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"Death's Other Kingdom": Absence, Loss, and Mourning in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett

Michel Feith
p. 163-177


Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, dédicacé au père décédé de l'auteur, peut se lire comme un roman de deuil, malgré le refus de toute dimension confessionnelle ou sentimentale. C'est plutôt l'impossibilité ou la vanité de l'écriture qui thématisent la perte. Œuvre fragmentaire où, dans un jeu de miroirs métaphysique, un père mourant et son fils échangent récits avortés et commentaires philosophiques ou métafictionnels, l'ouvrage remet sans cesse sur le métier la question du sens. La fiction apparaît comme un espace projectif où la pudeur filiale s'inscrit de biais, au moyen de brouillages et de transpositions : la récursivité et les intermittences de la fonction narrative, la confusion des identités des personnages, miment la dissolution de la mort, tout en assurant une survie fantômatique aux figures du disparu. La spectralité du langage lui-même, né d'une coupure originelle d'avec la mère et d'avec le monde, se voit surdéterminée par l'ombre de la mort. Le nonsense en teste l'absurdité, l'échec potentiel de toute communication, comme de l'expression des émotions les plus intimes. Une esthétique de la mélancolie préside donc au roman, qui n'interdit pourtant pas d'entrevoir, grâce en partie à l'intertexte dantéen, une issue au travail conjoint du deuil et de l'écriture.

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1The 2013 novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is hardly the first occurrence in Everett's oeuvre of a close association between death, metafiction, and a radical questioning of language. But the dedication of the more recent work to the author's late father—"For Percival Leonard Everett / 1 August 1933—1 May 2010"—suggests reading this novel as a "book of mourning" (Sammarcelli 199). After all, the fragmentary narrative threads echo the extratextual situation: the novel's frame introduces a dying father and his son, conversing and writing stories for / about each other; section two reports a residents' rebellion at a retirement home, featuring the death and funeral of one of the insurgents; part three consists of the internal monologue of a comatose father.

2In his classic "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), Freud describes the common features shared by these two emotional states as "a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity", to which should be added, in melancholia, a lowering of self-esteem accompanied by self-deprecation and guilt (Freud 244). Melancholia is also caused by the loss of a loved object, not necessarily a person and not necessarily through death. Melancholia is more structural, since the "object-loss is withdrawn from consciousness". If, "when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again" (Freud 245), in many respects melancholia is a prolonged form of mourning, and the line may not always be easy to draw between the two states. Moreover, since we are dealing with a literary text, aesthetic melancholy may come to complement the clinical variety. I have tried elsewhere to show how even Everett's trickster poetics of parody, carnivalesque transgression, and mercurial wit can, in works like The Water Cure, be subsumed under an aesthetic of melancholia, in the classical sense. Melancholy, the "black bile", is a bodily humor responsible for intense fits of depression, but also for poetical or philosophical genius, sometimes paradoxically expressed in a heightened sense of humor and wordplay (Feith 2015). This might give a clue to the insistent presence in the novel of self-reflexivity and philosophical investigations, rather abstract and even humorous developments that otherwise appear emotionally unrelated to the theme of loss.

3In Virgil Russell fictions of mortality are constantly cut off, contested, left unfinished, as if they were mimicking the characters' undoing, and their suspension between life and death. A metafictional twilight zone is thus created, opening up a projective space of grief. The close connection between language and death is also worth investigating: can language express feelings of loss, or should the aporias of communication induce us into mourning for meaning itself? How then are the novel's sense and nonsense predicated on intimate ab-sense, the death of the author's author, so to speak?

Transference spaces

4The incipit of Percival Everett by Virgil Russell spells out a particularly vertiginous reading program. A father tells his son:

And I've written something for you. He looked at my face. Not to you, but for you. It's sort of something you would write, of you wrote. Here it is:

And yet I continue to live. That was how my father put it, sitting in his wheelchair, the one he could not move by himself, his right arm useless in his lap, his left nearly so, held up slightly just under his sternum, his new black Velcro-shut shoes uneven on the metal rests, this side of his face, the side near me, the left side, sagging visibly, his voice somewhere between his throat and the back of his tongue. And yet I continue to live. (3)

5The narrative frame is not only double but mirrored, the father writing in the son's name, imagining the son's vision of him. Father and son write each other into existence, so to speak, as Everett, a recently bereaved son, creates both. A textual Moebius strip is created, "folding the inside onto the outside" (Regnauld 19) and allowing endless recursive reflections. This echoes the cover art, a reminiscence of M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands (1948), in which two brown hands, facing each other at opposite sides of a sheet of paper, pen the two proper names of the novel's title, upside down from one another.

