Erasure and American Fiction: Percival Everett in Fiction and Film

Graywolf Press | Orion Pictures

Essay by Walter Cummins

Is if fair to compare a book and its movie version? A friend who was a Hollywood writer argues that they are two different art forms, so that it’s not appropriate to compare them. But I can’t help doing that because both forms attempt to present the same core situation, and I’m curious about which result is more effective. In this particular case I read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, a National Book Award finalist, before I watched the recent film adaptation, American Fiction. While the movie was nominated for an Academy Award and offers strong acting performances, I much preferred the novel and believe those performances, as impressive as they are in themselves, are a major reason the movie can’t replicate the impact of this novel.

In both versions the story revolves around an African American college professor and novelist named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison who writes small selling literary novels based on classical Greek drama. He is upset to find his work shelved in the Black writers section of bookstores because of his skin color, even though his novels have nothing to do with the Black experience. At the same time, a young Black Oberlin graduate named Sintara Golden—who appears in the movie version—hits the best seller list, writing as Juanita Mae Jenkins, with a stereotypical book titled We’s Lives in da Ghetto, with  sentences like “My fahvre be gone since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover Juneboy.”

Monk fumes, especially when publishers turn down his most recent novel for being too literary. His response is to knock out a parody first called My Pafology under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh—a play on the legendary Stagger Lee, a larger-than-life outlaw. To the amazement of Monk and his agent, It brings in hundreds of thousands for print and movie rights, enjoys a sales explosion, and is nominated for a major literary prize, even after Monk insists on changing the title to simply Fuck.

Beyond the publishing situation, the book and movie burden Monk’s life with family crises—a physician sister who dies early on—murdered by an anti-abortionist in the novel, heart attack in the film, a plastic surgeon brother who loses his wife and family and his bank account when he comes out as gay, and a mother declining into dementia. Monk’s uncertain love interest, a lawyer neighbor in their resort community, appears briefly in the novel with much more importance in the movie.

Where Erasure and American Fiction differ is in the thematic emphasis of their stories, Everett concentrating on strong satire and parody as the novel ridicules the publishing industry while exploring the complexities of Black identity. Instead, the movie gives more attention to Monk’s personal issues and less to mockery of the book world, which in this version is tamer than the novel.

Much of that difference arises from the inherent deliveries of the two art forms. In the novel the words on the page dominate. In the movie it’s the people on the screen, substantial presences, vividly alive. For example, in an early section of the novel Monk gives a conference paper that mocks the incomprehensibility of postmodern criticism: “Pausing and backing up we have before the first sentence I. Evaluation. Is the “I” the Roman numeral one or is it the English pronoun I. “I” followed by a period (HER. period), connoting an extremely short sentence or, a mark of finality connoting the end of the self (SEM. self), thus casting away responsibility for the text to follow. And of evaluation, are we to attach this word to I which precedes it or to the text which follows? If the former, does it reiterate the shedding of culpability?”

The movie necessarily ignores this non-visual scene but does attempt to capture the creation of My Pafology and its antihero, Van Go Jenkins, which in Erasure actually appears in an excerpt of many pages, with passages like:

My name is Van Go Jenkins and I’m nineteen years old and I don’t give a fuck about nobody, not you, not my Mama, not the man. The world don’t give a fuck about nobody, so why should I? And what I’m gone do instead of going to work over at that Jew muthafacka’s warehouse over on Central is go over to the high school and wait for Rexall’s mama. Her name be Cleona. She’s a dreamer, always talkin bout graduatin and goin to the communy college and bein a nurse or some shit. Her dreamin don’t bother me none. I hope she do make herself some real money some day. But she be actin funny a lot, like she think I ain’t good enough fo’ her ass. Fuck her. All I know is I can go over her house when her mama gone and cut me out a piece. She ain’t too good then.

In contrast, American Fiction offers a brief scene with Monk at his laptop giving directions to actors playing Van Go and his no good father as they spit insults at each other and brawl. The actors are convincing, as if I were watching the familiar violence typical of gangster films, the words they speak appropriate to the mood, unlike their use in the comedy of Everett’s parody.

Like Van Go and his father, the people around Monk in the movie are convincing presences, their human need making a greater emotional impression than it does for the figures of satire on the page. The dramatic culmination of the movie is Monk’s dilemma of disguising his Stagg R. Leigh pseudonym, especially at the climax when Fuck wins a literary prize. Monk, to the confusion of everyone in the room, walks to the podium, about to speak. At this point, the movie falls apart, shifting to Monk and his movie producer experimenting with dramatizing different versions of an ending that, in effect, make Monk’s identity dilemma meaningless.

The Monk of Erasure is a much more complex character, confronted with the angst of his Black identity, struggling with Stagg R. Leigh as an actual dimension of himself, one revealed as that self becomes imbedded. The Monk of the movie has been deceiving others. This Monk has been deceiving himself. The novel’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is trying to survive in a world without real substance, he a tormented figure surrounded by a group of people who are lost in their pretensions or just lost.

Beyond being a source of humor in the novel, Monk’s multiple personas explore the deeper crux of his identity as a Black man who had always considered himself living in a very different reality from his fabrications of Stagg R. Leigh and Van Go. He grew up affluent and middle class, receives a doctorate, and enjoys enough of a reputation as a novelist to be invited to serve as a National Book Award judge. But he has to face whether that version of an identity is just another empty role he has been playing:

Had I by annihilating my own presence actually asserted the individuality of Stagg Leigh? Or was it the book itself that had given him life? There he was for public scrutiny and the public was loving him. What would happen if I tired of holding my breath, if I had to come up for air? Would I have to kill Stagg to silence him? And what did it mean that I was even thinking of Stagg as having agency? What did it mean that I could put those questions to myself? Of course, it meant nothing and so, it meant everything.

The name Everett has given this man reveals a complexity of Black American models for him to contend with. His nickname of Monk indicates the source of his birth name of Thelonious. That musical Monk, born in the segregated South and growing up in Manhattan, remade the stride piano origins of Black jazz into a long list of brilliant compositions and performances. The family name, Ellison, alludes to Ralph Ellison, the African American author of the award-winning novel Invisible Man, recognized as an American classic.

Ralph Ellison wrote profoundly about the Black experience, while Everett’s Monk chose to base his works on distant themes. The melodious Monk and the honored Ellison in many ways transformed Black sources. The Monk of Erasure produced the joke of a parody. What has his life amounted to? At the end of Erasure, this Monk, standing next to the official speaker in front of the National Book Award audience and a wall of television cameras, when asked what he is doing there, says “The answer is Painful and empty.” But his final words are “Egads, I’m on television,” echoing what the fictional Von Go says when cameras broadcast his arrest by police—“Look at me. I on TV.”

The novel ends with just a few words, in a section all their own, Newton’s Latin Hypotheses non fingo, which translates to “I feign no hypotheses.” 

Can people performing in front of a movie camera embody the intricacies of the creation on the page? It seems not, as least not for Erasure.