Percival Everett

Percival Everett


197 Pages


This volume gathers some of the fruits of the March 2006 Conference held in Grenoble, France on the work of contemporary American writer Percival Everett. The papers given by both French and American scholars in the presence of the author offered a cross-cultural, wide-ranging perspective on his work, and brought to the fore the main issues at stake in his creation: formal ones, such as metadiscourse, fake mimesis, the functions of descriptions, and the many uses of allegory, but also ethical issues, namely the author’s African-American origin and the expectations it raises in his readership, finally, Everett’s main concern remains with language, and how it is transformed and reinvigorated through subtle sound and rhythmic effects.



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Published 07 October 2007
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EAN13 9782748196405
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Percival Everett
Transatlantic Readings Claire Maniez
Anne-Laure Tissut
Percival Everett
Transatlantic Readings

Éditions Le Manuscrit© Éditions Le Manuscrit, 2007
ISBN : 2-7481-9640-6 (livre imprimé)
ISBN 13 : 9782748196405 (livre imprimé)
ISBN : 2-7481-9641-4 (livre numérique)
ISBN 13 : 9782748196412 (livre numérique) Percival Everett

7 Preface

Most of the articles in this volume were originally
delivered at a conference held at Stendhal University
in Grenoble, on March 10 and 11, 2006. The authors
wish to thank all the people and institutions who
helped them realize this project: the CEMRA (Centre
d’Études sur les Modes de la Représentation
Anglophone), and in particular its secretary Agnès
Véré, was of invaluable help in organizing the
conference, which was also subsidized by the Conseil
Scientifique of Stendhal University, the City of
Grenoble, the Région Rhône-Alpes and the American
Consulate in Lyon.

8 Percival Everett

Table of contents
Anne-Laure TISSUT
Preface ......................................................................... p. 11

Brigitte FÉLIX
“The One that Got Away”: Fabulation in Percival
Everett’s Fiction......................................................... p. 15

Judith ROOF
Mr. Everett Anthologizes ......................................... p. 35

Frédéric DUMAS
Trout fishing and woodworking: digression in Percival
Everett’s Erasure ......................................................... p. 49

The Authenticity of Jargon and Percival Everett’s
Erasure: A Set with Ten Elements ........................... p. 73

Thomas B. BYERS
Erasure’s Ethics: Everett with and against Badiou p. 89

Settings and beings in Percival Everett’s New Mexico
fiction......................................................................... p. 107

On the Necessity of Losing One’s head in Order to
Keep it in Percival Everett’s American Desert....... p. 131

Sylvie BAUER
The music of words in Zulus .................................. p. 153
9 Preface
Judith ROOF
For Play ......................................................................p. 173

Anne-Laure TISSUT
An Interview with Percival Everett........................p. 185

Abstracts ....................................................................p. 189

Contributors ..............................................................p. 195

10 Percival Everett

After Tours in 2001, it was the turn of Stendhal
University in Grenoble to host a conference on the
work of contemporary American writer Percival
Everett on March 10 and 11, 2006. For two days,
scholars from both sides of the Atlantic examined and
discussed some of his novels and stories in the
presence of the author, testifying to the variety and
thought-stimulating power of his writing. The papers
gathered in this volume evidence the wide range of
topics that were touched upon in the course of these
two days, and also the different and complementary
approaches of American and French students of
Originally a musician, Everett also is an abstract
painter, but remains best known as a novelist: the
author of some sixteen novels – from Suder (1983) to
Wounded (2005) – and three collections of short stories,
as well as a book for children, with a training in
philosophy and a degree in science, he questions the
world from many different angles, through a variety of
tones, styles and genres. Reviewing a cross-section of
his fiction, Brigitte Félix underlines this generic and
tonal variety and uncovers the underlying streak of
fabulation which links Everett’s work to the romance
tradition in American literature.
11 Preface
It is indeed as an American writer that Percival
Everett wants to be considered, and it is as such that
the participants in the conference dealt with his work.
Yet the question of his African-American origin and
the expectations it raises in his readership cannot be
avoided, if only because he has made them the subject
of one of his most recent novels, Erasure. The fact that
four authors chose to write their papers – partly or
entirely – on that story shows that it remains a
controversial subject. Judith Roof devotes most of her
paper to Erasure, focusing on Everett’s “counter-
perspectival” practice and outlining the way multiple
perspectives question the “great lie” of a “stable,
central identity”. In his reader-oriented approach,
Frédéric Dumas wonders about the many digressions
in the novel, and underlines their metadiscursive
dimension. Aaron Jaffe uses Adorno’s essay on The
Jargon of Authenticity to analyse the author’s “mimetic
hack, a piece-by-piece dismantling of the seamless
fakery of mimesis.” For Tom Byers, the novel
highlights ethical issues, which he tackles using Alain
Badiou’s categories in order to question them.
This novel continues puzzling critics and readers
alike, which tells much about how rich the work is of
an author who never chooses the easy course of
exploiting a trend or genre that proved successful
once. No two of Everett’s texts can compare, each
being experimental, and his latest one, Wounded, the
most, for having been written in the realistic genre,
which Everett had so far but little explored, although
recognizably American elements – as well as
biographically-inspired ones – are to be found
throughout his work.
12 Percival Everett