6The produced text is fiction, raised to the second, or third, power: "It's called fiction, son. This is the story you would be writing if you were a fiction writer" (6). The son, then, is Not-Everett, even though he is a painter, like Everett. Does not this extremely complex framing dispositive pose the question of the role and possibility of fiction in relation to the mourning process? Fiction is indirection; narrative distance allows to say what is difficult to express otherwise. The above-quoted passage describes how the father imagines the son's reaction to his dying: he experiences feelings of guilt for not visiting often enough, for not loving enough (5); pity at the old man's decrepit state. This fictional detour helps deflect the son's guilt, the father's self-pity. It is embued with homeopathic, yet cathartic value, a view of literature which hardly seems to prevail in the general economy of the novel. Distance usually overshadows empathy, according to the precepts of indirection, sometimes suggesting a numbing of affect. Two attitudes are consistently refused: sentimentality—"This where normally you get a lot of touching and sentimental language and portentous dialogue, but I don't think so" (197)—and (auto)biographical resonance. The father's self-portrait is pervaded with inaccuracies: "You don't live in Philadelphia, I told him. Dad, we're both here in California" (6). But there is pleasure and vitality in not sticking to facts: "Where's the joy in saying anything flat out?" (67). Fiction is therefore an artefact that facilitates otherwise difficult communication between the characters, as well as a burst of playfulness that dynamizes their interaction, perhaps to the point of a Scheherazade-like delaying of death through the exercise of the imagination.

7This blurring of identities has various other consequences. The three elderly narrators in the novel create a composite portrait: complementary variations on fatherhood; or a non-chronological vision of the evolution of a single figure of "gerontion". Biographical inconsistencies make of the same characters respectively a physician (7) or a writer (60); a single father, or not (67); a Civil Rights activist (81-83); a man hunted by the KKK with his son in Northern Virginia, and who might either have safely escaped or been killed (210-213). These sometimes incompatible biographical elements migrate from one part of the novel to the next, creating interferences, superimpositions, and echoes. Their redundancy makes up thematic force-fields, some of which remind of other novels by Everett, like Erasure, where the protagonist's father, a doctor, also had a complex, ambivalent relation with the Civil Rights movement. Is it not possible to imagine that, among these diverse slices of life, a few might bear an actual connection and constitute actual tributes to the real father, tiny mementoes disseminated amid forged episodes, identifiable only by family and friends? These multi-layered figures may then carry the emotional charge of a form of transference. Incidentally, at one point, narrative is defined as a "transference space", imbued with the teller's hang-ups:

The muddy track. Are these stories, any stories, mere neurotic repetition, perhaps a function of the resistance discovered or exposed through the transference space? The madman on the playground? Histories converge as serendipitous overlap, a pamphlet and a book, a folk song and a speech from a fascist ruler? You all know well, it will begin, suggesting how reluctant I am to speak and all of it will sound frightfully familiar, as I cite a hundred cases of being wronged, ... repeating my lie, our lies, over and over until they are true, as true as anything can be. (23)

8The psychoanalytical concept of transference may account both for the emotional resonance and distortion that characterize stories. Like dream-work or delirium, the primary material is subjected to condensation, displacement, and revision, under the effect of censorship. In the case of mourning, the central source of uneasiness and repression is the emotional ambivalence felt for the deceased, however loved, which risks turning mourning into pathological mourning (Freud 250). Collective narratives, represented here by outrage at "being wronged", and then "solidarity", "steadfastness", and fighting spirit (23), can also be understood as euphemizations and manipulations for the sake of national or communal cohesion. The fact that memories, like intertextual fragments, are constantly rearranged as they are retold makes the border between truth and lies all the more blurry: "I'm making up my past just the way everyone of us makes up our past anew each time we visit it" (185).

