The Unavoidable Percival Everett

YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD of Percival Everett, and he would probably prefer it that way. Although I’m sure he’d like for you to buy his books, which are a lot of fun because they all manage in their own ways to be cerebral page-turners. Despite this commonality, each one is distinctive in terms of form and content: a story about a hydrologist; a retelling of a Greek myth; an experiment in poststructuralism narrated by an infant who sounds like Roland Barthes; a co-written set of fictionalized interactions with the late senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond; a disjointed narrative of torture; a novel about a novelist who writes a terrible novel. He is best known for this last book, Erasure, the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a thinly veiled version of Everett himself who is frequently frustrated by how the fact that he is black dictates readers’ expectations of his work in ways that don’t apply to white writers. Erasure is a great book, perhaps Everett’s best, though I prefer Watershed and Wounded myself. But Erasure is the kind of book that inhabits its subject completely. When you read the novel, you experience the slippages, fits, and false starts of the psychology of America’s original sin.

There. From the outset I’ve said that Everett is black, and that race is a central theme in his most important work. The difficulties have only just begun. If you’re new to Everett’s work, I would like to recommend that you start with Erasure, as this is, for sure, the novel that is most well known. But is it representative of his work? That’s a troubling question, one that parallels the lopsided expectation that people of color must always speak for their group. When so much of Everett’s fiction eschews race, effaces it, should I recommend that you familiarize yourself with his work by reading the most overtly “racial” of his books? Do we read, enjoy, and recommend Erasure because it is a book about race by a black man? Is it better than Cutting Lisa and Walk Me to the Distance, or do those books simply receive less attention because they are not about race? Is it possible to talk about Everett’s work without talking about race? Is it desirable? When Everett acknowledges race in small ways in other books, are those books “about” race because their author is black?

Take his most recent novel, So Much Blue. Its narrator is Kevin Pace, an artist in his mid-50s who has been working for years on a painting no one else has seen. We learn in the opening pages that the “canvas is twelve feet high and twenty-one feet and three inches across” and that it is mounted to a wall in a locked barn. He has a pact with his best friend Richard who has sworn to destroy the painting if Kevin dies before he does. Kevin even experiments with a system that would sabotage the painting should someone else enter the barn before Richard can burn the place down. Kevin has a wife, two children, lots of secrets, and yes, he is black. This element of his character is mostly tangential throughout the book, though there are scenes in which it is essential to understanding certain conflicts. Is So Much Blue about race? Such a question would be inconceivable if Everett were white.

So Much Blue is not about race even though race is an important theme in the book. The novel belongs to a category of Everett’s work in which he acknowledges race, and even examines some of its causes and effects, but does not make it the gravitational force of plot or characterization. Novels such as Wounded and stories like those in Half an Inch of Water belong to this category. But he also writes books like Erasure, God’s Country, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, in which race is a primary concern. Finally, there are novels like Cutting Lisa that never mention race at all.

The novelist Madison Smartt Bell has written about how the fiction in this last category, the stories that don’t mention race at all, are racialized by default in the United States when the author is black. In his introduction to a reprint of God’s Country, Bell recounts how he received an author’s copy of Cutting Lisa by mistake because he and Everett shared the same editor. He settled in and read the novel, and, upon finishing it and seeing the author photo on the back flap, “thought, before I could stop myself, ‘Oh, did it say somewhere those characters are black?’” He goes on to explain that, no, even after reading it again, the novel does not offer racial identities for its characters. Bell’s self-critical reflection reveals how completely race has been conflated with nonwhiteness in the United States and how whiteness depends on this conflation for its very existence.

Everett’s fiction is attuned to this problem because Everett himself is attuned to it. When asked directly by Anthony Stewart in 2007 whether or not including author photos in his books is “part of [his] own terms,” Everett responds that he chose a specific photo once for a specific book, “but the other times, the publisher wanted a photograph … and that’s why they’re all snapshots … here’s a photograph. I don’t care. They like having photographs. They can have a photograph. And then it becomes a kind of ironic thing for me. Sure, have at it. This’ll confuse you.” He knows that race has been constructed in such a way in the United States that readers will feel something of a disjunction between his fiction and his photograph.

