I Am Not Sidney Poitier
I enjoy reading the novels of Percival Everett, but ultimately they participate in the form "novel" primarily as extensions of the much older mode of satire, which requires no particular form or genre for its more general task of comic deflation. Satire targets behaviors and attitudes that are implicitly marked as so unacceptable or pompous they are deserving of the deflating mockery satire provides. The essentially corrective message of satire--this behavior needs to be eradicated or changed--thus always takes precedence over the purely formal and aesthetic niceties over which some other practitioners of the form at hand often dwell, even when the satirist him/herself might be taking extreme liberties with form and style.
Everett certainly does take liberties with form in his novels, and they are liberties frequently accomplished to hilarious effect. However, these efforts seem mostly directed toward simply dismantling the novel as "form", without much interest in aesthetically reconstituting the text, Everett's text, as at least a temporary alternative to established forms, as a new iteration of form in fiction. The first target of Everett's satire is the writing of fiction itself, which is portrayed implicitly as an enterprise saturated in pretension and moribund assumptions. Although intellectual and academic fraud and pretension in general, as well as the cultural frauds historically perpetuated by white American institutions, are the ultimate objects of satire in most of Everett's fiction, the force of this satire is so intense and thoroughgoing it seems irresitably to extend to the literary/philosophical underpinnings of fiction as an "institution" of intellectual practice.
Glyph (1999) well illustrates both the pleasures and the limitations of Everett's approach. It has a typically outrageous premise: a baby is born with the ability to read and to think (although not to speak) at a near-genuis level. When this is discovered, the baby is abducted from his parents (an artist mother whom the baby rather likes and a clueless literary academic he decidedly doesn't) by a series of academics, scientists, and government goons, all of whom want to harness the infant prodigy to their own personal and professional agendas. Along the way, all of these character types are thoroughly mocked, shown to be concerned only with their own personal and professional aggrandizement. But at the same time the baby, Ralph, is also inclined toward his own kind of self-absorption and intellectual pretension:
. . .My dreams became so transparent that they became devoid of meaning. Jung would have been proud of me. Freud would have gone to sleep during our sessions. My dreams became an exercise in boredom, though I was actually impressed with my imagination and its ability to create so many characters, even if they were stock and repetitive. I thought I knew how it felt to be Louis L'Amour or James Michener or even Dickens.
Ironically, the actuality of my having subverted my dreaming practice made the fact of my dreaming of great interest. I wondered what indeed it meant about me that I was so set against the notion of convention that I should attack it. So, I replaced the dream with the novel, stripping the stories of my dreams of any real meaning, but causing the form of them to mean everything.
Later in the novel, we are presented with "Ralph's Theory of Fictive Space," a long list of propositions that as they accumulate become more and more nonsensical:
B._E) Story is self-determining and therefore conceptually finite, but fictive space has no boundaries and only boundaries.
B._F) The world, story and, by extension, fictive space make up reality.
B._FA) Realities are dependent on fictive space.
B._FB) Fictive space contains, controls, and contributes truth in reality.
B.A) A story cannot be seen at once.
Such passages are very funny, but not only do they make it difficult to muster up much sympathy for Ralph as the novel's protagonist, they work to extend Glyph's mockery to itself as a text, as one struggles to discern how Ralph's various assertions and pronouncements relate to the text we are reading, only to decide that this very struggle is one of the novel's satirical targets.
To some extent, Everett's practice in a work like Glyph is an illustration of M.M. Bakhtin's concept of the "carnivalesque," in which an attitude of "radical skepticism" makes it impossible for anything to be taken seriously. But Bakhtin makes a distinction between carnivalesque comedy and satire--the latter takes nothing seriously except its own, its author's, authority, which is invoked to ridicule that which requires amelioration. My sense of Everett's fiction is that finally it does not fully relinquish that authority, that its attack on literary processes and pretensions seeks to evade comedic reduction where the work of Percival Everett is concerned. That Everett, or the text at hand, at least, depicts the assumptions behind literary representation to be risible does not mean that Everett's text is also risible. The alternative to "causing the form of [novels] to mean everything" is causing Everett's satire of it to "mean" at least something.
