An essay spurred upon reading two books by Percival Everett
Sometimes, you get lucky and find an author that just nails it for you. The writing of Percival Everett in So Much Blue besotted me—and the story it told too, of course. And then I read Erasure, and it blew me away. I’ll return to describing my reaction to these novels, but first, permit a brief digression into how I discovered Everett.
I’ve been on a tear lately, seeking out novels that tell stories in ways that feel more authentic to life as humans experience it, which generally lands me in what readers and literary types alike categorize as experimental fiction.
People love to categorize, and for good reason. Categorization is a bedrock tactic of how we make sense of the world, and assign meaning. We move things in and out of categories and buckets, and in this way, organize our thoughts, reactions and expectations. We start as infants, from Halloween candy to favorite rocks, and move to adult categories, ranging from big topics like race and religion, to lesser categories like sports and hobbies, what makes a mammal, and social cliques.
In the thick of life, it’s easy to be blasé about the implications of our categories—sometimes even forgetting that we create them, they don’t create themselves—especially the collective ones at a meta-cultural level. We forget, and live as if categories are permanent, external and mostly shared by others, because it’s the path of least resistance. And that, in turn, gives some categories—such as race—undeserved existential meaning.
It seems to me our collectively recognized categories tend to spin off of a baseline, or what someone, somewhere—usually in a dominant, hierarchical position—has deemed the norm, and then everything else is categorized in relation to that normality. This creates a threatening aspect to some forms of categorization, at least for anyone who happens to be somewhere on the edges of our outside the baseline spectrum. But when categories evolve, or we evolve our understanding of them—how they limit and shape and define and exclude—it has the potential to save us, to move us forward.
In fiction, “experimental” is a catch-all category, and there’s a tendency to throw anything that strays too far from a baseline defined by both readers (by what they buy) and literary academic types (by less clear standards) into that bucket. In my household, a debate simmers about experimental versus traditional fiction, and here’s the crux of it: do readers respond to (or prefer) the “traditional” three-act novel structure—beginning, middle, a (usually) happy or at least resolved ending, third person narrator—because it resonates due to evolutionary psychology (the way stories have been conveyed by humans forever, starting with an oral tradition and somehow help us survive in a Darwinian sense) or are we conditioned from early infancy to prioritize such stories because that’s what we hear from the womb onward, starting with fairy tales and family fables, thereby reinforcing this traditional approach in our neurological accretionary development of self?
Nuances and gray overlap and abound in this debate, of course. But the answer is not without significance in how we individually shape the interior story of our own lives, and the degree of satisfaction, or not, with how our lives mirror those narrative structures.
If we expect our lives to unfold as they do in most traditional storytelling—predictably and with happy endings—does the inevitable dissonance contribution to dissatisfaction?
Unlike traditional three-act narrative structures, experimental fiction frees itself (somewhat) from the expected molds—in literary architecture, voice, and pacing—with plots that are less neat, often remain untidy even at their conclusion and may mix different styles of prose to reflect shifting moods or events. In short, it unfolds more unpredictably, like life.
I won’t solve this debate in this post but here is the small sidebar point I’m trying to get to, and probably should have led with: I am dismayed that, old as I am, I’m only now discovering Percival Everett. And I suspect that this may have something to do with the fact that much of his work likely falls into the experimental bucket, and thus renders it less commercial and attractive to mainstream readers and, by extension, reviewers. It could be, of course, I’ve been asleep at the wheel, and have not paid enough attention to literary reviews and journals and if so, my bad. But that doesn’t negate the sidelining that comes with an experimental label.
I stumbled on Everett through a review (thereby appearing to negate the above paragraph but Everett has been writing a long time, so no) of his latest novel, the latest of dozens of novels and story collections, in the New York Times. Everett is a prolific writer, and I’m burrowing my way through his decades-worth of his body of work.
Now, back to So Much Blue.
So Much Blue tells Kevin Pace’s story, an artist of some renown, living in a semi-rural area, with a wife and two children. Kevin’s story has three arcs: one in the present, one in Paris a decade or so ago, and one in Nicaragua, about thirty years in the past.