9Resistance within stories is echoed by a resistance to stories. Except for the main narrative in part 2—featuring the elderly narrator's arrival in a retirement home, his friendship with a man called Billy and several other residents, their resistance to a bullying group of "disorderly" orderlies (165), Billy's death of a heart attack and his associates' escape from the nursing home to scatter his ashes over the sea at Point Dume, CA—the other plots usually do not come to fruition. In the old narrator's stories revolving around son figures, key aspects of narrative illusion are self-reflexively debunked, by means of distantiating devices. Storylines are left unfinished, inchoate, subjected to extensive revisions. In one of them, Gregory Lang, a painter, is visited by a young woman, Meg Caro, who might be his daughter; the plot is interrupted before the envelope containing the paternity test is opened (97). A Murphy narrative is being continuously reworked: the handyman becomes a doctor (46), the ranchman now lives in town (56). Metafictional comments between father and son add another layer of estrangement to the text, just as the constant interruptions and splicing of the storylines and philosophical digressions rupture their continuity. Yet the transference law still seems to apply, to a certain degree: the shooting of Murphy's horse is an allusion to mortality (72); this story recalls aspects of Everett's own Wounded (2005); Everett himself lived on a ranch before moving to the city...

10Contemporary literary theory has found much that is wrong with plots, like their oedipal structure, or the ideological impositions and simplistic, totalizing hermeneutics accruing from closure and resolution. The above discussion of "transference space" is part of this critique: what is problematic is perhaps less the "lie" of a well-rounded story than the erasure of the shaping process and the heterogeneous materials that are subsumed into its emplotment, conferring it a false truth value. This takes added significance in a book of mourning: if, in keeping with the famous Existentialist motto, existence precedes essence, then a man's story can be fully told only after his passing. Conversely, a closed plot becomes synonymous with death. At one point, the narrator reluctantly agrees with "a certain Frenchman" (Paul Ricœur?) about the basic human desire to contruct "a story that has and makes sense or seems to make sense ... but there is no story at all, is there? Is there?" (40). Another passage hinges on the sinister connotations of the word "plot":

Here, at this juncture, I might recall the gaps in my stories or the gaps in your stories or I might realize, as I do, that the gaps are the stories and that I should stop trying to leap over them and instead into them, the gaps. By the way, burn me up when the time comes. That patch of ground is no patch at all; it covers nothing. That plot is nothing but another gap that gets filled in by itself. I'll be dead and so it will never be my plot, in part or whole. My brother was buried in one and it did him no good, did his children no good. (204)

11If the narrative urge is an attempt to make sense of a fundamentally senseless world, then it should not be embraced naively. Its problematic necessity is best explored by both yielding to it and maintaining critical distance through Verfremdung. The fragmented form of Everett's texts constitues such a lucid response: his exposure of cognitive and narrative hiatuses draws attention to the meaning of storytelling, which is to gloss over these gaps. Similarly, eulogies for the dead are attempts to impose continuity of plot and character onto much more chaotic lives, in the face of the ultimate gap of a yawning grave. The puns on "patch" and "plot", using the différance or gap within language itself, show the absurdity of these attempts. Incineration is preferred to burial, so as not to leave a deceitful monument and, in a telling parallelism, the dissemination of the text echoes the dispersal of Billy's ashes at Point Dume (197). Paradoxically, memories may be kept more alive when not ossified into an official narrative, just as the gaps in the novel's plots demand the reader's active collaboration to make sense in ever-changing configurations.

Ghost writing

12In what we could call a "narratology of mourning", Everett's assault on the coherence of characterization, echoed by many theoretical and philosophical fragments dealing with the question of cognitive identity, the self, and individuality (Sammarcelli 201), short-circuits what the narrator at one point calls the process of "entification" (62). Usually defined as the action of giving objective existence to something, this term is here used in a slightly different, subjective and intersubjective, acceptation: "I mean, as subjective as all this business is, at a point, it is, the story is, the world is, and there it all is, entified […] The process is not all that unusual, it's all happening under rather obvious intersubjective circumstances" (62-63). As far as fictional characters are concerned, this endowment with being depends on processes of projection and identification, which in turn necessitate a measure of coherence and familiarity with the representational codes in play (Patoine 205). The self-reflexive, defamiliarizing devices used by Everett bring forth only half-entified characters, howering between metaphorical life and death, like zombies (89), phantoms—or a man in a coma. Of course, all literary characters, being creatures of the imagination, can be compared to ghosts; yet the inchoate nature of most characters in Virgil Russell makes this wraith-like status all the more obvious and problematic. In spite of the playfulness of this game with fictional codes, on second reading the scales might tip on the side of a melancholy haunting, as befits the text's obsession with death and dying.