The essentially satiric character of Everett's fiction is even more pronounced in his latest novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier. This novel is much less metafictional than Glyph or Erasure, its most outrageous gesture in this direction being the introduction of a characer named "Percival Everett," although this Percival Everett is an Atlanta-based professor teaching a course in the "Philosophy of Nonsense." As such, he is in the line of academic frauds to be found in his namesake's fiction, but he doesn't really act as a focus of satiric attention on literary creation per se. His role instead is as a kind of advisor--whose advice is mostly nonsensical, of course--to the novel's protagonist, Not Sidney Poitier. The novel chronicles Not Sidney's travails as he attempts to find his place in the world after inheriting a fortune from his mother, who made a lucky investment in the Turner Broadcasting System just before it rose to prominence, along with its founder, Ted Turner.
The novel gets most of its laughs, such as they are, from Not Sidney's rather loopy conversations with Ted Turner, as well a series of episodes in which Not Sidney finds himself, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in reality, acting out the scenarios of Sidney Poitier movies such as The Defiant Ones, Buck and the Preacher, and, ultimately, In the Heat of the Night. Unfortunately, as a character Ted Turner falls flat, the satirical intent motivating his portrayal being rather fuzzy at best. The parodies of the Poitier movies come off rather better, although ultimately they seem rather obvious in their satirical ambition to illustrate that the obstacles to civil respect and equality encountered by Sidney Poitier's characters in these "social problem" films are still with us these many years later. And this ambition seems to be the novel's primary motivating force, even if it is leavened with the sort of "nonsense" one expects from both Percival Everett and "Percival Everett."
Everett is certainly no ordinary satirst, but I Am Not Sidney Poitier reveals him as primarily a satirical writer. Its weaknesses, which perhaps result from settling for a more straightforward kind of satire, make one hope for more of the conceptually warped, metafictionally adventurous satire found in novels like Glyph and Erasure. Everett's deformations of form add an element of bracing insolence to satire that in I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a little too earnest.
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell
This review originally appeared in Full Stop.
If it is accurate enough to call Percival Everett a satirist, the effect of his satire, which is otherwise uncompromising and thoroughgoing, varies according to the subject and, especially, the formal assumptions at work in particular novels. In 2011’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the satire is of a more or less conventional kind in which mocking, often corrosive humor is used for the traditionally corrective purpose of satire — to call attention to and ridicule blameworthy behaviors, attitudes, and prevailing conditions (in this case primarily regarding perceptions of race). In 2012’s Assumption, satire takes the form of explicit parody (in this case, of the mystery genre), a form to which Everett is often drawn. In these books, the focus of the satire is either the subject addressed or the subject as distorted by genre conventions. Certainly the laughter it provokes is merciless and, at times, bitter, but it is directed at targets in “the world” (genre conventions being a pre-established part of it), leaving the authority of Everett’s own satirical depiction of them more or less intact.
In Everett’s new book, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, that authority, the authority of the very narrative we are reading (to the extent we can unravel the narrative) is itself questioned, quite deliberately, as Everett takes storytelling and fiction as a mode of storytelling for targets of mockery. This quality in Everett’s work, which also characterizes such previous novels as Glyph and Erasure, is most frequently described as metafictional and postmodern, but I think the impulse behind it still best regarded as satirical rather than postmodern per se. While Everett does blatantly and persistently call attention to the artifice of fiction-making, the object seems less to simply complicate the reader’s response to the act of narration and to disruptthe maintenance of illusion than to expose both notions to travesty. Fiction as a literary form is itself not spared the hard edge of Everett’s satire. Among postwar American writers whose work consistently incorporates self-reflexive strategies, perhaps only Gilbert Sorrentino so relentlessly dismantles the existing support structures of fiction — the novel in particular — as does Everett, although Sorrentino seems more interested than Everett in supplying new such structures, even if they are only temporary, made to fit the specific work at hand.
