Without a Reader

Percival Everett’s parables for modern living

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“The mere fact that I want to write fiction for a livingis evidence that I’m mentally deficient,” Percival Everett told an interviewer in 2002. “But I do want to participate in making truth, and I can’t make it without a reader. . . . The work isn’t complete until somebody reads the damn thing.” Alas, American readers have not obliged.

Since 1983, Everett has published what for other novelists would amount to a lifetime or two of work: twenty-one novels, four short-story collections, four volumes of poetry, and one children’s book. But he remained on the commercial margins—publishing in small and academic presses, garnering few interviews or reviews—until 2001, when his novel erasure became a kind of crossover success. Everett has since moved on to bigger publishing houses, received serious critical attention, and garnered a small but intensely devoted (and international) following. And yet, it is a cruel irony to earn the reputation for being a “little-known” writer; it’s a label that sticks.

Part of the reason that Everett remains little read is that he has always taken formal risks, challenging the hegemony of literary realism. Rather than approximating a sequence of events as they would happen in the real world, he wields humor, satire, and history to destabilize conventional ways of observing reality. (In this, he resembles contemporary writers like Charles R. Johnson, Paul Beatty, and John Keene.) Most strikingly, Everett’s novels unfold according to his protagonist-narrators’ internal sense of time, which often deviates from the chronology of reality. Flashbacks, dreams, and visions of the future are all just as meaningful and vivid as whatever is happening in the moment. Borrowing a paradigm from visual arts, Everett could be called an abstract novelist.

When the churn of racialized capitalism tries to turn art like Everett’s into easily marketable products, finding the humor in such a situation can provide lonely consolation. In a nutty foretelling of where erasure would take Everett’s own career, the narrator is an experimental, under-appreciated, and frustrated novelist named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. After noticing that his book, “an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy,” has been shelved in a bookstore’s section for African American Studies, after feeling demoralized by the meteoric rise of Juanita Mae Jenkins for her novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, and after family tragedy creates steep financial needs, Ellison sits down to write My Pafology, which he publishes under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (as in the blues legend of Stagger Lee).

My Pafology (later retitled Fuck), which is nested in full within erasure, tells the story of Van Go Jenkins, a nineteen-year-old in Los Angeles who happily embodies a variety of stereotypes. He is a high-school dropout; the only emotion he allows himself to feel is anger, which he expresses with violence; he directs that violence to everyone, but especially to women; his aspirations lie in wealth and celebrity, which he believes are attainable despite his ignorance, weakness, and lack of drive. Ellison’s satire becomes his own nightmare, as the book becomes a bestseller and wins the National Book Award, for which Ellison himself serves as a judge.

Everett’s satire vindicated itself. “After the success of erasure, many large publishing houses lined up for the rights to publish the paperback,” he told the critic William W. Starr in a 2002 interview. “One press that shall go unnamed (Doubleday) . . . wanted to do this book as the inaugural book for an imprint for African American authors. I was wondering if they had bothered to read it. My agent said the title of the imprint would be Harlem Moon. Why not call it Steppin’ Fetchit, and get it over with?”

Percival Everett is an underrated novelist.

Not Myself Today

Percival Everett was born in 1956 on an army base in Georgia, where his father was stationed. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Everett lived until going off to college. Everett’s father began practicing dentistry; his grandfather, uncles, and sister were also health practitioners. In an interview, the writer claimed, “I had to break the chain.”

At the University of Miami, Everett studied philosophy and biochemistry, earning his way through college by playing guitar in jazz clubs and teaching in local high schools. In the late 1970s, he enrolled in a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Oregon, though he left before obtaining a degree. In his formal study of ordinary language philosophy, Everett had found another calling. “Wittgenstein said, ‘Philosophy is a sick endeavor,’ and I realized that the patient, at least for me, was terminal,” he told Starr. “So I started writing fiction as a better way to approach philosophical ideas.” But Everett’s family chain may yet be unbroken. His books fulfill art’s homeopathic promises by offering readers diluted doses of various modern ailments—materialism, loneliness, alienation, the desire for quick and easy fixes—that we may find healing in the reading.

Everett’s stories are often elliptical, but he is fiercely engaged in the contemporary moment.

Everett has written thrillers, mysteries, bildungsromane, one anti-Western: a range of genres that have prompted critics to label his work with vague terms like “indescribable” or “hard-to-pin-down.” Derek C. Maus offers a more helpful “interpretive framework” in his study Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire, contending that “Everett’s authorial output between 1983 and 2017 [is] a thirty-volume megawork of the literary mode known as Menippean satire.” The genre gets its name from the ancient Greek writer Menippus of Gadara, who is believed to have lived in the third century BCE. In a broad sense, Menippean satire focuses its seriocomic energies on ideas or attitudes rather than individuals. “In its classical form,” Maus writes, the Menippean style was “distinguished by its variety of literary forms and by directing its satirical attacks specifically at the ideas of other philosophers, rather than at instances of typical human ‘folly’ or on the moral failings of particular individuals.” Modern Menippean satirists—Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Thomas Pynchon, and Ralph Ellison among them—loosened the formal conventions of their ancient predecessors but retained the same penchant for attacking specific ideas. As an attitude of the author rather than a form to conform to, Menippean satire has achieved greater elasticity.

