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Advice from a critic: Read 'Erasure' before seeing 'American Fiction'

Satire is hard; parody even harder. Satires that take on race and the politics of art — those are the thorniest. The much lauded PEN winner and Booker Prize shortlisted author Percival Everett is genuinely a master of all of the above.

Scathing, funny, and prescient, 20 years after its initial release Erasure remains one of the American literary giant's most striking and beloved works.It's a novel of ideas in conversation with other cultural touchstones and has attracted a legion of well-placed admirers, Acclaimed author Brandon Taylor (Real Life, The Late Americans) has long credited Erasure with indelibly influencing his career. Now Erasure is also the inspiration for Emmy-winning "Watchmen" TV writer Cord Jefferson's first feature film American Fiction.

/ Graywolf Press
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Graywolf Press

With the first Everett-inspired screen adaptation American Fiction coming to theaters starting on Dec. 15, we're taking a moment to revisit the provocative and affecting satire.

Though long skittish about Hollywood, with Erasure Everett trusted Jefferson to both adapt and direct one of his most challenging works. That was no small honor. In Nov.2021, I met Percival Everett in Cleveland, Ohio just before he received the Cleveland Foundation's Anisfield-Wolf award for The Trees. American Fiction was in production but not yet titled or acquired for distribution. At the time, Everett confessed a newfound excitement about the potential for screen adaptations of his work, his sentiments reflecting how Hollywood itself was shifting, noting: "in the last four or five years as this generation of young black artists are popping up, the people interested in making and adapting work has changed. It used to be 60-year old white guys looking to option something. And now it's these young people who are interested in art and not commerce."

That just unfolding hope makes a striking contrast to the world Everett's prickly protagonist, Monk, was navigating in the 2001 novel. In Erasure, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, the lone artist in a high-achieving African American family — his brother and sister are doctors following in their father and grandfather's footsteps – is facing professional setbacks just when his family needs him to step up. A frustrated author and professor whose name pays homage to two Black American legends — author Ralph Ellison and jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk — the middle-aged and aptly nicknamed "Monk" is a man of uncompromising artistic standards and dwindling financial prospects. When his publisher passes on his latest manuscript and his mother's memory is fading, Monk is called home to D.C. to help take care of her. Though he's facing a barrage of bad news, it's the wild commercial and critical success of a book that resembles a Mad Libs of stereotypical racial pathologies that finally sets Monk off. That perfect storm of psychic pressures pushes the hyper-intellectual Monk into a fugue of fury-driven creation. He writes his own ghetto novel, affixes a mocking pseudonym, and shoots the manuscript off to his perplexed agent. From there a dark comedy of errors and ethical quandaries plays out alongside Ellison's deeply poignant domestic drama.

The setup and two-track structure are genius for an ambitious novel aimed at America's racial and cultural contradictions. On one level, Monk's mocking, ostensibly over-the-top creation creates a conundrum: Monk is a literary snob pandering to commerce and gaining his greatest and sorely needed success from a work he reviles. The situation is a perfect setup for self-torture and derision. At the same time, Monk is becoming a real caretaker to his family, the shenanigans sharing space with realistic domestic trials.

One of the elements that makes the film American Fiction work is that actor Jeffrey Wright perfectly embodies this duality on screen. Jeffrey Wright's performance is pitch perfect in capturing every dimension of Monk. The entire cast is stellar. Tony winner Leslie Uggams is the perfect personification of the Ellison clan's proud matriarch struggling with dementia. Tracee Ellis Ross is Monk's sister Lisa, and Sterling K. Brown portrays his brother Bill.

Despite the sharp social critique Erasure is known for, nuance and a multidimensional balance of elements is a defining factor in both the film and the novel — the gentle, humane progression of Monk's home life providing a counterweight to the mockery and intellectual excursions. Here, as in life, art is not actually all consuming; life intervenes. As Monk realizes, his illustrious family is at a vulnerable juncture and he has limited control over its direction: "I wouldn't use the cliché that I was the captain of a sinking ship, that implying some kind of authority, but rather I was a diesel mechanic on a steamship, an obstetrician in a monastery." Erasure is also aggressively challenging and intellectual – it's as much a novel of stylistic experimentation and ideas as much as it is about its plot and character, as evidenced by its many digressions in literary form. The bad novel Monk writes is produced within Erasure's pages, as is a conference paper mocking semiotics.