In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Everett does not seem engaged in an effort to replace the blasted remnants of the conventional novel with a fresh form of his own invention. It would be more accurate to say this novel settles for deforming form as a self-sufficient aesthetic principle. It courts confusion on almost every level: Is “Percival Everett” the narrator who begins the novel by narrating the dream of his “father,” or is it the father? Is the son thus “Virgil Russell”? Is “Percival Everett” Percival Everett? Is it the latter whose voice appears periodically to remind us he’s in the midst of creating the work we are reading? If the premise of the novel is that is that the two men, “Percival Everett” and “Virgil Russell,” are relating stories to each other, how do we know whose story is which, since the “dialogue” is never clearly demarcated as such? If the stories are emerging as part of a “novel” the father is writing (or is the son writing a novel about the father writing a novel?), why do the characters, their situations, and their actions keep transmogrifying and blending together? Is the story ultimately related of the father’s attempt to escape confinement in his “hospital” the novel’s real story, or is this just more make-believe? What in the world do the photographs in the novel’s concluding section have to do either with the accompanying text or the novel as a whole?
This concluding section finally suggests to us that the father may be in a coma, or perhaps has just died, so that we could choose to interpret the novel we have just read as the spontaneous projections of a dying brain. No doubt some readers who expect formal continuity to be more firmly established, and sooner, will not have the patience to acquiesce to the novel’s apparent disorder until this conclusion provides a kind of retrospective justification (maybe). One suspects, however, that Everett not only anticipates such a response but to a degree expects and welcomes it. The extreme skepticism of fiction’s ability (the ability of all human discourse) to adequately render the truth about human reality that sustains Everett’s satire is surely accompanied by a skepticism of our ordinary ways of reading, which necessarily is expressed by confounding the reader’s expectations, deliberately alienating the reader from these ingrained habits. That Everett’s fidelity to such skepticism would so completely alienate readers who stubbornly cling to their expectation that they reject a novel like this one in frustration is perhaps an acceptable price to pay.
Everett is a prolific writer (by my count Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is his 21st book), so one also must presume he does after all believe fiction has value. Indeed, in Everett’s case that value may very well consist of the opportunity each book gives him to exercise his satirical imagination and to challenge readers to a more active and self-aware reading experience. The very ferocity of Everett’s satire, as well as the relatively rapid rate at which he chooses to offer it, suggests further that he finds no lack of appropriate targets in current American culture (although his interests extend to American history as well) and that their satirical deflation is a worthy object, perhaps one most appropriately undertaken by fiction of a sufficiently adventurous kind. And while Everett’s work certainly does question complacent assumptions about the formal requirements of fiction, this does not fully extend to questioning the validity of his own satirical efforts, thus undermining their rhetorical authority and lowering them to simple exercises in nihilism. At its best, Everett’s self-reflexive mockery and abrasive humor closely approach the line separating productive ridicule and mere negation, but don’t quite cross it.
Those who do grant Percival Everett by Virgil Russell its ultimate formal integrity and follow it through to the end will actually find that the story it tells, however obliquely, and the subject it addresses, however indistinctly, are among the most emotionally engaging, even moving, in Everett’s fiction. In whatever way we choose to identify “Percival Everett,” the character’s plight is treated with considerable sensitivity, at least to the point we find Everett’s depiction of old age and its indignities convincing and compelling. The relationship between father and son, although no more free of regret and misunderstanding than any other, also emerges from the novel’s formal uncertainties as nevertheless genuinely felt, captured almost poignantly in the novel’s final scene:
. . .Twitch a finger here. Twitch a finger there. Fuck with them any way you can. I’m dead, but they don’t know it. Forget the adage let sleeping dogs lie. How about we let dead men die?
You hold my hand
I hold your hand.
I write this for you.
If I wrote, this would be it.
If you wrote.
I will always be here.
I’m dead, son.
I know that, Dad. But I didn’t know you knew it.
If this conclusion suggests that genuine human connection is possible, even (especially) in facing imminent death and inevitable suffering, it also thus paradoxically reinforces the judgment that Percival Everett is fundamentally a satirical writer, albeit one of a particularly radical sort. A satirical writer must ultimately believe that the satirical gesture has some conceivable efficacy, that it is not simply an expression of nihilism or despair. One certainly wouldn’t go to Percival Everett’s novels for good cheer and false comfort, but in being often savagely funny they are also balanced by a concern that we behave better, and make such mocking laughter less necessary.