I wrote a review of So Much Blue that avoided race as Everett avoids it in some of his novels. The effect was the same: I was delivered back to the place I started. Trying to avoid something only makes that thing the unspoken focal point of everything you write. I even labored over a one-sentence summary of Erasure that refuses to reduce the novel to race. Here it is, by the way, in all its terrible glory:

Everett is perhaps most well-known for his 2001 novel Erasure, the story of a high-brow novelist named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison who writes a pulp novel in a fit of rage and insists on shopping it to all the major publishers who, in turn, gush over its authenticity.

Pretty bad, huh? What a non-descript description of a truly brilliant novel. I was snagged, hung up on the idea that Everett has been avoiding, ironizing, and parodying the expectation that black writers will write about race. I was stuck to the point that it seemed wrong to write about race at all: wouldn’t doing so simply reinforce the very kind of implicit racism his work so compellingly and hilariously satirizes? And so, I wrote a review that focused exclusively on the domestic sphere of the novel, its aesthetic philosophy, and the broader relationship between the two.

While such a rationale might have worked for Cutting Lisa, it will not work for So Much Blue. Kevin Pace isn’t just an artist; he’s a black artist. The novel recounts his affair with a young French woman and tells the story of a trip to rescue his best friend’s brother from the drug trade on the eve of revolution in El Salvador. I had to face the fact that I could not write about these events without writing about race. What’s more, until I began thinking through the implication of its form and content with regard to race, it seemed kind of boring. Upon having this revelation, I became suspicious of myself, though oddly not of the book. Was I writing about race because Everett is black? Then, I reasoned that this is precisely where Everett would want me to be: caught in the very conundrum that entraps him no matter what he writes about. And this is what I love about novels like So Much Blue that address race as a matter of fact, but do not take it as their primary concern. They entrap us, and when we call foul play they remind us that the world in which the trap is possible is really what’s rigged. It’s this double move that makes So Much Blue so successful.

Everett would never talk about his work like this. He is the least didactic of writers, even when taking things head-on. So Much Blue is prefaced by an epigraph from the photographer Diane Arbus: “A picture is a secret about a secret.” But that is not the complete quote. The second half reads, “the more it tells you the less you know.” This sense of proliferating information that results in less knowledge is among the recurring ideas in Everett’s work. That’s why it makes sense that Everett would leave off the more didactic part of the quotation. He resists the impulse to moralize the cryptic and plain alike. But the greatest mistake we could make as readers of his fiction is to infer that it is thus somehow amoral or uninterested in meaning. Instead, as he explains to Yogita Goyal, “I never speak to what my work might mean. If I could, I would write pamphlets instead of novels. And if I offered what the work means, I would be wrong. The work is smarter than I am. Art is smarter than us.” So, it’s not that his novels have no morals or meaning; it’s that they are, themselves, their morality and meaning. It is the work of readers to engage the story and capture whatever glimmers their reading may reflect.

The structure of So Much Blue encourages us to do this hard work as Everett divides the novel into three narrative threads, each set in a different time in Kevin’s life. The chapters titled “House” take place in the narrative present of about 2009, although in them Kevin recounts events that stretch back to his engagement to his wife Linda. He proposes to her after his return from El Salvador in 1979, a journey to find and bring home his friend Richard’s brother narrated in the chapters titled “1979.” In the interval, the chapters titled “Paris” recall Kevin’s affair with a young French woman named Victoire during a showing of his work in France in 1999. Each narrative could be read entirely on its own, but they illuminate one another when read together. The sections are not arranged in a pattern early on, but they do settle into a regular rotation for most of the book before running together in a surge of “House” chapters at the novel’s end.

So Much Blue is a book of secrets. In the “House” chapters, Kevin’s teenage daughter April confides in him that she is pregnant but only discloses the secret on the condition that he not tell her mother. Of course, such a secret is impossible to keep for long whether Kevin tells his wife or not, and the conflict that arises is no less teeth-grinding for its inevitability. These chapters also trace the familial tensions over the secret painting.

