an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 11, October - December 2014, ISSN 1552-5112
The Barely Functioning Author in Percival Everett’s ‘Erasure’
In 1969, largely as a response to Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author” (1967), Michel Foucault delivered his lecture, “What is an Author?” Since collected in essay form in various anthologies of literary criticism, both treatises on the nature of the author in the “game of writing” (as Foucault words it) has become a mainstay in nearly any class that discusses the evolution of fiction in the twentieth century (282). Unexpectedly perhaps (that is, it remains unexpected to me), Foucault actually agrees with Barthes’ argument that the author’s name is a shopworn, descriptive label, a label only of, again as Foucault puts it, the “penal appropriation” of authorship that attaches itself to a piece of writing and then limits the “signified content” of the writing itself (286, 282). In his lecture, Foucault asks us, in a mimetic mockery of Barthes’ hauntingly similar question, “What does it matter who is speaking?” Foucault repeats the question three different times, and in three evasive answers he blithely sets aside the concept, the question, and even the answer as tired and obvious. He says, “It is too familiar to require a lengthy analysis . . . it is a very familiar thesis . . . and none of this is recent” (282). What I find most remarkable about these two works is that Foucault—essentially—uses Barthes’ pronouncement as an occasion to make a pronouncement or two of his own, including the suggestion that such pronouncements are self-undermining.
With his lecture, Foucault enters the conversation via a philological tight-wire, and he somehow manages to avoid a tone that is entirely dismissive or hypocritical. To Foucault, Barthes is merely beating a dead corpse, one that had been dead and rotting far before Barthes pronounced him so. Foucault suggests that Barthes’ observation varies little from Nietzsche’s 1883 announcement (in Thus Spake Zarathustra) that “God and man have died a common death” with one major exception (284). Whereas Nietzsche goes on to examine the void left by God and man’s theoretical departure, Foucault bemoans the fact that arguments like Barthes’ do little more than pronounce an obvious death. To be fair, Foucault never mentions Barthes or his article specifically. Still, he picks up the same theme and marches down a slightly different path; his mission is to “indicate some of the difficulties that [the author’s metaphorical death] presents” to a discourse that undeniably remains after he is gone (284).
takes Barthes’ “empty affirmation” and sets out to “locate the space left empty
by the author’s disappearance” (284).
And though Foucault illustrates his points with the various examples of
Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Aristotle, and Pierre Dupont, it is fairly difficult to
reformulate and restate his overall argument with any concision or
clarity. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the paradigm with which Barthes and
Foucault are engaging is too discursive to reduce any further considering the
limits of language. Still, they are treading common ground. Barthes writes, “Writing is that neutral,
composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all
identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing”
(142). Foucault echoes, “In writing, the
point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a
subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into
which the writing subject constantly disappears” (283). Perhaps, the author—dead, alive, redefined,
or reprioritized—represents such a complex reference system for a reader that
any representation of that system demands a deft, experimental touch, one that
eschews both the traditional prose of the critical essay and the narrative
tropes of realist and modernist fiction.
Perhaps both men would agree that Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) is the rightful
next-voice in the room. Were it possible,
perhaps they would read
that isn’t really an answer. Those predicate adjectives are mere descriptions
of an unspecified idea. Foucault says
that he plans to locate the departed author and “follow the distribution of
gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers”
(284). It turns out that those gaps are
considerably wide; that empty space is almost an impenetrable void. Erasure
steps right up and relentlessly messes with any easily traceable author
reference system. Barthes, Foucault, and
Everett: all three writers grapple with the author, the author’s work, and the
signifiers that bridge between the two.
In Erasure, the author in
question—Thelonius “Monk” Ellison—ends up with mashed-up identity that is
constructed by a reader and built with the various strands of one man’s
personality and his body of written work.
Foucault admits that Barthes and postmodernism have blown wide-open a dead-author-space, and he fills it with his concept of the Author Function. In his estimation, the author enjoys a privileged position in our culture, and once we—the reading public—accept an author, a human being signified with a proper name, the proper noun ceases to signify the biological writing human alone. “The author’s name is not,” Foucault says, “just a proper name like the rest” (285). On one hand, an author’s name is no different than any other noun; it cannot be turned into a pure and simple reference. But when that name points to both a person and a person’s written body of work, including the full discourse that follows that work around, something else is signified by the name.
