“Erasure” by Percival Everett:
In this truly brilliant, deeply thought-provoking novel, first published in 2001, Everett created a cutting, excellently executed satire on how books by authors of colour are categorised and defined by race.
Everett’s novels are all distinctive in terms of form and content and most of those I’ve read are very good. Most of them are playing with, satirizing or bending the rules of a different genre.
Race has always been a central theme in Everett’s work and so here it is again, distilled and concisely brought to focus. In Erasure we follow the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who, much as Percival Everett himself, is a black writer and academic and who is increasingly frustrated by how his being black alters readers’ expectations of his work.
Novels such as Wounded or So Much Blue acknowledge race and even examine some of its causes and effects, but do not make it the central or pivotal point. This is different in Erasure. Here race is the primary concern and shows how completely the term has been conflated with non-whiteness in the United States and how whiteness is existentially dependant on this conflation.
To quickly sketch the plot:
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is frustrated about the tremendous success of the so-called authentic and raw novel “We's Lives in Da Ghetto” of a young black female author, which he considers below and devoid of all aesthetic and artistic value.
And so in response, meant as a satirical parody, he writes under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, a searing diatribe, a distilled little pulp novel titled at first My Pafology and finally published as Fuck which appears in full length as a story-within-a-story in Erasure.
Monk‘s intention was to expose the publishing industry’s racial pigeonholing, but publishing this book backfires and sets loose a wizard’s apprentice storm of success and fame he cannot control anymore. The book, written in ghettospeak, painfully funny and plain painful, with simplistic characters and soap melodrama, uses racial stereotypes to strengthen the satire and is completely misunderstood and gushed over as the authentic new voice of the black people and praised as a true description of the African-American experience. It brings its author substantial and much-needed monetary compensation, a six-figure movie deal included.
Now Monk is in a dilemma, a moral conundrum and what will he do about it?
He refuses to let his true identity be known but meanwhile there are serious difficulties and problems which he must cope with. There is his mother's rapid mental decline, the sudden hostility of his gay brother who for a long time lived in the closet and just came out and the shocking shooting of his sister who worked as a doctor in an abortionist clinic. Not to forget the discovery among his dead father's papers that Dad once had a white mistress and Monk now all of a sudden has a half-sister his age. While he struggles to cling to his own identity and trying to maintain what is left of his family, his wicked creation soars higher and higher and Monk is forced to compromise his integrity and redefine himself.
Erasure is a peculiar mix of literary satire and emotional domestic fiction, original, hilarious, sharp, genuinely moving and tender. One of Everett‘s best.
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