I remembered passages of Native Son and The Color Purple and Amos and Andy, and my hands began to shake, the world opening around me, tree roots trembling on the ground outside, people in the street shouting dint, ax, fo, screet and fahvre! And I was screaming inside, complaining that I didn’t sound like that, that my mother didn’t sound like that, that my father didn’t sound like that and I imagined myself sitting on a park bench counting the knives in my switchblade collection and a man came up to me and asked me what I was doing and my mouth opened and I couldn’t help what came out, “Why fo you be axin?”

—he writes a novel in the voice of Van Go Jenkins, a 19-year-old black man in California with four babies by four women. The babies are Aspireene, Tylenola, Dexatrina, and Rexall. The chapters are “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo,” “Fibe,” “Sex,” “Seben,” “Ate,” “Nine,” and “Tin.” The title is My Pafology. The author is “Stagg R. Leigh.”

What transpires is a wonderful, hideous joke—but no matter how hard Thelonious Ellison tries, My Pafology (included in full in Erasure), is not a joke. Ellison can disrespect anyone who might read an idiot satire like My Pafology, as real life, who might believe in spellings like Aspireene and Fibe, who can’t tell Stagg R. Leigh from Stagger Lee, but he cannot disrespect words. The novel is stupid and ridiculous—but no more so than Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and just as carefully made. It is relentlessly stereotyped—but no more so than Richard Price’s Clockers.

It is absolutely self-referential, its world reduced to the size of a paper cup—but no more so than David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. In other words, you, like Ellison, enter the novel with a feeling of relief, leaving his dead sister, his broken brother, his ruined mother, for another day, and like Ellison you rush right through it.

Ellison gets inside the stuffed doll of Juanita Mae Jenkins’s book and of all the books like it and pulls the doll inside out. What he hasn’t bargained for, though, is what his book will do to him. “The work inhabited no space artistically that I could find intelligible,” he says—but the world has no such problem. It finds Stagg R. Leigh, whom Ellison presents as an ex-con unwilling to speak to anyone, perfectly intelligible. A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious: as an experimental novelist, Ellison has never made sense, but as My Pafology turns into a property, as it becomes clear that society will pay anything to hear the story it tells, Ellison ceases to exist. We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, it turns out, was more than a dishonest, exploitative, self-congratulatory piece of shit; it was the tar baby.

Here, Erasure becomes a great yarn—a tall tale worthy of Mark Twain. The American joke, Twain wrote in “How to Tell a Story” “is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” But the mystery at the heart of the novel is the phony novel inside it—not because of how it illuminates the condition of the African American in the United States at this time, but because of how it illuminates a fictional character named Thelonious Ellison. Can his story really end where Everett leaves it, with Ellison stepping onto a stage to assume a new, fictional identity—or to force his country to acknowledge the person it has always refused to believe is real?

First published in Bookforum, Winter 2002, and reprinted on the author’s Substack, “Letter to the Ether,” on February 1, 2024. Editorial updates according to Public Seminar house style.