ERASURE by percival everett

ERASURE was published eight years ago, in 2001, before the J.T. Leroy hoax was outed and before the eerily echoing current debate over the film PRECIOUS. it’s hard to discuss the novel without talking about its elaborate plot and book-within-a-book structure. here’s PW’s gloss:

Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is an erudite, accomplished but seldom-read author who insists on writing obscure literary papers rather than the so-called “ghetto prose” that would make him a commercial success. He finally succumbs to temptation after seeing the Oberlin-educated author of We’s Lives in da Ghetto during her appearance on a talk show, firing back with a parody called My Pafology, which he submits to his startled agent under the gangsta pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh. Ellison quickly finds himself with a six-figure advance from a major house, a multimillion-dollar offer for the movie rights and a monster bestseller on his hands. …Ellison becomes a judge for a major book award and My Pafology (title changed to Fuck) gets nominated, forcing the author to come to terms with his perverse literary joke.

i once heard a writer complain how difficult it is to write satire these days — when the satire and the satiree both show up on the letterman show, mug at each other’s jokes, and then laugh together all the way to the bank. that is, there’s a complicity in most so-called satirical entertainment with the essential mode and delivery methods of what is being satirized.

ERASURE isn’t like this. its satire stings because it’s generous and complicated enough to shame and indict all of us for the creation and maintenance of a market-driven intellectual life, a literary culture that rewards sensation and provocation over art, and an unquestioned and reductive — even internalized — racist ideology.

for a more in-depth overview of some of everett’s source material, check out this review by bernard bell, which, while analyzing well what the book does, also ends itself with a sly (if i’m reading it right) criticism of the protaganist’s (and maybe the author’s) vantage of privledge:

“Contrary to the popularity in the academies of anti-essentialist arguments by postmodern critics, the authority, authenticity, and agency of the identities of most African Americans emanate most distinctively and innovatively from the particularity of our historical struggle against slavery and its legacy of antiblack racism in the United States.”

what ellison the character argues in ERASURE is that blackness is, must be, wide enough to include his own subjectivity. however, forces both within and without this novel refuse to cooperate, assigning the black identity only to a particular (romanticized and fetishized) “inner-city,” “gritty,” and “ghetto” experience. everett screams foul at such a distortion. ishmael reed agrees, having written a few years before this article on the scapegoat idea of a “black pathology” (a phrase which everett uses to name his street lit parody). reed writes: “The only difference between white pathology and black pathology is that white pathology is underreported.”

but all the above discussion aside for a moment, let’s acknowledge too that, while freighted with heavy consequence and while trying to make real points and to hit its targets hard – ERASURE is a pleasure to read, mostly for its patient, uproarious but never overwrought nor sensational prose. what a touch it is to be all in one book: deadly serious, furious, and howlingly funny.

find it in the library or buy it from your local independent bookstore.

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