Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book Review: Erasure by Percival Everett





Irony, the literary device that contrasts between what is expected of a situation and what actually takes place, can be interesting to follow in relation to the publishing industry. This is especially the case in relation to Erasure by Percival Everett.

Everett had already published over a dozen novels and served as a professor of English at the University of Southern California before this novel, those including Glyph and God's Country. He was an acclaimed writer and did what he did quite well, but he wasn't particularly well-known. Then along came this novel.

This novel was an example of Everett taking the universal writing advice of "write what you know" to an extreme: the protagonist is a black man, a professor of English, and a fiction writer. The novel serves as both a serious satire of the racist pigeonholing the publishing industry has long done to authors of color and a touching tale of a man who reconnects with his family history, including his aging and mentally ill mother. Such disparate subjects easily could've made the narrative fall apart, but Everett's experience helps him here—every moment of satirical black comedy is accompanied by an exploration of the protagonist’s inner struggles and his relationships with his family.

The novel’s plot follows Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” (obvious allusions to writer Ralph Ellison and legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk). Monk’s seventh novel has been rejected by editors and publishers, and over the course of the novel, Monk is forced to take control and care for his mother, who develops Alzheimer’s, all the while trying to keep up his relationship with his formerly closeted, now openly gay brother Bill. Monk is disturbed when author Juanita Mae Jenkins’s debut, the phonetically written, grammatically incorrect We’s Lives In Da Ghetto becomes a national bestseller and is even offered a movie deal. Not content to just watch this continue, Monk writes his own parody of this sort of racist wannabe literature under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, first titled My Pafology, then Fuck. To his surprise, it’s greeted with critical acclaim, tops the New York Times bestseller list, and is offered a movie deal.

The narrative is very character driven. Monk is our narrator—sometimes the narrative flashes back to his childhood or his teenage years, to help us understand Monk as a protagonist, and his family and how they relate to him. Most of the novel is told in short, sparsely written journal entries, though there are exceptions: letters, book reviews, short stories, story ideas, and academic papers. I found Monk to be a very relatable and well-done exploration of a black middle-class intellectual, and the other characters help add a human element to the novel, especially his mother, perhaps the most sympathetic of the narrative.

As it stands, Erasure is an excellent novel: a dark and hilarious satire, a realistic portrait of black middle-class life of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and a touching story of a man and his mentally ill mother as he learns to let go.

Score: 5/5

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