Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Last week I read three books. I sort of liked one. I truly enjoyed one. And one I found remarkable. That one is the novel Erasure by Percival Everett.

I'm late to this--embarrassingly late, as it was published in 2001--and as there've been many accolades as well as a fair amount of commentary on this book from keener analysts than I can claim to be, this will be short. But I do want to say a couple things about this book because it took my breath away.

I guess the thing that got me the most is how many levels there are to Erasure. How many layers. How many different things are going on--literarily, stylistically, thematically--and how masterfully Percival Everett holds them together. In lesser hands this could have been one wobbly structure, would have in fact probably collapsed, but he maintains the whole from start to finish. What are the parts? They include a scathing satire of literary academia, a harsh parody of "urban literature," a sort of weary and bitter perspective on race in U.S. society, assorted learned asides many of them in Latin, and a moving, emotionally powerful story of family, aging, alienation, connection, loneliness, love. You'd think some of the first elements I mentioned wouldn't work in the same book with this last, but Everett weaves it all together without, to my ear, an off note. And make no mistake: it is very much a story, with a plot and characters and much depth of feeling.

There's so much going on here, so many levels and layers, that I know I didn't get all of it. The Latin, for example, some of which I could kind of figure out by reference to French, Spanish and Italian but much of which I could not. Even aside from the Latin involved, the whole business of making fun of academia and postmodernism was to some extent over my head, as I've never been in that scene. So that while I could enjoy the general sense of what Everett was doing, I fear I missed the specific digs within, for example, a paper the main character reads at an academic conference.

Then there's the novel-within-the-novel, an angry, brutal parody that, along with a related plot line about a huge bestseller, seems to be a direct attack on Sapphire and her novel Push and at the same time a more general cri de coeur about--well, about many things, not least of them the hypocrisy of the arts establishment and the publishing industry when it comes to race and racism. As I said at the top, there's been a lot of commentary about this book, mostly about this aspect, and much of it is by African-American writers. Rather than intrude on that conversation, I commend you to it.

I had read another novel by Everett a few years back but wow am I glad I finally got to this one. His most recent, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, was already on my to-read list. Now I'm eager to get to it.