Erasure

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Overview

Percival Everett’s most recent novel, the academic satire Glyph, was hailed by the New York Times as “both a treatise and a romp.” His new novel combines a touching story of a man coming to terms with his family heritage and a satiric indictment of race and publishing in America.

Avant-garde novelist and college professor, woodworker, and fly fisherman—Thelonious (Monk) Ellison has never allowed race to define his identity. But as both a writer and an African-American, he is ...

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Erasure

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Overview

Percival Everett’s most recent novel, the academic satire Glyph, was hailed by the New York Times as “both a treatise and a romp.” His new novel combines a touching story of a man coming to terms with his family heritage and a satiric indictment of race and publishing in America.

Avant-garde novelist and college professor, woodworker, and fly fisherman—Thelonious (Monk) Ellison has never allowed race to define his identity. But as both a writer and an African-American, he is offended and angered by the success of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, the exploitative debut novel of a young, middle-class black woman who once visited “some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days.” Hailed as an authentic representation of the African-American experience, the book is a national bestseller and its author feted on the Kenya Dunston television show. Her book’s success rankles all the more as Monk’s own most recent novel has just notched its seventh rejection.

Even as his career as a writer appears to have stalled, Monk finds himself coping with changes in his personal life. Forced to assume responsibility for a mother rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Monk leaves his home in Los Angeles to return to the Washington, DC house in which he grew up. There he must come to terms with his ailing mother, his siblings, his own childhood and youth, and the legacy of his physician father, a suicide some seven years before. In need of distraction from old memories, new responsibilities, and his professional stagnation, Monk composes, in a heat of inspiration and energy, a fierce parody of the sort of exploitative, ghetto wanna-be lit represented by We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.

But when his agent sends this literary indictment (included here in its entirety) out to publishers, it is greeted as an authentic new voice of black America. Monk—or his pseudonymous alter ego, Stagg R. Leigh—is offered money, fame, success beyond anything Monk has known. And as demand begins to build for meetings with and appearances by Leigh, Monk is faced with a whole new set of problems.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Hip-hop rose from the streets of the Bronx, offering relief from the crime and poverty of the mid-nineteen-seventies. Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, captures those early days of battling, breaking, and tagging, when d.j.s like Afrika Bambaataa threw down beats for the b-boys on the floor. "Little did anybody know that this thing was going to turn into a world-wide phenomenon, billion-dollar business and all that," says one of the forefathers of hip-hop, Kool DJ Herc.

In Gunshots in my Cook-Up, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds tracks his own journey from hip-hop fan to hip-hop luminary. In essays that range from paeans to Lauryn Hill to an account of Hinds's tenure as the editor-in-chief at The Source, he grapples with what it means to stay true to the ethos of rap. "The streets are the people and places from which an MC springs. The streets birth you. Certify and validate you . . . They can also kill you," he writes.

Sometimes keeping it real means making it up. In Percival Everett's satirical novel Erasure, Thelonious (Monk) Ellison, an academic with a penchant for Latin, sets out to write a satire of black literature -- an amalgamation of "Native Son," gangsta rap, and trashy talk shows; to his dismay, the book is acclaimed for its authenticity. Contemplating its success after the obscurity of his other books (including a retelling of Aeschylus' "The Persians"), Ellison notes, "I was a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art be defined as an exercise in racial self-expression." (Andrea Thompson)

From The Critics
Thelonious Ellison is a middle-aged, single creative-writing professor at UCLA who returns to his childhood home in Washington, D.C., and finds his family being erased. His mother suffers from undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease. His sister, Lisa, is murdered for performing abortions. Thelonious calls his brother, a surgeon in Arizona, for help with their mother, but Bill can barely help himself after leaving his wife and children for a man. Without sibling assistance, Thelonious somehow needs to get the money for his mother's care.

So told, Thelonious' predicament is a familiar one on television and in recent fiction, perhaps even in real life. But Everett defamiliarizes the baby boomer's plight by making Thelonious an experimental novelist steeped in French literary theorists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, both of whom "erased" conventional assumptions about writing and reading literature. Although Thelonious detests formula fiction, he composes a potboiler under a pseudonym to pay for a nursing home.

