Sunday, June 11, 2006

A little something to make me sweeter

I felt guilty in Waterstone's for two reasons. The first was that I was in the shop at all, having been bombarded of late with dire
warnings about the demise of the independent bookstore and its hideous knock-on effects. The second reason was that I was browsing the "Try Me For 99p" section.

Now, I don't know how these things work, but I can't imagine authors see much return on books promoted in this way. On the other hand, perhaps if I bought something and liked it, I could eventually put more business the author's way and so assuage my guilt. Well, that's what I'm trying to do now, because the book I bought was Percival Everett's Erasure, and it's one of the best books I've read in ages. The TLS agree, calling it "one of the most original and forceful novels to have emerged from America in recent years".

I bought the book on the strength of the blurb on the back, which read: "With sales at an all time low, your family falling apart, and your agent telling you you're not black enough, what's an author to do but write a ghetto novel and call it Fuck?"

The book weaves an impressively coherent story from these elements, despite detouring several times into imagined conversations between dead artists and writers, a game show dream sequence, and of course, the ghetto novel itself, which takes up 80 of the novel's 294 pages. Its protagonist is Thelonius 'Monk' Ellison, professor and author (like Everett himself) of dense, allusive novels.

At the novel's start, he is working on a re-imagination of Barthes' S/Z in novel form (yes, I think you are allowed to think that would be god-awful). But he keeps getting reviews which say things like, "The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus' The Persians has to do with the African American experience."

At the same time, a book called We's Lives in Da Ghetto is the hottest property in the literary world. Monk finds himself wondering why, as a black man who has never allowed race to define his identity, he cannot in the least see the attraction of this kind of thing, peppered with violence, drugs and ebonics. So he adopts the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and writes a novel called My Pafology (later Fuck) which satirises We's Lives in Da Ghetto, as the protagonist aimlessly wanders round eating chicken, making passes at his 'fo' babymothers' and swearing at people.

Around the main plot is woven another strand relating to Monk's family life: death in the family, his brother coming out as gay, his dead father's secret life, and his mother's descent into Alzheimer's.

Oh, and did I mention there's a Derrida joke (surely the only one to have ever existed?)

Wittgenstein: Why did Bach sell his organ?
Derrida: I don't know. Why?
Wittgenstein: Because he was baroque.
Derrida: You mean because he composed music marked by elaborate and even grotesque ornamentation?
Wittgenstein: Well, no that's not exactly what I was getting at. It was a play on words.
Derrida: Oh, I get it.

Everett manages to juggle all these threads without allowing any to become overpowering (although, if I'm being picky, I could have coped with less of the ghetto novel). The only jarring insertions are a series of paragraphs on woodworking and fishing, which are treated as metaphors for life. You get the feeling they've been jammed in to provide an extra metaphorical layer, which frankly isn't needed.

But that's small fry: the book is brilliant: combatively intelligent, allusive without being stodgy, and magnificently funny at the expense of the literary establishment. I liked Everett's prose style - and the originality of his ideas - so much that I immediately bought the two other novels of his available in the UK. First on my reading list will be Glyph, the story of a baby with a ridiculously high IQ who chooses not to speak, but spends his time pondering the worth - "not much" - of influential literary theorists. Well, I'm up for as much slagging off of Derrida as is on offer, really.

I still feel guilty about the 99p thing, mind.


Blogger Yem.B said...

99p...that's a bobby dazzler, I bought this book for 7.99 last year. Still have read it though, think I'll give it a go now

Many Thanks


6/11/2006 9:20 pm  
Blogger Zesty said...

Just stopped by. Great blog. I'll be picking this book up.

6/12/2006 10:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

V int book. Will peruse esp at that price. Like the fact that you give percy A Little Respect.

6/12/2006 11:07 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home