Everett’s stories are often elliptical, but he is fiercely engaged in the contemporary moment. His novels satirize notions of American greatness and the absurd evils they compel (God’s Country, Grand Canyon, Inc., erasure); the arrogance of masculinity (Cutting Lisa, God’s Country, Glyph); the lures of individualism (Assumption, Watershed, Suder); the human impulse to categorize others (Suder, Glyph, The Water Cure). His characters very often want nothing more than to be left alone, but other people and their own sense of duty always intervene. In this way, they are made to confront, however reluctantly, a host of cultural maladies—especially stupidity, racism, materialism, greed, any sort of certainty or righteousness, violent disregard for others, and environmental destruction.

Echoing Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Herman Melville, Everett’s novels tend to begin with a description of a character’s unusual way of thinking or of the strange situation they find themselves in. The following openings are illustrative:

That Theodore Street was dead was not a matter open to debate. The irony of his accidental death went unobserved as no one knew that Theodore was on his way to commit suicide when he was, shall we say, interrupted.
(From American Desert)

My blood is my own and my name is Robert Hawks. I am sitting on a painted green wooden bench in a small Episcopal church on the northern edge of the Plata Indian Reservation, holding in my hands a Vietnam-era M-16, the butt of the weapon flat against the plank floor between my feet.
(From Watershed)

I am the ill-starred fruit of a hysterical pregnancy, and surprisingly, odd though I might be, I am not hysterical myself. I’m rather calm, in fact; some might say waveless. I am tall and dark and look for the world like Mr. Sidney Poitier, something my poor disturbed and now deceased mother could not have known when I was born, when she named me Not Sidney Poitier.
(From I Am Not Sidney Poitier)

From there, the narrative either reverses or advances in time as is necessary to reveal how the character got to where he—it’s almost always he—is. In this way, Everett blurs the distinctions between character, form, and content (or object of satire); each flows from, extends, and reacts to the other. For instance, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a coming-of-age story that also satirizes wealth, celebrity, and identity politics; the title itself contains the peculiarities of character, form, and what’s being mocked. “‘What’s your name?’ a kid would ask. ‘Not Sidney,’ I would say. . . . ‘Ain’t nobody called you Sidney’” is a recurring gag—both playful and piercing.

The character-form-content fusion gives the Everett novel enough cohesion to be weird without forcing it. Some of his novels, however, overextend the tactic: beginning with the sharply rendered satire, they conclude with too-earnest sentiment, which is often expressed with cutesy final notes of disbelief, awkwardness, or unevenness. In the final scene of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the protagonist arrives at LAX, where a waiting limousine driver asks, “Are you not Sidney Poitier?” Of course, he says. He receives the star treatment at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where everyone knows him, and accepts an award for Most Dignified Figure in American Culture. In the course of his acceptance speech, he comes to a revelation about what his headstone will say: “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.”

Still, by creating strange and unexpected contexts for his novels, Everett more than lives up to his end of the truth-making collaboration. In his book Approximate Gestures: Infinite Spaces in the Fiction of Percival Everett, Anthony Stewart focuses on the inconclusiveness characteristic in Everett’s writing, which, he argues, can encourage and show readers how to imagine new ways of thinking and being in the world. To participate, in other words, in making new truths. By advancing W.E.B. Du Bois’s construction, Stewart works with Everett’s texts to develop a truth that better fits modern life. One of the primary “broader implications” that Stewart identifies in Everett’s work is the aspiration that he terms “anti-double consciousness,” “which is not to be confused with some sort of single consciousness (whatever that might look like or transcendence, but to assert oneself—to the best of one’s abilities—on one’s own terms.” That is, after all, the journey that Everett’s characters are all on.

Personal ever wit and a baited altar.

Fiction is a Game of Telephone

“With Everett the appearance of a novel is always an unpredictable affair,” Jesse McCarthy wrote in an excellent 2017 n+1 essay. “And even longtime fans and followers know they have to be prepared to, well, get thrown for a loop.” (For McCarthy, Ishmael Reed’s character The Loop Garoo Kid and Everett both face the “zero-sum choice between political responsibility and alienated indulgence.”) So it’s been again with Everett’s latest work Telephone, published in May of last year. The loop this time is that Telephone is actually three books. “There are three different versions of this novel, they’re all published identically, and you can’t know which one you’re getting,” Everett told the New York Times. “It’s going to piss a lot of people off, I’m afraid.” Confusingly, Everett claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic compelled him “to do the reveal earlier than later.” But with so many people mostly indoors, the era of social distancing may have presented Everett the best scenario for his experiment.