Like Everett, Thelonious is African-American, a fact that Thelonious attempts to ignore in both life and literature. Raised by a highly intellectual father and refined mother, Thelonious graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. He has never been good at basketball and complains about how his learned and innovative fictions are shelved in the African-American studies sections of bookstores.

So when Thelonious writes his formula novel, he plays a whole handful of race cards, imitating "Juanita Mae Jenkins' runaway bestseller, We's Lives In Da Ghetto." At seventy pages, Thelonious' My Pafology takes up a quarter of Erasure with a tale aboutVan Go Jenkins, an impoverished teenager who has four babies (Aspireene, Tylenola, Dexatrina and Rexall) with four different women. Soon after Van Go starts working for a middle-class family, he rapes their daughter, commits a murder and is caught by the police.

Thelonious thinks My Pafology is "demeaning and soul- destroying drivel," but (in a parallel with Spike Lee's Bamboozled) he becomes both rich and famous when the novel is bought by Hollywood and wins a literary prize. What Everett thinks of Thelonious' novel is more difficult to establish. Yes, it does parody the simplicities of underclass-dialect fiction (possibly even Carolyn Farrell's Don't Erase Me), but My Pafology also rewrites a classic of African-American fiction, Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel about an inner-city victim who, like Van Go, works for a white family and gets into trouble with their daughter.

Does Thelonious know he has both erased and reconstructed Native Son? And more significantly, does he know that in the late stages of his autobiographical narrative, he is living out situations and using language from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, another classic text about trying to erase race? Is Erasure a palimpsest of fictions under fictions under fictions? Only this last question can be answered with an unequivocal yes.

And what about Everett, who is a graduate of Brown University, a professor of creative writing at USC and an author of other experimental fictions, including Glyph, a send-up of academia? Everett's position may be that conventional stories of erasure—whether of personal memory, individual identity or racial stereotypes—must be partly rubbed out and recomposed to give the reader new access to habituated subjects.

More often than not, this presumed position generates an ingenious and affecting novel. Everett's plot traces the decline of Thelonious' mother through a series of well-observed episodes and representative anecdotes. But the style of these sections is often pedestrian, not the expression of an experimental novelist, whether Thelonious or Everett. The dialect of My Pafology is horribly repetitive and reductive but also sometimes seems vital in its sheer unfamiliarity (to this reviewer, at least). Since the family story takes up so much of Everett's space, I wish its sentences had been more intensively worked.

Everett's artistry is more evident in the architecture of Erasure and in the notebook passages that interrupt the family story (but not My Pafology). Thelonious' language is vivid when he describes woodworking and fishing, two hobbies he does in solitude. His inventive imagination is displayed when he makes up dialogues between famous people, including a conversation about selling a product created by erasure.

Thelonious and Everett do team up for some witty satire—of postmodern, self-conscious sexual intercourse, reality talk shows, Oprah Winfrey's book club (featured author Kenya Dunston is a fawning dunce), commercial publishing, self-serving awards judges and ideologically crazed, Pynchon-spouting academics. Everett also makes fun of a popular kind of family-secret story when Thelonious discovers a box of documents and a long-lost half-white sister. I even got a laugh from reading Everett's mockery of book reviewers.

Toni Morrison once said she wanted to write "village literature," novels that could be read by the modestly educated characters she created. Erasure would be more interesting to academics such as Thelonious and Everett than to Everett's other characters.

By publishing his novel with a university press and by creating the vapid Kenya Dunston, Everett has erased any chance of appearing on reputation-making national television. Nevertheless, Erasure deserves the attention of anyone—black or white—interested in sophisticated fiction that subtly questions the phrase "black and white."
—Tom LeClair