It is precisely with the function of descriptions of
recognizable – although often stylized – American
landscapes in Percival Everett’s fiction that Claude
Julien’s paper is concerned; using a sample of stories
set in New Mexico, he shows how settings contribute
to characterization and racial identification, and how
nature becomes a refuge for the outcast. In her
thorough analysis of American Desert, Patricia Bleu-
Schwenninger demonstrates how the desert, a typically
American landscape, becomes allegorized in the novel,
as are most of the other elements in that playfully
serious novel. Returning to one of Percival Everett’s
other arts, namely music, Sylvie Bauer devotes her
paper to the novel Zulus, and the way the author,
through syncopation and subtle rhythmic effects,
manages to subvert a dead language and infuse it with
life. This puzzling book, between an anticipation tale
and a fable-like reflection on language, meaning, and
the potentials of telling, expresses Everett’s concerns
at their utmost. Linguistic issues – the ways and means
of meaning, its elusive quality that resists human
control, its ellipses and unresolved questions – seem to
have acquired an almost ethical dimension in his work.

Throughout the conference, the author’s discreet
and attentive presence made possible many
spontaneous exchanges which were not recorded.
Calling himself “Bill”, Percival Everett answered many
questions about his identity as a writer, about his
conception of his art, and other related subjects. Judith
Roof very aptly captured the playful spirit of these
exchanges in a paper delivered one year later at the
“Annual Conference on Literature and Culture since
1900” in Louisville, Kentucky. Posing as NPR’s
13 Preface
famous interviewer Terry Gross, she proposes a fake
interview of Percival Everett – in his “Bill” persona –
about his 2004 epistolary novel A History of the African-
American People (proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to
Percival Everett and James Kincaid, thus returning to the
question of identity tackled in her earlier paper.
Some of the questions that were asked and debated
during the Grenoble conference were also sent to
Everett, and although his written answers are often
more laconic than those of his double “Bill”, we have
wished to include them in this collection, to let the
writer have the final word.

Stendhal University, Grenoble III

Sorbonne University, Paris IV

14 Fabulation in Everett’s Fiction

“The One that Got Away”: Fabulation
in Percival Everett’s Fiction
Percival Everett, whose first novel was published in
1983, is the prolific author of thirteen subsequent
novels, one novella, three collections of short stories
and a collection of poems, his latest publication to
date in 2006. One of the most striking aspects of
Percival Everett’s work as a whole seems to be the
1variety of its “tone, styles and genres”. It is not
surprising, then, that the first questions the writer was
asked at the start of an interview should have been the

The settings for your novels have ranged from
ancient Greece to the nineteenth century American
west to contemporary Academia, just to name a few.
Why such variety? Is it important to you as a writer?
What are the rewards of such diversity for you?
2What are the challenges?

Let us keep the writer’s answer for a later part in
the discussion and, in order to start questioning the
variety of the work as a critical issue, as suggested by

1. This is a quote from the text of the call for papers for the
2. Interview for the University Press of New England, the
publisher of Everett’s prize-winning, eleventh novel, Erasure
15 Brigitte Félix

the series of questions above, let us reread more
closely one sentence from the call for papers for the
conference presenting Percival Everett in those terms:
“Originally a musician, and also a painter, Everett is
best known as a novelist, drawing the most potential
from each medium to create a varied though consistent
work” (my emphasis). Although here “work” does not
only designate Percival Everett’s fictions but also his
paintings – and maybe musical compositions –, which
would be sufficient to justify the qualification “varied
though consistent”, we can nevertheless wonder about
the significance of that qualification. Placing “variety”
first, it then offers a correction, “though consistent”,
where consistency comes second, but as a sort of
redeeming feature for the variety first noted. It follows
that there is a variety in the writer’s work that might be
problematical. What does it mean for variety to be
implicitly opposed to consistency? What is it that
diversity in a writer’s production of a body of works
might be challenging? Is variety really a reader’s first
impression that closer analysis of the whole work will
correct and transform into coherence? Are reading
and interpretation the discovery, the creation or the
invention of consistency so that the writer’s and the
work’s unified personality and character can be
apprehended and come to the fore? In that case,
consistency would be the consequence, the value
produced by careful, critical reading, and not a quality
inherent in Percival Everett’s work as a writer. Such
interrogations have to do with the larger issues of
authorial intentions – notably about generic choices –
and of the reception of the work by the readers.
This paper aims at examining the idea that
diversity in and for itself is precisely what is at stake in
16 Fabulation in Everett’s Fiction