In the present, Kevin is working on a very large painting, which has been his focus for many years, and no one has ever seen it, including his wife. It may be the culminating work of his career, or it may not. Kevin has reached a point of indifference on this point. In this arc that takes place in the present, Kevin’s 16-year old daughter reveals to Kevin she is pregnant but extracts a promise he must keep the secret, even from his wife, the girl's mother. In the recent past, Kevin embarks on a weeklong affair in Paris with beautiful, young watercolorist, and falls in love in a way he has not experienced with his wife, who never finds out about the relationship. He eventually leaves his lover, but squirrels the love away inside his heart. In the distant past, in El Salvador, Kevin travels to find his friend Richard’s lost and drug-addled brother. It is the eve of the brutal civil war, and bad things happen all around him.
The prose is spare but polished, descriptive when needed but not overly so, the dialogue feels true, and the structural encasing was intriguingly diverting and non-traditional, enhancing rather than disrupting the flow. This reading experience was rich and complex, with wonderfully wry commentary on art, life and writing.
The story was, for me, ultimately about secrets, especially as they accumulate in a middle-aged life, and their pull as one seeks to balance a private emotional life with their ripple effect, whether kept or revealed, on intimate relationships. Further, the non-traditional chronology of the narrative, takes the reader back and forth in events as well as the emotional shifts of the categories we employ to chart a life's chronology—a man at youth, middle-age and poised to cross the precipice into old age. The book has a satisfying ending, but it’s not a happy ever after, and to my mind, in its entirety, reflects more authentically the way humans move through not only life, but how events shape a person’s character over time.
While I enjoyed So Much Blue, Everett’s earlier book Erasure blew me away.
In Erasure, the novel’s central character, Monk, is a frustrated writer who is also an academic in literature, seeking to place a new novel, after years of a modestly successful publishing career. He is told, by the literary establishment, that if he would only write about his experiences as a black man, he would be more commercially successful. Unsurprisingly, given that the idea itself presumes homogeneity of black experience and is inherently a product of deeply rooted cultural stereotypes (categorization) about black identity within a white world, he rejects this idea as artistic sellout and reinforcement of the casual racism of the literary establishment. Can we imagine a similar request being made of a white writer; it’s impossible, of course, because white is the categorical baseline in American literature.
Meantime, a new novel called We's Lives in Da Ghetto, a book filled with precisely the types of stereotypes playing to white expectations, explodes as a best seller, written by a woman who once visited “some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days.” In a moment of pique, Monk bangs out a novel in the same vein, but light years far from reality, blatant in its satire, and calls it My Pafology. He sends it to his agent, under a pseudonym, expecting, hoping maybe, that it will be seen for the ridiculousness that it is, and somehow simultaneously unmask the damaging pretension of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
Monk’s fake book becomes an instant hit, and he is swimming in new money.
In parallel, Monk deals with a complicated personal life that includes a mother slowly descending into the madness of Alzheimer’s, reverberations from his father’s suicide, the death of his sister, a budding romance, and more. In less accomplished hands, the sheer number of events would be too much, but Everett neatly pulls it off.
Throughout, Everett plays with form, inserting imagined conversations between well-known historical figures, mostly artists and philosophers, about the nature of art, knowledge and commerce of both, inserts Latin phrases that summarize the moment (which I had to look up) and even includes the full fake novel within the larger real novel.
The contrast between Monk’s actual domestic and professional life and that of the fake novel’s pseudonymic author—a tough-guy recently out of prison always in dark shades—that Monk is forced to portray as events spiral out of control comically shivs the stereotypes of black life often portrayed in American literature. It’s a heady mix that kept me deeply engaged while challenging me to reflect on the ultimately existential meaninglessness of race as a category for understanding human experience, and by extension, a greater imperative to be part of manifesting that reality.
As more and more authors like Everett breach the perimeter of traditional narrative forms, perhaps it’s time to propose another bucket to replace the experimental label—a bucket that even seems to give mainstream reviewers pause of late as mainstream literary darlings, such as Cusk, Coetzee and Saunders, begin also to play with form from the safety of a perch where reputations have been secured by prior writing in traditional modes.
Writers working in this vein could be more accurately called literary “evolutionists,” leaders in breaking new ground. And we owe them our gratitude, I think. As the boundaries of how we tell stories expand, how we see our own interior stories may expand, shifting how we interact with others. Over time, this has the potential to help us better navigate the complexity of modern life. When our interior narrative more closely matches the swirl of the less tidy, more chaotic stories we live through daily, dissonance may decline leading to greater contentment and empathy.