In Erasure, we meet an author in the opening paragraph and immediately see what Foucault means:
My journal is a private affair, but as I cannot know the time of my coming death, and since I am not disposed, however unfortunately, to the serious consideration of self-termination, I am afraid that others will see these pages. Since however I will be dead, it should not much matter to me who see what or when. My name is Thelonius Ellison. And I am a writer of fiction. This admission pains me only at the thought of my story being found and read, as I have always been severely put off by any story which had as its main character a writer. (1)
Two details from the novel’s first paragraph seem to jump out and announce the painful and empty link between this author and his work. First, the narrator says that it “should not much matter” (emphasis mine) who reads this journal or when he or she reads it. But the rest of the novel will focus on very little but that; to Ellison, very little will matter beyond who reads his work (or doesn’t read it) and when they read it (or don’t read it). Second, the paragraph’s metafictionality loudly announces the presence of another force at work here; the first sentence calls this a journal and the fifth calls it a story. Which is it? Whose is it? Everett’s or Ellison’s?
of this being a “private” collection of written words is actually quite funny,
as if—after the reader has “found and read” these pages—he or she is now in on
the joke. If we read the journal as
Ellison’s long-withheld wink in order to account for the writing and
publication of Fuck, what would be
the equivalent elbow nudge for
by framing the narrative as he does—as a sneak peak into the journal of an
paragraph concludes, “I am Thelonious Ellison. Call me Monk” (1). With this
intrusive introduction, we are alerted to the fact that
continues with his idea of “the work,” with Nietzsche as his example: “When
undertaking the publication of Nietzsche’s works, for example, where should one
stop? Surely everything must be published, but what is ‘everything’?”
(283). What about laundry lists? Notes
for a possible novel? Jotted-down addresses?
Foucault would probably say yes, but wait, he’s a fictional author. Does it matter? After writing Fuck, Ellison muses that “The novel, so-called, was more a chair
than a painting, my having designed it not as a work of art, but as a
functional device, its appearance a thing to behold, but more a thing to mark,
a warning perhaps, a gravestone certainly” (209). This thing before us, this “journal,” written
by a man named Thelonious Ellison, contains a multitude of items that just so
happen to be bound into book form, bearing the title Erasure, written by a man named Percival Everett. Ellison even
ponders Foucault whilst shaving a piece of ash wood into a table’s top, “I
considered Foucault and how he begins by making assumptions about notions
concerning language that he claims are misguided. But he does not argue the point, but assumes
his notions, rightly or wrongly, to be the case” (133). In this fiction,
strength of this “thing”
scholars and critics who write about Erasure
have examined the novel and its obvious issues of race identity. In her essay, “Race Under Erasure,” Margaret
Russett dismisses such readings as pedestrian and obvious, “It is certainly
easy—too easy—to identify
In the first chapter, Ellison’s sister tells him, “I wish you’d write something I could read” (7). Seven short pages later, we are given the actual text of a paper Ellison is presenting at a meeting of the Nouveau Roman Society. It is an excerpt of his next novel, F/V (an intended extension of Barthes’ S/Z), punctuated with David Foster Wallace-sized footnotes. By the time we get through the paper though, presumably understanding at the same level as the fictitious Nouveau Roman audience, we completely agree with Monk’s sister. Though some literary critics, in real life published articles, have actually dissected this paper academically, very little of the paper was readable (for me) beyond the final sentence: “A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious” (17). I stand hand in hand with other oblivious readers within and without the book, no more aware of the obvious even after reading this particular reiteration. However, I didn’t necessarily feel as if I was supposed to understand it any more than the conference attendees (Ellison is sure it will take them “a couple extra beats to actually become insulted” (13)).
In a special issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies dedicated solely to Percival Everett, Judith Roof offers a succinct summary of Ellison’s paper. As she puts it, F/V “offers a Barthesian, Zen metacommentary on both Thelonius’ felonious fake novel and Erasure itself and is also a satire on scholarly writing” (212). Sure, it does that, but as far as the Author Function of Thelonious Ellison is concerned, the insertion of the actual text of the actual paper directly into the text of a journal that is the text of Erasure does much more than metacommentary. To Ellison, there is nothing fake about Fuck; it will haunt his Author Function forever. The paper really has nothing to do with Fuck. It does, however, allow the reader a chance, from the very beginning of the novel, to begin his or her initial construction of the signified meaning of the name Thelonius “Monk” Ellison.