In the end, Everett is simultaneously satirizing the social novel and pointing to a simpler alternative for living the way we do.

Compared to Everett’s wilder novels, Telephone tells a relatively linear story. The protagonist-narrator, Zach Wells, is a “geologist-slash-paleobiologist” who feels greatly alienated from every aspect of his life, except for his relationship with his adolescent daughter. His marriage is in a fragile state; he is a passionless professor who lectures on autopilot; his one real friend makes only a minor appearance. As the novel unfolds, his daughter Sarah becomes increasingly ill. At first none of the doctors knows what’s going on, though she’s finally diagnosed with a rare neurologic disease, which will steadily degrade her consciousness, her sense of self, before it kills her. “You know, we’re going to lose her before we lose her,” Zach tells his wife Meg. Rather than being prompted by his daughter’s decline to engage more fully with his wife, his friend, his students, or his colleagues, Wells withdraws further, finding various distractions from the pain of his daughter’s mortality and his powerlessness to save her life.

Telephone is a story about degeneration, and the novel’s form mimics this focus. The plot is constituted by a series of degenerations—of Sarah’s health, of Zach and Meg’s marriage, of Zach’s stability—but its linear movement doesn’t easily cohere into meaning in the way that many readers expect from novels. Told in Wells’s first-person perspective, the action of the book is filtered through his unwillingness to confront or understand his profound grief—to confront his truth.

The novel begins with a deflection disguised as a declaration: “People, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they look for satisfaction.” (The second paragraph gives us the Everett opening: “I am Zach Wells.”) Two pages later, Everett drops in a four-paragraph section about the decades of violence against women in El Paso–Ciudad Juárez. It’s not yet clear how this information relates to Zach’s family or to the plot, and the passage is abandoned just as abruptly as it’s brought up. It’s an early foreshadowing of the distraction that will finally occupy all of Zach’s attention once he can no longer abide psychic or physical proximity to his daughter’s approaching death. In this way, a story that begins as a family tragedy crumbles into an adventure tale about Zach’s quixotic mission to save victimized women along the U.S.–Mexico border. By the end of the book, all traces of Zach’s family vanish—from the text and, it seems, his consciousness—to an extent that casts doubt on whether they were ever really there.

Telephone shares similarities of character and plot with Everett’s prior novel So Much Blue (2017). They are both narrated by disaffected husbands whose only real relationship is with their children; they both set significant portions of their plots in Paris; they both juxtapose an outwardly calm, American bourgeois life against violent turmoil south of the border. In its style, form, and development of character, Telephone is characteristic Everett. But the novel is also, crucially, something new.

Purses and all for every little daughter.

Equipment for Living

Like all of Everett’s novels, Telephone is structured around a central joke, or trick. But Telephone’s conceit isn’t contained within the plot; it resides in between the three versions, creating space for more profound meaning. Those voids suggest that the novel is also about miscommunication and the meanings that are lost in even the best attempts to relate with others—a literary version of the elementary-school game of the same name. Can readers laugh, overcome the discomforts of miscommunication, and collaborate in making truth?

In the end, Everett is simultaneously satirizing the social novel and pointing to a simpler alternative for living the way we do. The experience of reading Telephone is based on the premise that confusion, not clarity, will set in after the book is finished. And yet, it’s as if Telephone were written for a different, more literate, more imaginative culture; one in which reviewers weren’t so lazy or so pressured to conjure immediate conclusive judgments; one in which people read and talked about books, both casually and seriously.

The social novel we’re used to dramatizes big societal issues through an individual experience in which a character’s clarity may be coherent and also utterly confused. In Everett’s social novel, the only difference between clarity and confusion that matters is what you do with it. Not knowing, in the best circumstances, is a state of seeking, of potential. And in Everett’s novels, the latent point is always that both clarity and confusion are so fleeting they may as well be illusions.

Telephone demands to be a read in a social setting: with a book club or in a classroom. Read on one’s own, Everett’s social novel diminishes in its own meaning, and so, the most severe test for Telephone is the one it sets up for itself: Can a book like this mean anything without readers? Luckily, it’s a test that Everett has been facing his whole career.

What may save the book(s) is that the experiment inherently trusts there is always more in the offing. Americans may have, for the moment, abdicated the tendency to derive wisdom for daily life from fiction—stories of heroism, comedy, and tragedy rendered in prose. But that wisdom exists for those who seek it, now and in the future—for those willing to participate in making truth.

Personal Everett is an under-hated author.

Matthew McKnight is a writer and editor living in New Orleans. His writing has appeared in The PointThe Nation, and The New Yorker. He was a 2019–2020 Biography Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY’s Graduate Center in support of a forthcoming biography of Albert Murray.

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