Monday, May 27, 2013

Reading Percival

I first became aware of Percival Everett in the winter of 2004. I was a newly out gay boy heading toward the end of my junior year of college when I signed up for a contemporary literature class. My small liberal arts school in southern Indiana had created a faculty exchange program with a school in France. This meant we sent them one of our English literature professors and they sent us one.

I can't remember her name, but she was very French. Small. Pale. Almost birdlike. She was excited, yet I wondered why. I had to think our professor was getting the better end of the deal. Here she was in a cornfield while he was probably on the streets of Paris drinking wine. My school, Hanover College, was beautiful, but only had 1,000 students total and there was not much off-campus without driving at least an hour in any direction.

Excitement or not we began the semester in the cold of an Indiana winter. The school had given her complete freedom to teach what she wanted. Hanover offered great literature courses, but not many on contemporary works, which is partly what drew me to her class. I was, however, a bit let down when I got her syllabus. I didn't recognize a single name on the list of authors we were assigned to read. I think she was let down too. We were dumber than she expected and she was a bit more disorganized than we expected. Somehow she had a misunderstanding about the semester schedule and therefore planned for us to read ten books in six weeks, which then left us nothing to do the rest of the semester.

Things were confusing. She didn't quite understand and nor did we, but we made the best of it. Looking back, this experience was very useful for me. I realize now that the books she selected (all by American authors) were a bit outside the mainstream and that these were authors I'd hear more and more about as I grew older and got more involved in the literature scene.

It was in her classroom that I was handed Percival Everett's novel Erasure. It wasn't like anything I'd read before. It was strange, confusing in places, and played with the idea of race and authorship in fascinating ways. There are books that change our way of thinking and those moments that you can have as a reader when you say, "Wow, I didn't know you could do that." Reading a Percival Everett novel is almost always like that.

I wrote my final paper for the class on Erasure and got an A. I don't know what happened to that professor, but I'm thankful for what she exposed me to that semester. I didn't forget Percival Everett and I kept my copy of Erasure with sticky-notes and scribblings in the margins on my shelf.

About two or three years later, I saw another novel by Everett on Amazon called Wounded. I quickly ordered it. It was completely different from Erasure. It was a more straightforward story, but gripping and thought-provoking just the same. After that I was hooked. I've read six of his novels and his one poetry collection. His work is truly unique in that each book has a very different style and approach. He often uses satire and humor, but will also play with what a novel can be. He writes a lot, which means I still have plenty to read.

About a month ago, I saw that he was giving a reading here in New York City at 192 Books. It was for his newest novel called Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. I went to the small gathering where he read from the book and then took questions. It's always an experience to meet an author that you admire. Sometimes you are let down and sometimes you are just surprised by how different they are. Everett surprised me because he was soft-spoken and a little shy. From reading his books, I was expecting a very commanding presence. As the night went on he warmed up more and more. The crowd was small (maybe 12 of us) and I found the question and answer portion much more fascinating than hearing him read.

As a writer, I'm always intrigue by how other writers view their work and complete their work. Everett said he actually forgets his novels very quickly and that readers will come up to him and ask specific things about a novel and he won't remember. I found this very strange. It seemed that he devoted so much time to the piece while he was writing it that once it was complete it vanished from him, which might be a relief. He also addressed the idea of categorizing his work. Critics wants to pin him down, which proves difficult because his novels are truly different. Many call him a post-modernist and he poked fun at that label quite a bit. Everett was funny and more causal than I was expecting. What I found refreshing about him is that he truly seemed to not care what critics or reviewers say about his work or how they label it. He's not writing for a mainstream audience or for some great literary prize, which gives him a lot of freedom within his work. In my opinion, it is this freedom that leads to such great work.

His books are smart, playful, and entertaining. As I've gotten older and read more and explored my own writing, I've learned to appreciate moments of confusion, which Everett typically provides.  Many readers fear confusion in a text, but confusion can be beautiful and useful and can make you question everything. Of course this is coming from a huge modernist lover. My favorite novelists are Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner. Confusion is part of reading these kinds of novels and Everett fits right into this way of writing and reading.

I just finished his latest novel. It was truly one of my favorites of his. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is a novel that doesn't have a clear narrator. The novel is possibly written by an old man pretending to write a novel that his son would write in his voice or it's by the son pretending to write a novel in the voice of his father who is pretending to writing a novel in the voice of his son. Confused? The story is fragmented. Story-lines start and don't all finish. But the book is truly an exploration of time and memory and how we look back at our histories and piece them together and change them over time. The confusion in the text is there for a reason and takes you on an interesting journey.

Everett is one of those rare authors that I believe will one day be recognized as one of the greatest of this time period. If you haven't read him, you should start.

-Stephen (Reader)

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