Erasure: A Novel / Percival Everett. - Percival Everett If Erasure is about anything, it’s about identity. Ones we invent for ourselves, ones we invent for others, ones that are forced on us, and ones that we lose. From the first page, the novel’s protagonist, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, tries to establish his:

I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia and so the society in which I live tells me I am black; that is my race. Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball. I listen to Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder on vinyl records and compact discs. I graduate summa cum laude from Harvard, hating every minute of it. I am good at math. I cannot dance. I did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south. My family owned a bungalow near Annapolis. My grandfather was a doctor. My father was a doctor. My brother and sister were doctors.

While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough. Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing….

The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it. I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.
(pp. 1-2)

There are two foci to the book. The first is the satirization of the publishing industry; the second is Monk’s relationship with his family.

Monk’s books languish unread because publishers and bookstores don’t know how to market him. A publisher complains in a rejection letter that he “shows a brilliant intellect, certainly. It’s challenging and masterfully written and constructed, but who wants to read this shit? It’s too difficult for the market. But more, who is he writing to? Does the guy live in a cave somewhere? Come on, a novel in which Aristophanes and Euripides kill a younger, more talented dramatist, then contemplate the death of metaphysics?” And a reviewer moans that “one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.”

When the “authentic,” African American novel, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto by Juanita Mae Jenkins (whose experience of inner-city life extends to a few days spent in Harlem) rises to the top of the best-seller list, and the author receives accolades and lucrative publishing/movie deals, Monk writes a scathing parody titled My Pafology (subsequently renamed Fuck! under the nom de plume Stagg R. Leigh. It’s the story of Van Go Jenkins, tough-talking, 19-year-old father of four babies by four different mothers. A typical resident of “da hood.” He convinces his agent to shop the book around, and Random House picks it up for $600,000. Of course, Hollywood becomes interested in making a movie based on it. And to add grievous insult to near fatal injury, it’s named the best book of the year by the awards committee he’s sitting on despite his attempt to derail the nomination:

“It’s not that it’s a bad novel…. It’s no novel at all. It is a failed conception, an unformed fetus, seed cast into the sand, a hand without fingers, a word with no vowels. It is offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless.”

Wilson Harnet, Ailene Hoover, Thomas Tomad and Jon Paul Sigmarsen just looked at me, none of them speaking.

“It’s not art,” I said.

Ailene Hoover said, “I should think as an African American you’d be happy to see one of your own people get an award like this.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Are you nuts?”

… “I would think you’d be happy to have the story of your people so vividly portrayed,” Hoover said.

“These are no more my people than Abbot and Costello are your people,” I said….

“I learned a lot reading that book,” Jon Paul Sigmarsen said. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with color – black people – and so
Fuck was a great thing for me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “People will read this shit and believe that there is truth to it.”

Thomas Tomad laughed. “This is the truest novel I’ve ever read. It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It’s the real thing.”
(p. 261)

The second focus of the novel – Monk’s personal life – receives less attention than the first, which is unfortunate because it’s potentially more interesting than the first and could have been more extensively mined. There’s Monk’s mother, whose identity is rapidly being lost to Alzheimer’s; there’s Bill, his older brother, who has come out after being divorced by his wife; there’s Lisa, his older sister, a doctor at a woman’s clinic who’s been murdered by an anti-choice fanatic. And there’s his deceased father, whose heretofore unknown love affair with a British nurse he met in Korea suggests a private life and identity that his son completely missed. And there’s Monk’s own struggle to be honest with himself and respond to the demands society and the expectations that people in his life have of him.

For the most part, I enjoyed Erasure. There were times when the satire became heavy handed and distracting, but not to such an extent that I wouldn’t recommend this book strongly.