The “paper” also explains why no one in his family or even his agent can read his work; it brings the personal aspects of Ellison’s life to the forefront, alongside his artistic goals and his own writing aesthetic. Thus, his Author Function begins to take on an inextricable blending of a man and his work, a unity that he wishes—like Barthes—didn’t exist. The conference and the murder of his sister cause a perfect blending/confusion of the object and the subject in this particular author’s personal and professional worlds. Ellison tells us that he has managed to maintain some geographic and emotional distance between himself and his family, a feat of which he is somewhat proud. F/V essentially does the same thing; inserted into the text as it is, written as it is in such dense, pedantic, academic prose, the same distance emerges between Ellison and all of his readers (both fictional and real). He is difficult to read in more than one way.
noting here that Everett actually published Ellison’s conference “paper” a few
years prior to the publication of Erasure
as a short piece of fiction in Callaloo in
1999 (it even carried the same title, “F/V: Placing the Experimental
Novel”). Perhaps even more significant,
. . . this is, I believe, the real artistic mission of the novel and, by extension, all arts. The commercial and realistic literary novels which the new novel claims to challenge kneel to the same gods as our Pynchons and Gaddises and Bellows. The novel has ceased to serve as it once did as a cultural barometer or the vehicle by which the culture speaks to itself. It has become the magic show where we care more about how the magician and his assistant are dressed, what kind of light display is offered, whether there is live music than about the content and stuff of the act itself. (22)
Erasure and the double life of F/V serves to blend “the stuff of the act” with the “magic show.” In Foucault’s estimation, the driving force is “the old bipolar field of discourse” and the contributing “work” that subsequent critics use to continue that discourse (286, 283). Though this “journal” questions the modes by which we access, Thelonious Ellison seems to illustrate that our dominant “man-and-his-work criticism” will, for the foreseeable future, continue to push the artist in front of his art (Foucault 283).
Heidegger and Derrida, though they put different words under erasure, they both
seek to indicate that the signifier is “inadequate but necessary” (Sarup
Shortly after finding out that his parody novel is going to be published and that his money worries are over, Ellison’s real crisis begins. He tries to heed Foucault’s warning; he tries to contain his identity strictly within the paradigm of his established Author Function. He assigns My Pafology a preposterous pseudonym. He invents a costume and a persona for this author stand-in. He is trying to keep this author’s function far, far away from the one he has built for himself in an effort to displace the “empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity” (Foucault 283). He fails: “I tried to distance myself from the position where the newly sold piece-of-shit novel had placed me vis-à-vis my art . . . In my writing my instinct was to defy form, but I very much sought in defying it to affirm it, an irony that was difficult enough to articulate, much less defend” (139). He is stuck in the same “double register of production and nonproduction” of Derrida’s philosophy (68). If the novel truly could stand alone as a monologue muttered by some phantom anonymity, then Ellison should have had no problem accepting the award. But we don’t give awards to titles; we give them to people. In the end, Ellison must face his new Author Function no matter how crushing it ends up being to his self-perception. He can’t kill Stagg Leigh; he can’t kill himself.
Ellison’s musings seems to stand out as an analogue for the novel as a
whole. It comes from a short section of
his journal in which he ponders the work he has done on a small table built for
his mother. He writes, “The wood of the
piece of furniture I had mutilated to make safe was still beautiful, the touch
of it, even the smell of it, but it was inadequate” (152). I suppose I like this line because it makes a
nice parallel metaphor for the way I have read this novel.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 11, October -December 2014, ISSN 1552-5112
Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image
– Music – Text.
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Morton, Seth. “Locating the Experimental Novel in Erasure and The Water Cure.” Canadian
Review of American Studies 43.2 (Summer 2013): 189-201. Web. ProjectMuse. 1 Nov. 13.
Powell, Tara. “Percival Everett – Erasure.” Still in Print: The Southern Novel Today. Ed. Jan
2013): 202-215. Web. ProjectMuse. 1 Nov 13.
Russett, Margaret. “Race Under Erasure.” Callaloo 28.2 (Spring 2005): 358-368. Web.
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American Exceptionalisms: From