13This vision of a "twilight zone" of half-entified beings is confirmed by the mention of the Roman poet Virgil in the title, the fictitious author's last name alluding to the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (Sammarcelli 196). Virgil has strong affinities with the theme of death: he is here less the poet of the Aeneid than Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. Virgil is also the middle name of the narrator's friend, Billy, who in the second part inspires a quest for the keys of the retirement home, in retaliation for the orderlies' bullying of the residents (136), and dies of a stroke during a search of his room. The old people's home is therefore compared to Hell, and the nasty orderlies to demons torturing the helpless pensioners. The parallel is made explicit just after Billy's death, when the narrator ponders the significance of Dante's Inferno, whose final lines show Lucifer trapped upside-down in the frozen lake Cocytus, in the lowest circle of Hell: "Forever the pounder of metaphor, the seeker of stretched connection, the pioneer of extended conjunction, I imagined the Gang of orderlies as the six wings of Lucifer, beating to free him from the ice and creating an icy wind that only creates more ice" (150). The very name of the institution, Teufelsdröckh Retirement Village (110), is borrowed from Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, and means "devil's shit". If we compound this vision of a Christian Hell with that of the pagan Hades that Aeneas visited in Virgil's epic, we obtain a vision of the characters as shades, souls without substance haunting the page, corresponding both to the nature of literary characters and to the ghosts of the departed conjured up by memory and imagination. Once again, self-reflexive figures of fiction are isomorphic with evocations of mourning.

14Challenges to character entification also take the form of a toying with the personal pronouns that express it. They are shifters, linguistic units whose reference changes according to context. Their ability to designate identity and individuality can therefore be questioned. As the narrator of Part 2 states: "My self-conscious attention to a heading. I. A pronoun denotating the self. Me. It is also the letter representing an imaginary unit in math, the unit that lets the real number system extend to complex numbers. Me. I'm sorry, my best and favorite lover said to me, you are imaginary" (157). The sign of the self is split several times, between its nature as subject ("I") and object ("me") of discourse, between the connotations of two linguistic systems, common language and mathematical formalism (lower case i), the latter metaphorically alluding to the imaginary dimension of our sense of identity. And if we follow the narrator's suggestion to his lady friend "that she multiply me by i and give me another look and try" (157), the result would be i2=-1, a negative quantity and a negation of identity (Le Cor 9). This equation defines fictional characters, in their wholly imaginary and somewhat ghostly nature. Moreover, in a meaningful variation on Everett's usual take on poststructuralist theory and its radical questioning of the Western self-contained subject, Virgil Russell explores the significance of character configuration in relation to the shattering of identity accruing from the mourning process.

15"I'll be Murphy again" (71); "You be Murphy this time" (80); "Sick of all the you be's? Well, what do you say, you be you and I'll be me? What do you say?" (99): in a dizzying whirl of shifter-shifting, the roles of father and son seem to become interchangeable, all the more so that they project themselves onto the fictional figures they create:

I could be writing you could be writing me could be writing you. I am a comatose old man writing here now and again what my dead or living son might write if he wrote or I am a dead or living son writing what my dying father might write for me to have written. I am a performative utterance. I carry the illocutionary ax. (216)

16Shifters are empty grammatical vessels, that can be filled with any utterer, but here they are clearly associated with death. In "Mourning and Melancholia", Freud attributes the dejection of mourning to a sort of identification with the deceased: as all libido is progressively detached from the departed, the subject undergoes a mimetic death, and "the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged" (Freud 245); such identification is much more pervasive in melancholia. All our earlier remarks seem to fall into place. The recurrent interruptions of the narratives by the "illocutionary ax", as well as metafictional comments and ironic debunking, prevent cathectic investment in the stories and characters, echoing the "cessation of interest in the outside world" (Freud 244) and mimicking the process of libidinal detachment from the dead. A similar ambivalence seems to be at work in the questioning of identity and individuality. It may be an equivalent to what in mourning and melancholia is felt as "an impoverishment of [the] ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself" (Freud 246). The blurring of the boundaries of the self through a complex series of mutual identifications, materialized by shifter madness, reminds of the temporary identification with the dead during the mourning process. Father figures are given a new, imaginary lease of life, while the sons are sometimes supposed to be dead too (14). Assuaging guilt and fulfilling a loving desire for the father's survival, the stories still depict dying elderly men, the "pleasure principle" of fiction gradually meeting the "reality principle" hinted at by the dedication. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell stages a tactful tribute to the late father, shunning sentimentality by interposing multiple aesthetic mediations, yet alluding to the identity-shattering pain of mourning through strategies of indirection, isomorphism, and metaphor.