Percival Everett’s œuvre, which the conference invited
participants to consider under the angle of its “mixed
representations”. A selection of six books will serve as
a basis for the discussion: the novels God’s Country
(1994), Glyph (1999), and Erasure (2001); the novella
Grand Canyon, Inc (2001); the collection of short stories
Damned If I Do (2004); the illustrated book for children
The One That Got Away (1992). Looking first at
external, then at internal diversity will lead us to a
definition of the writer’s stance as a fabulator and to a
reflection about the significance of the critical gesture
in the attempt to appraise the problematic diversity of
Percival Everett’s literary production.
External variety: genres, themes, tones
We can first notice that although Percival Everett has
written a greater number of novels, he has also
published stories, varying in length, including one
explicitly identified in the paratext as a “novella”,
Grand Canyon Inc. There seems to be no privileged
format, but a generic versatility in the writer’s
production. An even greater diversity of topics and
themes can be observed, with a few more obviously
recurrent settings and thematic focuses like the west,
natural spaces and the struggle for their preservation,
life in nature, the art of fishing for which, as for the art
of writing, “the line is everything”, as stated in the last
1sentence of Glyph . Other themes include distance,
perspective, interpretation in human relationships as

1. This sentence has a strong metatextual pull: it is the only line
on the very last page, one last “fishing for meaning” in this novel
which is a parody of postmodern interrogations about the
elusiveness of meaning.
17 Brigitte Félix

well as illusion and delusion; violence and destruction,
the individual versus the community, history; the
artist’s place and function in the world; the porous
frontiers between reality and fiction dealt with in
narratives that borrow from other genres like the fable
or from subgenres in the novel like the western story.
Considering such a parameter as tone, we discover
more homogeneity. There is an undeniable dominant
in satire and parody, which are both linked to Percival
Everett’s practice of fabulation as we will see later. In
Erasure, parody is embodied in two pastiches: first, the
book within the book, “My Pafology”, which is a
parody of the “true, gritty real story of black life” book
agents require of the writer – included between pages
71 and 150 with its own page numbers added to the
page numbers of the framing text; and second, the
parody of Barthes’s S/Z in the article entitled “F/V”
and inserted between pages 18 and 22. Both parodies
feed the overall satirical attacks on the academic and
publishing worlds. But the novel also contains a
parallel story, that of the narrator’s relationships with
his family, which introduces tonal variation by
bringing a sort of “dramatic relief” from that part of
the fictional world that is dominated by satirical
episodes and parodic texts. Yet, the two narrative
worlds, the one with the narrator and his private life,
and the one with his public double, the author of “My
Pafology”, get increasingly closer. The dissolution of
the family coincides with the schizoid identification of
the narrator, Monk Ellison, with his commercial
double, Stagg R Leigh, whose encroaching existence
makes the writer fall into the trap he had originally set
for others.
18 Fabulation in Everett’s Fiction

At this stage, we should turn to the answer
Percival Everett offered to the questions in the
interview mentioned above:

I wish I could say I know from where stories come.
If I knew I might go there more often. Though my
novels vary greatly in setting, I believe there are
some repeating themes, some available to the reader,
some not. I get bored easily, especially with myself,
and I hate repetition and so my work ranges as
widely as it does.

It seems that part of the imaginative power that
presides over variety and change in writing remains a
mysterious force or source of creation. The taste for
change is given a psychological explanation – I get
bored easily, also with myself, I hate repetition.
Consequently, diversity in the literary production does
not quite appear as the result of an aesthetic intention,
but rather as a condition for each individual text to
exist, with a psychological motivation – the need not
to be bored – and a mysterious, external origin –
stories are a “given”, they “come” to the writer in their
A new book has to be different. Percival Everett
implies that variety is entertaining and that it fuels his
creativity. It might be also a way to create
defamiliarization to arouse or sustain the reader’s
interest. Percival Everett’s fictional world is not
immediately recognizable as a whole or as a familiar
set of recurrent items. Grand Canyon, Inc. and God’s
Country are very different narratives although they
share the same fictional space, the West – taken
geographically, in Grand Canyon, Inc, and historically, in