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.