Percival Everett’s “Erasure” Is The Best Novel About Race In America Of The Past Decade. It’s Also Not About Race In America.
ORIGINAL TITLE: Money Is Everything: The Brilliantly Banal Cynicism Of Everett’s Erasure
REASON FOR INCLUSION: Mostly to draw attention to this criminally underrated satire of racial narratives in America.
Percival Everett’s Erasure is a work of myriad ambiguities, but when it comes to the role race plays in the central plotline, its message initially seems so straightforward that it verges on heavy-handedness: Theolonious “Monk” Ellison, an African-American intellectual whose narrow academic pursuits are of little interest to those outside his social circles, writes a satirical novel that parodies the ludicrous racial stereotypes populating “important” works of socially conscious black fiction, and when his book’s exaggerated portrayal of life in the ghetto is mistaken for a serious drama, Monk’s unexpected mainstream success among the mostly white media forces him to choose between embracing or rejecting the caricatured world he created.
Readers who interpret Erasure as some sort of allegory on the performative nature of being black in modern America, then, could make a variety of very strong cases. They may see his decision to continue posing as Leigh a product of subservient racial masochism, callous exploitation of his people’s tragic history, or the impositions placed upon him by white hegemonic power structures.
However, such theories hinge on an excessively narrow reading that fails to account for the much broader sense of alienation that permeates Monk’s role in American life; his disconnect from others runs far deeper than his skin color, extending to nearly all of his relationships. His mother is rapidly losing herself to Alzheimer’s, his brother is a closeted gay man, his sister “has little use” for his “flighty” abstractions (Everett 3), and his father concealed a second family from him for decades. There are simply too many non-racial variables to restrict ourselves to a purely ethnocentric reading, and as we shall see, the theory that race is even the dominant force behind Monk’s actions collapses under scrutiny.
Once we realize this, the very foundations of Monk’s motivations for continuing to promote Fuck as Stagg R. Leigh collapse with it. From here, a once-clear picture becomes rapidly muddied. We may attempt to replace “race” with a similar psychological umbrella — the need to feel powerful, Monk’s desire to be a different person, a newfound respect for genre fiction — but despite tantalizing glimpses of thematic cohesion, these theories also fail to address the continued discomfort and self-loathing he experiences while occupying the role.
Ultimately, the most probable motivation may be as simple as Monk needing the money.
Before proceeding, it is pivotal that I clarify why the role of race should be minimized in a novel that is seemingly defined by it. The most obvious clue, of course, is that Monk explicitly introduces himself to the reader as a black man who does not care about race and rarely thinks about it (1–2). While he is aware of the significance race plays in the minds of others, his attitude ranges from disinterest to annoyance. Fitting virtually none of the stereotypes commonly associated with African-Americans, Monk prefers Hegel to basketball (134), cannot dance (22–23), feels awkward using conventionally black slang (166–167), and is more likely to be attacked by middle-aged PhD candidates specializing in postmodern linguistic theory than gang members (17–18; 36–37), all of which prompt the refrain that his attitude is not “black enough,” often by members of the black community (2; 22–24; 43).
Lest we interpret this as merely the prelude to Monk’s racial awakening, however, we should consider his initial reactions to Juanita Mae Jenkins’ We’s Lives in Da Ghetto prior to writing Fuck. Feeling “awful, like a failure that [he] was letting his mother and sister down” (28), he heads to the bookstore only to see his own book, already an obscure work aimed at a niche audience, in the wrong section.
Now furious, whenever he sees the Da Ghetto, and every subsequent time he mentions it to the reader, he attaches some jealous, offhanded comment about its success. First, he introduces it as a “runaway bestseller” (28). Then, after expressing some token disgust at these “watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings,” he immediately reiterates, “3 million dollars” (29).
The next time we hear of Jenkins, Monk is still depressed by the 17th rejection of his book and irritated by the criticism that it wasn’t “black enough” (43). When his agent reminds Monk (and the reader) of its commercial success, Monk objects not on the grounds that it is offensive, racist pabulum, but that “she’s a hack” (43).