In the “1979” chapters, Kevin experiences two especially traumatic events among a host of disturbing incidents that seem tame in comparison as he and Richard search for Richard’s drug-dealing brother, Tad, in an El Salvador that is erupting in civil war. The first trauma takes place when Kevin, Richard, and their despicable American guide “The Bummer” happen upon a small village square through which fighters have recently swept. A man is stunned over the body of his small daughter who has been killed in the exchange of gunfire. They are almost finished helping the man bury the girl when the child’s brother gives something to Kevin, which he realizes is the severed hand of the daughter. He puts it in the grave as inconspicuously as possible, but carries this secret with him from El Salvador. For a time, this seems to be the shadow that most haunts him. But as the “1979” chapters continue to unfold, Kevin recounts a second, even more terrible secret that he will only ever tell Victoire.

Kevin meets Victoire in 1999 while in France. She is the secret of the “Paris” chapters. To tell her about the tragedy in El Salvador is, as Arbus says of pictures, to hide one secret inside another. The disclosure is an act of intimacy, not of confession or absolution. It is evidence of the fact that Kevin and Victoire’s relationship is not merely physical. And yet he will not leave Linda for Victoire. He will return home to his family, to his life, to his painting, and never see her again. Amid all the secrets, the painting is the central force of the book. It is, at once, a conspicuous presence and an overwhelming absence.

In the opening pages of the novel, we learn the dimensions of the painting and that Kevin has

used much phthalo blue, Prussian mixed with indigo. In the upper right hand corner is cerulean blending into cobalt, maybe bleeding into cobalt. The colors and their names are everywhere, on everything. The colors all mean something, though I cannot say what, would not say if I could. Their names are more descriptive than their presence, as their presence need not and does not describe anything.

This information is not significant early on, but we learn later that the presence of blue in Kevin’s work is monumental:

I looked across the dining room at a small canvas of mine. There was no blue in it. It was often pointed out that I avoided blue. It was true. I was uncomfortable with the color. I could never control it. It was nearly always a source of warmth in the underpainting, but it was never on the surface, never more than an idea on any work. Regardless that blue was so likable, a color that so many loved or liked — no one hated blue — I could not use it. The color of trust, loyalty, a subject for philosophical discourse, the name of a musical form, blue was not mine.

This passage solidifies what we have learned about Kevin throughout the novel. He is solitary. He describes himself at one point as “the singular loner.” He struggles with trust, views himself as disloyal despite the great lengths to which he goes to help find Richard’s brother and to build a life with Linda. He avoids the kind of self-expression, the kind of outward emotion associated with the blues. This is why the novel’s secrets are baptized in blue. The girl killed by soldiers wears a “blue” dress. The brother of the little girl wears a shirt that is “cobalt blue.” The soldier Kevin encounters in the moments of his most terrifying secret is “wearing light-blue socks.” The small painting that becomes “the seminal image” of the secret painting is called Fledgling Blue. An early painting on which his grandfather comments is filled “with lots of greens and blues.” Victoire’s best painting is “green leaning into blue in places.”

He reasons that his “dislike of [blue] was a function of fear and that fear, like all fear, was a function of lack of ken.” “Ken” here means a range of knowledge or sight, and so Kevin has a lack of knowledge or insight into this color of trust and emotional expression. He fears opening himself up; he prefers to stand alone like so many of Everett’s characters. And so the last line of the novel signifies on multiple levels, as Kevin leads Linda into the locked barn at last, switches on the lights, and she remarks, “So much blue.”

It’s hard not to read this revelation as an allegory for Everett’s engagement with race throughout his fantastic career. Kevin’s avoidance of blue has, in fact, led him to devote his life’s work to it, and no serious reader of Everett would deny that he has been tangling and untangling the meaning of color from the very beginning. I imagine that if you were to ask Everett about the significance of black or white in America he would no doubt say, as Kevin does of his colors, that they mean something, but just as readily admit that he does not know what they mean and wouldn’t say even if he did.

This reading of the novel brings me back to my discomfort with being unable to avoid talking about race in Everett’s work, but I think this is part of what the novel does. It calls attention to the inevitable treatment of race in the writings of people of color. I’m doing it now even, or especially, while identifying it as a problem. It’s as if Everett knows the world into which he is releasing his work, and, like with the author photos, is saying to us: here, let’s see if this will confuse you. All I can do is echo his words to Yogita Goyal, and say I’m glad the “work is smarter than I am.”

¤

Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces (Oxford, 2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Arizona Quarterly, First Things, SubStance, and other venues. You can follow him on Twitter @MullinsMattR.

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