Percival Everett’s Erasure functions both as a skillful meta-narrative, and as a postmodern critique on the state of Black writing. The work is reflexive of Everett’s own experience trying to break into the writing game and with the cultural and popular Powers That Be, those who could either grease his passage into the literary imagination or leave him stagnating in obscurity. The novel’s protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is often criticized for his isolation within the intellectual ivory tower, and his distance from “authentic” black writing. He attempts to write from his personal experience and challenge the notion that black writing, or blackness in and of itself, functions as a monolith; his approach, however, is overwhelmingly ignored by publishers, peers and the public. Books that represent the seemingly authentic black experience, ones that offer cliché and stereotype, are propelled to the top of the public imagination by celebrity book clubs and literary hype men. In frustration, disgust, and revolt, Ellison pens a sharply satirical novel with includes a protagonist that is a disenfranchised, degraded, and dehumanized amalgamation of several other “authentically” black texts. Of course, the public loves it.
Erasure contains the meta-novel, which focuses upon consciously created narratives that show the black male body as hyper sexualized, a creature of impulse, and a degraded mass. The celebrity book clubs, and other popular novelist join forces to welcome Ellison into the black literary family proclaim this novel. All those who encounter him are struck by his ivory tower intellectualism, and are pleased with the fact he is finally able to connect with his blackness in penning this work. The reader is left feeling both Ellison’s and Everett’s dissatisfaction with the face of black literature and the problematic trappings of supposed authenticity.
This novel functions within a curious place within the canon of black writing. The self aware meta-narratives that simultaneously provoke and dispel master narratives has clear postmodern leanings, while the meta novel is penned in a literary modernist style that is reminiscent of Push or Black Boy. His attack on popular book clubs and the cult of black authenticity takes some major swings and cultural and literary titans alike. Everett is clearly concerned with the state of black writing, and its future. His novel makes his position impossible to misinterpret, but it is left to be said how this conversation will continue shaping. Here, the constructed black body in literature is both a metaphor and a warning bell. Works such as this show that the war in literature about the politics of representation and authenticity are far from over.