Later, Jenkins herself appears on a talk show, and the host opens the interview by mentioning the number of copies sold and the millions Jenkins will make off the film rights (53). After delivering the manuscript to his agent, the very next conversation Monk has with him begins with “six hundred thousand dollars” (136), which in turn leads to yet another conversation emphasizing, in no uncertain terms, that “this is a lot of money” (152).
We could find many other examples throughout the text, but Everett’s message is not particularly subtle. The common thread running throughout all these encounters with Da Ghetto is not the racism, but its commercial success. Yes, its content offends Monk, as it would many people, but racism is instrumental, not essential, to its poor quality. The real problem is not that it is an otherwise well-crafted work of art that happens to contain undeniably problematic content, like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation, but that it is emotionally dishonest. It promises truth but delivers only lies, and when hundreds of thousands of other people buy into that lie, it becomes not merely bad art, but morally offensive on a scale much broader than bigotry.
From here, we can start to see how these criticisms reflect upon Monk’s work after he finishes Fuck. At its heart, Fuck is beset by all the problems plaguing We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, only Fuck, by lying about its true intentions, is dishonest on an even more fundamental level than Jenkins’ dreck. For this reason, readers should be skeptical about any attempts to reconcile Monk’s ornate aesthetic theories with his novel. There are an infinite number of ways to use postmodern literary criticism to deconstruct and reconfigure Fuck into a complex dialectic between audience and author, but as Monk himself wearily admits in a moment of clarity, this is “pretentious bullshit to avoid the real accusation staring [him] in the face: [he] was a sell-out”(160).
Hence, however tempting it may be to find profound meaning in deliberate crudity, Occam’s Razor tells us to pursue the simpler of two alternatives: that he wrote a bad book, feels guilty about it, but likes having money too much to tell the truth.
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an intelligent man that constantly feels out of place (21; 26; 28; 186; 213), underappreciated and disconnected from others, experienced a string of personal crises that damaged his self-worth, grew bitter when someone who put it far less work became far more successful than him, and in a moment of petty, bitter jealousy wrote a supposed “parody” that, in truth, was never intended for general consumption (136).
Monk fixated on the dollar value and sales figures of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto from the very beginning, and for how much he talks about his discomfort with lying, he does virtually nothing to stop. In the novel’s closing lines, then, when “Stagg” tells himself that “[he’s] free of illusions,” (264) it is not because Monk found the perfect convoluted justification for his terrible revenge novel, but because he finally came to terms with the banality of his motivations. Hence, “Egads, I’m on television” (265) conveys as crude a message as “Hey, Baby Girl. Look at me. I on TV” (131).
As I realized this, I was overcome with the same feeling one has after falling for a particularly effective practical joke: Embarrassed to fall for it, followed by a bemused admiration for its audacity. Much (though certainly not all) of Erasure’s complexity comes in the form of meta-textual red herrings that play off the reader’s conventional expectations of literature, causing us to search in vain for significance in passages where there is none. We expect the Latin phrases Everett sprinkles throughout his book to be brilliant multi-lingual wordplay, but they are, in fact, mere gibberish.
Similarly, in the book-within-a-book, Monk plays a similar trick on the reader, creating artificial depth in the opening lines of Fuck, when the protagonist alternates between saying he loves and hates his mother (63). The obvious contradictions give the illusion of a paradox, causing us to invest genuine emotion in this ridiculous character until we remember that we are hunting for pathos that is not there.
In this sense, the fact that Monk goes through the existential torment of posing as someone embodying everything he is against for something as banal as fame and fortune is a deceptively brilliant twist. We expect some profound, cathartic revelation about race, art, and human identity. We expect the hero Monk to arrive at the end of his journey with newfound insight into the nature of humanity that will forever alter the course of his life and enrich every moment of it for decades to come.
Instead, he gets something much better. He gets to be on TV.