Publishers Weekly
Everett's (Glyph; Frenzy; etc.) latest is an over-the-top masterpiece about an African-American writer who "overcomes" his intellectual tendency to "write white" and ends up penning a parody of ghetto fiction that becomes a huge commercial and literary success. 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. The money helps with a family crisis, allowing Ellison to care for his widowed mother as she drifts into the fog of Alzheimer's, but it doesn't ease the pain after his sister, a physician, is shot by right-wing fanatics for performing abortions. The dark side of wealth surfaces when both the movie mogul and talk-show host demand to meet the nonexistent Leigh, forcing Ellison to don a disguise and invent a sullen, enigmatic character to meet the demands of the market. The final indignity occurs when 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. Percival's talent is multifaceted, sparked by a satiric brilliance that could place him alongside Wright and Ellison as he skewers theconventions of racial and political correctness. (Sept. 21) Forecast: Everett has been well-reviewed before, but his latest far surpasses his previous efforts. Passionate word of mouth (of which there should be plenty), rave reviews (ditto) and the startling cover (a young, smiling black boy holding a toy gun to his head) could help turn this into a genuine publishing event. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Desperation outstrips the satire in Everett's latest exercise in narrative wizardry (Glyph), as a lonely African-American writer faces private torment and instant fame when his parody of ghetto literature is taken as the real deal. His own generation's version of an invisible man, Thelonious Ellison, a.k.a. Monk, is a largely unknown academic novelist who visits hometown Washington, D.C., to give a paper and see his mother and sister. No sooner does he return to California than Sis, a doctor in an abortion clinic, is shot dead at work. Someone has to take care of Mom, who's showing the first wrenching signs of Alzheimer's, so Monk returns home. There, his frustration with a runaway bestseller written in ghettospeak by a bourgeois black woman after visiting Harlem for a couple of days is fueled by endless rejections of his own new manuscript; in a rage he pumps out a parody and sends it under a pseudonym to his agent-who promptly secures a six-figure advance and a seven-figure movie deal. Stunned that no one recognizes his book as a send-up, Monk refuses to let his true identity be known. Meanwhile, he must cope with his mother's rapid decline, his gay brother's sudden animosity, and the discovery among his father's papers of letters indicating not only that Dad had a white mistress long ago, but that Monk has a half-sister his age. Struggling to maintain his own identity as his creation looms larger than life and his family redefines itself, he makes choices that render him invisible no more. More genuine and tender than much of Everett's previous work, but no less impressive intellectually: a high point in an already substantial literary career.
From the Publisher
Praise for Erasure:

"Erasure is as watertight and hilarious a satire as, say, [Evelyn Waugh’s] Scoop . . . [Everett] is a first-rate word wrangler." Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

"With equal measures of sympathy and satire, [Erasure] craftily addresses the highly charged issue of being ‘black enough’ in America." Jenifer Berman, The New York Times Book Review

"An over-the-top masterpiece. . . . Percival's talent is multifaceted, sparked by a satiric brilliance that could place him alongside Wright and Ellison as he skewers the conventions of racial and political correctness." —Publishers Weekly

 

"A scathingly funny look at racism and the book business: editors, publishers, readers, and writers alike." —Booklist

 

"More genuine and tender than much of Everett's previous work, but no less impressive intellectually: a high point in an already substantial literary career." —Kirkus Reviews

 

"The sharp satire on American publishers and American readers that Everett puts forward is delicious, though it won't win him many friends among the sentimental educated class who want to read something serious about black inner-city life without disturbing any of their stereotypes." —Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781584650904
  • Publisher: University Press of New England
  • Publication date: 8/1/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 277
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Percival Everett

Percival Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of seventeen novels, including I Am Not Sidney Poitier, The Water Cure, Wounded, and Glyph.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2013

    Fan

    Second novel of his this month. Now a big fan.

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  • Posted February 17, 2012

    A must read for those who like suspense

    As someone remarked, the narrative of the story leads us down a path of presumption, which we hold on to, convinced we have out thought the author.
    A surprise ending for sure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2004

    So Important

    This book is so important. It highlights the boundaries set up within literature (and thus in life) and sharply breaks them down, only to build them up again - confused - you should be. You need to read this book to understand how essential it is in thumping the 'dead-white-male' canon in the face... Read it, you will not be dissapointed...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2003

    THE BEST

    This book is the best. Very well written..will top all BY FAR!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

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    Posted January 15, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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