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Between laughter and fury

Lulu Allison

 

I began writing about Percival Everett’s novels with a fan’s enthusiasm. Quite soon, I found myself flailing for a key, a neat way to summarise the breadth of his work, its intelligence and fury, the weight and the glee, the wild ride of reading Everett. I’m not sure I found one – there’s too much to cover. In the pleasure and confusion of reading him, there continues to be so much to savour and to learn.

A Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California, Everett has written over twenty novels, as well as children’s books, poetry and short stories. His first novel, Suder, was published in 1983, and the most recent, Dr No, in 2022. He has received many literary awards, and was Booker shortlisted in 2022 for The Trees (2021). His books are very funny, fast paced, joyous and moving. There are villains, secret hideaways, shady organisations, absurd set pieces and pacy plots. They induce disquiet, anger and belly laughs in equal measure. There is so much going on, so many ideas tucked quietly away, or slammed like a paving slab into a puddle. Some of the writing is elusive, highly theoretical, distantly philosophical.

I should have known such a prolific and brilliant writer before now, and feel perplexed and abashed that I did not. I am far from alone in that. It was only as a follower of Influx Press, which published I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2019), that I became familiar with Everett’s work. I soon came to understand why the introduction to that edition, written by Courttia Newland, is titled ‘An Overlooked Genius’. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is about a man called Not Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney Poitier is man who looks a little like the famous actor, Sidney Poitier. Got that? And so off it wildly spirals … For many of his readers, clearly, something of genius lives in those confounding, brilliant pages.

Why did I not already know the author? Earlier works of Everett’s were published in the UK, but they passed me by. However wide and wild a reader’s comfort zone may be, they will often only get to hear of books and authors because those books and authors are promoted by the publishing industry, and by cultural organisations and the media. Readers are, to an extent, dependent on the industry telling them what there is to read. Clearly Everett, somehow, despite the awards and the quiet admiration was, as Newland states, overlooked.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for an author who tucks sub-layers and meta-layers into his novels, and who always has a sharp eye on the absurdities and injustices of a system that, by lazy default if not conscious endeavor, favours the output of white authors, Everett has written brilliantly and very entertainingly about bias in publishing. In his novel Erasure (2001), Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison is a professor of literature, and an author of ‘widely unread experimental stories and novels’ which are ‘considered dense and often inaccessible’. Sales are not helped by the bookshop Borders shelving his latest book – based on the retelling of a Greek myth – in the African American studies section of the store. Lovers of Greek myth will not find his books. Students of African American studies will not buy his books. Monk has family problems. His mother has dementia and needs to go into an expensive care home. He needs money, he needs his books to sell.

Monk is deeply irritated by the advice that in order to sell, he should drop post-modern literary novels and focus instead on ‘the African American experience’. For example, in this review of Monk’s novel:

‘The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.’

Monk is equally irritated by the concurrent runaway success of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a faux-ghetto narrative written by an author who has no personal connection to the catastrophic lives she invents, and which is praised in a significant literary magazine for its ‘haunting verisimilitude’. On a plane, he reads a review ‘in the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers of Juanita Mae Jenkins’ runaway bestseller’:

‘Juanita Mae Jenkins has written a masterpiece of African American literature. One can actually hear the voices of her people as they make their way through the experience which is and can only be Black America.’

In protest, Monk writes what he imagines to be a wild parody of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a work he already sees as parodic, and submits it to his agent. The novel, present as a 70-page complete work within Erasure, is short, outrageous and grotesque. Brilliantly titled ‘My Pafology’, as Monk’s outrage at its success grows, he shortens it simply to ‘Fuck’.

Later, observing a shelf of Tom Clancy novels and realising he is mildly offended but without fury, Monk asks himself:

‘So, why did Juanita Mae Jenkins send me running for the toilet? I imagine it was because Tom Clancy was not trying to sell his book to me by suggesting that the crew of his high-tech submarine was a representation of his race (however fitting a metaphor). Nor was his publisher marketing it in that way. If you didn’t like Clancy’s white people, you could go out and read about some others.’

A satire on publishing, Erasure is also about art and culture more widely. There are comical, philosophical conversations between figures associated with the arts throughout the novel. These fragments are tied into the ongoing satire by notions of framing, compulsive pigeonholing, the canvas, and, most pertinently, what space a work of art can be allowed to occupy. An exploration of the absurd makes its most painful appearance, twenty years later, in Everett’s novel The Trees. With a premise deeply and darkly moving, a plot that is ridiculous, ribald and funny, it sets up a breathtaking balance between humour and rage.

Family origins feature in several of Everett’s novels, as with the tender and touchingly funny story of Monk’s family in Erasure. Often, the family is as absurd as the world it occupies. Individuals, too, negotiate and participate in the absurd. Throughout his work, Everett takes a great deal of pleasure in naming his characters to great comic effect. Colonel Billy Joe Bob Roy, Hot Mama Yeller, Hickory Spit or, in Dr No, bit part characters named within a couple of pages of each other, Rick James, Otis Redding and Barry White.

Naming takes on a very different and devastating role in The Trees, when academic Damon Nathan Thruff finds himself with access to a secretive archive containing information on every lynching to have taken place in America since 1913. He writes out the names of these victims: ‘with a number 3 pencil sharpened with his Phi Beta Kappa penknife again and again.’ Over pages and pages, recreated in the text, the list is unbearably long. Coming in the midst of a book buzzing with the ferocity of a psychedelic wasp swarm, awash with wild absurdity, hilarious plot twists and names like Junior Junior and Hot Mama Yeller, these pages of real names have an overwhelming impact, sinking the reader into a vast and devastating solemnity:

‘When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real… When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.’

The Trees, Percival Everett (2021)

The impact on the reader is what marks Everett’s brilliance – his ability to map the razor edge between laughing at the absurd and reminding us how much terrible harm that absurdity causes.

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