Mourning star: when language comes to grief

17French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé called the flower evoked by its name the one that is ever missing from any bunch or bouquet ("l'absente de tout bouquet") (Mallarmé 6). Since the word is not the thing, language is predicated on separation, all the more so if one accepts the psychoanalytical theory that a child's accession to the realm of language takes place as separation from the mother, under the sign and influence of the symbolic father. To put it more radically, there is always a form of mourning, or even melancholia, in language: "It will be recalled that separation from the object starts the so-called depressive phase. Upon losing mother and relying on negation [of this loss], I retrieve her as sign, image, word" (Kristeva 63). Yet, even though it is pervaded with loss, language seems powerless to express the actual pain of loss, the mourning of a father, for example. This is illustrated by the parodic application of the Ontological argument to qualia (89), the specific subjective qualities of phenomenal experience, accessible to introspection, and "distinct from any source they have in a physical object ... what it feels to see the color red for instance" (Regnauld 24). Focusing on our most intimate and intense experiences like grief, which vary from one individual, one state of mind to the next, would invite a solipsistic retreat from language, which is always in a sense public and collective (Regnauld 24). Could the novel's exploration of mistranslations, misunderstandings, and nonsense be an illustration of the loss of meaning accruing from the depression felt by "persons in despair"—"[a] signifying sequence, necessarily an arbitrary one, will appear to them as heavily, violently arbitrary; they will think it absurd, it will have no meaning. No word, no object in reality will be likely to have a coherent concatenation that will also be suitable to a meaning or referent" (Kristeva 51)?

18The coupling of signifier and signified can be challenged by aural puns, like this almost nihilistic parody of the worship of a father, the Lord's Prayer in Everett's novel: "How farther art this in headland, hellhole, be the same. Die keen drum dumb, die kill beat drum, dawn dearth ass with ill den even" (130). This exploration of linguistic ambiguity is also inspired by Gottlob Frege's essay "On sense and Reference" (1892), which states that sense does not automatically involve reference, and that multiple designations of the same object do not have the same meaning, as illustrated by the double denomination of the planet Venus as morning and evening star (Frege 210). The three parts of Everett's novel are respectively named "Hesperus" (Evening Star), "Phosphorus" (Morning Star), and "Venus". One of the ways in which this dissection or meaning is performed is through recourse to the British tradition of nonsense, represented by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. One (partial) truth thus revealed is "that it takes a lot more effort and comprehension of the inherent and ubiquitous structures of meaning to construct nonsense than it does to utter the plainest of mundane assertions, and that once set into motion, the cleanest and clearest of one's nonsensical masterpieces does nothing but highlight everyone else's incapacity to understand anything at all. Thought they think they understand" (103-104). Nonsense, then, is like a lover's passion for the processes of signification, yet it leads to an awareness of the meaninglessness of meaning. It stages a mourning for meaning, so to speak, and in spite of all its wit and apparent lightness, it is tainted with melancholia, taking us back to the Elizabethan origins of the word "humor" in this black bodily humor (Pollock 59). A later discussion of nonsense yields a slightly different view: "now I know that we're supposed to make sense that sounds like nonsense and then call the sense nonsense" (209). In fine, sense is not so much voided as confused and complexified, so as to preclude certainty and prevent petrifaction of the mind. If melancholia is the mother of invention, invention can help dissipate it, and reconnect to the world.

19Philosophical contradiction and self-contradiction are thus an integral part of the economy of the novel. Beside indictments of thought and language as self-enclosed spheres separated from reality ("there are no utterances in the world but only sentences, cut off from the actual world...", 27), some fragments also comprise straight-forward, "no-nonsense" advocations of meaning: "You know, language is very simple. I say something and you either understand it or you don't" (33). An interlocutor called Dave even proposes a materialistic conception of language, reminiscent of Deleuze and Lacan:

DAVE: Language is not immaterial … It is a subtle body, but it is a body. Words are bound up in body images that hold the subject. They may impregnate the hysteric, be identified with the penis envier, represent the urinary flow of urethral ambition, or represent the feces retained in greedy jouissance.

