The problem with refusing to fit is that you never quite fit. In theory we like our artists to be ground-breaking, rule-averse, maverick and cussed, but only if they fall neatly into the Rule-Averse, Ground-Breaking, Cussed Maverick category. And what could be worse than finding yourself imprisoned in that particular cage, expected to heave the TV out of the hotel window again and again and again?
On the surface, Percival Everett doesn’t bother with any of that. He just writes the books he wants to write and lets everyone else figure out how to get to grips with them. Or, equally, fail to get to grips with them. A follow-up to his best-known work, Erasure, the novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier was published in the USA in 2009, but its first release over here in Blighty comes in 2020, courtesy of Influx Press, after a baffling eleven year delay. It’s a very funny, fiendishly clever folding box of a book, which eventually twists itself so small it disappears. Or does it?
If you were going to look for a single theme running across Everett’s work, it would have to be a quality defined in the negative – a refusal of the categorization of his work as that of an African-American (or Black) author. It’s not a negative at all, though. After all, the fiction of race only really runs one way, and no melanin-deficient dick-swinger has ever been expected to fill his interviews with explanations of his work as a White Male Author. In some of Everett’s books he pointedly ignores the issue, in some he confronts the issue, in others he writes about confronting the issue, or ignoring the issue, and so on. It hovers there, caught and refracted through a million mirrors, the ghost in the machine of funhouse America.
During the period from Erasure to I Am Not Sidney Poitier Everett seems to have been particularly concerned with teasing out one particular strand of what these categorizations mean for the maker of art – the obsession with authenticity, that great driver of consumption, and its particular relation to Blackness. I Am Not Sidney Poitier concerns the misadventures of a young man whose given name is Not Sidney Poitier. He looks just like Sidney Poitier and becomes involved in a succession of scenarios (and dreams) which mirror or echo the plots of Sidney Poitier movies. His kind-of adoptive father is the media mogul Ted Turner (on whose Turner Classic Movies channel many of those Poitier films might run) and at college he meets a professor called Percival Everett. Everett is teaching a course in Nonsense. The professor becomes a kind of sounding board for Not-Sidney, even though all he ever tells Sidney is . . . well, nothing really. Everett is, briefly, arrested for the murder of a man who looks just like Not-Sidney but isn’t. And if he isn’t Not-Sidney, does that make him Sidney . . . ? Or is Not-Sidney not Not-Sidney and hence actually Mr Poitier himself . . . ?
Despite these spirals of nothing, nonsense and negation, this isn’t a tricksy or a dry book. If it’s reminiscent of any other work, that other work would have to be Tristram Shandy, with which it shares a good-natured contempt for other people’s rules. It’s funny throughout, with superb dialogue (Ted Turner’s non sequiturs alone are worth the entrance fee), a kind of deadpan mischievousness and the sense of an author thoroughly enjoying himself. It strikes me that Everett is too clever for experiments – he always knows exactly what he’s doing. But I wonder whether the idea here is that, by building a whole structure out of double negative upon double negative, you end up with something positive – a way to write about race without getting trapped in the very thing you’re attempting to critique. You certainly end up with a brilliant, provocative book. Hopefully, now that Influx have turned the tap back on, we will see more from Everett’s extensive back catalogue, whether it fits or not.
Image © Nick