10 August 2011

Erasure, by Percival Everett

I was somewhat put-off by this novel fairly early on, when the narrator gives a lecture on Roland Barthes' S/Z wherein he basically does a kind of meta-reading of the text by it's own methods - and the text actually provides the text of the lecture. I almost quit right there. I have increasingly less patience for that kind of thing. It's neat if you're just discovering Barthes, and makes you feel cool if you "get" it, but the joys wear off, and what you're left with is the sense that this idea really didn't need to be taken to it's logical conclusion (kind of how I feel reading S/Z actually, badum-tsh!). But I persevered, and the novel did in fact get more interesting. But it also never really rose above that sense of cleverness. It doesn't really get you on an emotional level. It feels like a well executed mfa thesis, where the author has shown that he's conversant with the tools of the craft.

One aspect is that the novel tries to cram in way too much stuff. The central character is a novelist who pens largely unread, experimental postmodern types of works. Then he becomes aware of a bestselling book called We Lives in da Ghetto. I should pause here and say that the protagonist is a black guy who doesn't find race central to his identity, and is regularly accused of not being "black" enough. He is annoyed by We Lives in da Ghetto, and especially with the way it's received as an authentic African American voice. Meanwhile, his agent wishes he wrote books like that, instead of these weird high brow parodies that no one reads. So what does our protagonist do? He writes (using a pen name) a weird high brow parody of "ghetto fiction" - the full text of which is also included in the novel. Of course, it's a runaway hit, and the predictable hijinks ensue. That alone would make for a relatively interesting novel. The predictable hijinks part is just that, but the parody itself is really well done, and the discussion related to it is worthwhile.

The problem is, Everett apparently decided that wasn't enough. So there's also a subplot about his mom's rapidly progressing Alzheimer's, the secrets of his dad's past, his relationship with his gay brother and his doctor sister... All of these story lines individually are fine, though none is all that exciting, but taken together, it's just too much to care about, and feels soap operatic.

Like I said, some interesting ideas here, but that's it really. Some clever ideas that are partly fleshed out. You always sense the constructedness of it; you never really enter the world of the text.

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