As satire, Erasure's targets are manifold and its cuts merciless. The excellent American Fiction may seem a bit tame by comparison. Everett's Monk is tortured by the "runaway" success of the Push-by-Sapphire-like-novel titled We's Lives In Da Ghetto. In that book, which inspires Monk's spite-fueled creation, a young Black woman faces an overwhelming number of problems — just as in Push and its Oscar-winning movie companion Precious. As a review that Monk reads describes it, "Sharonda is fifteen and pregnant with her third child, by a third father. She lives with her drug addict mother and her mentally deficient, basketball playing brother Juneboy." The book is a mess but its manufactured verisimilitude is the talk of publishing and academia. So of course it's hailed as "haunting" in elite circles. Interestingly though, the work Monk produces from rage and desperation invites comparison with Richard Wright's Native Son by as much as it does the controversial 1996 novel Push by the pseudonymous author Sapphire, who takes her pen name from a notorious stereotype of Black womanhood.

What's more, like many of Everett's choices, the name of Monk's alter ego "Stagger Leigh" is evocative, sounding a bit like Native Son's protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Digging into the writer's parodic novel within a novel, Erasure verges on the grotesque. Mimicking problematic portrayals involves reproducing them. Exposing images and contradictions that dwell in the author's psyche is treacherous territory. Is Monk acridly funny, painfully pungent, or just bitter? One difficulty with a book like Push written by someone outside of the experience being depicted is that the line between empathy and exploitation is slippery, subjective and shifting. Ironically, that's also the issue with many critiques of books in this vein (including to some extent Monk's derision and parody). American Fiction has an easier path. Whereas Erasure digs around in the muck of racial politics and representation, the film grazes and glimpses at discomfiting images in Monk's imagination, honing in on Monk and the media world's reaction to racial tropes rather than the tropes themselves.

Another of Erasure's central ideas is about taste, engaging the always sticky intersection of art, commerce, and race. The literary establishment is full of courtiers anxious to show that they have the keen sensibility to see the questionable virtues of this new art, much like the emperor's court praised nonexistent garments in the Danish fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes. In Monk's world, which is a lot like our own, the fictional media elite's response could be ripped from the pages of "Atlantic Monthly or Harpers"; Monk can't remember which one. Their verdict: "The twists and turns of the novel are fascinating, but the real strength of the work is its haunting verisimilitude. The ghetto is painted in all its exotic wonder. Predators prowl, innocents are eaten."

As on display in that passage, books like Push aren't Erasure's only targets. It indicts a myriad of pretensions – the intellectual class, authors whose books don't sell, editors who take pleasure in Black pathology, Black respectability politics, white media obsessions of narrowly defined Blackness and literary theory. But the most interesting target of all is Everett's diffident, fussy protagonist. Radiating awkward ambivalence, Monk insists on the most esoteric and obscure cultural influences, and seems to harbor mixed feelings about his identity, meditating on strangely superficial definitions of Blackness.

At a party Monk has an unpleasant run in with "a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent" who tells him "that I could sell many books if I'd forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French post-structuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of Black life. I told him that I was living a Black life, far Blacker than he could ever know." The truth is Monk is a font of mixed feelings and contradictions. He professes, "I hardly ever think about race." But also, tellingly, "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."

Here — and in producing a novel originally known as My Pafology and in his pantomiming as Stagger Leigh — it's possible the anti-race man protests a bit too much: "Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball. I listen to Gustav Mahler, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker and Ry Cooder on vinyl records and compact discs." This litany of what's framed as eclectic taste and contradictions betrays Monk's own faulty thinking and alienation. He's the one who poses these tastes as in competition.

Erasure is bold, experimental, rude and transgressive. At times discursive. American Fiction is excellent but necessarily streamlined, more narrow and comparatively tame. Filmgoers introduced to Everett through the film might wonder what the fuss is about. In this case, the expected advice is well earned: Read the book.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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Carole V. Bell