ME. Your mother doesn't like you, does she? (33)

20Even though the psychoanalytical delirium of the second part is debunked by the narrator, the first one makes sense, and recalls contemporary neuroscientific discoveries. Research on mirror neurons and empathetic cognition has revealed that the same sensorimotor circuits are activated in the brain when performing an action, seeing the action performed, and hearing or reading about it. Understanding, therefore, is a sort of simulation, just like fiction and imagination; conversely, meaning is partially rooted in the body (Patoine 144-145). This could provide a way out of the conception of language as an autotelic system divorced from the world and ultimately signifying nothing. Yet these contradictory fragments are juxtaposed, so that the reader is ultimately responsible for the overall significance that is given to them. The text provides some guidance, by debunking some interpretations and encouraging others, but in an indirect, non-directive manner that leaves room for ambiguity and multiple interpretations. Moreover, the philosophical and theoretical speculations are integrated in a work of fiction, in a sense becoming fictions themselves. On the one hand, these problems and aporias of meaning undercut literary illusion, but since they can always be attributed to a character or narrator, their truth value is relativized. They are shown as "situated", their discourse being possibly symptomatic of the emotional state of the utterer, the most "nihilistic" conceptions being partly determined by grief or closeness to death. "I carry the illocutionary ax. But imagine anyway that it is as simple as this: I lay dying" (216). Abstract concepts may be enriched from being thus embodied, but what is mourned here, if not meaning in itself, is the belief in absolute truth; hence the recurrence of the cryptic, self-contradictory phrase "according to the truth" (7-8).

21This embodied dimension of language is traditionally exemplified by poetic expression, which is also to be found, usually in short bursts, in the novel. "So, what am I about, son? Dying, son. Dying well. Dying powerfully, vigorously, with might and main, to chop and change to suit my dying mission, to tie dying ever to life, to living, to breathing, to tie dying to the moon and the stars, to fix dying to light and darkness and rain and mist and arid winds" (150). Beyond the defiant attitude that almost morphs into Stoic fortitude, and the cosmic amplification of individual destiny, it is the musicality of language that ties it to the body and emotion. The anaphoric, accumulative rhythm, the assonances and alliterations that multiply meaning, by associating "dying" and "tying", separation and solidarity, death and life, create a physical language that can express the Janus face of mourning, sorrow for the departed and a simultaneous reconnection to life: this is a language that can endeavor to convey the intimate, a "qualia"-endowed dimension of language that transcends the propositional logic of analytic philosophy.

22The third part of the novel is strangely entitled "Venus", possibly because it contains allusions to the end of the mourning process, an acknowledgement of loss and reconnection to life and desire. The sub-section titled "The Second Face of Desire" (222-23) is a paean to language, and in a reminder of the Ontological Argument it toys with the possibility that language might be divine, "because it is, in short, god, the only god that we know or have known, it being immaterial, without form or mass or weight or constituent parts […] but not without us, as it makes us human, forces us to be human, reminds us to be human" (222). This praise of language remains agnostic, for "god is just a word", but it still points to immortality in the end: "[...] when we know there is nothing when nothing is our last safe cave of language, and vegetable, vegetable, vegetable me, the sky's in the river, the moon's in the sea, the birds speak in riddles and the dolphins tell lies, that we'll all live forever and that nobody dies" (223). The pessimistic conclusion, yoking nothingness and non sequiturs to the character's agony, is partially offset by the fact that even the void is expressed in language, which becomes a refuge against nothingness; then come poetry, figurative speech, and the conundrum of immortality. It is as if the dead returned to the bosom of language, which, to all human purposes, is eternal. For the paper-and-ink characters in the diegesis, these metaphysical meditations cannot but be accurate, since language is the stuff they are made on. On the extradiegetic plane, this comfort reads like an illusion, a mere parody of religious beliefs, but it also suggests that the dead father will benefit from some form of afterlife as long as he is re-called in words, and as long as the present "book of mourning" is read.

23Another track to a symbolic afterlife is represented by the series of photographs interspersed in this last section. They feature no human presence: desert landscapes, roads, canyons, a broken bridge, a lizard. This emptiness metaphorically evokes death, doubling the well-known affinity between photography and death: a picture freezes one moment in time, immortalizes it while taking stock of its disappearance; there is a special poignancy in images of dead people embalmed in photographic time capsules. This commemorative medium does not portray Everett's father, but in a tactful form of displacement, the "internal landscape" of a dying man (Regnauld 25). If we take these pictures to sketch a trajectory into the desert, they may represent the soul's journey into the land of the dead: "This is a picture of the road that I find myself walking along now. You will note the trees and perhaps you will recognize them and so imagine you know where I am, but you would be wrong" (209). The difference between roadscape and mindscape may allude to the problems of representation, in discourse and in photography, but it may also imply that the comatose father is already leaving this world for another; after all, many religions have pictured the realm of the dead as a shadowy version of the world of the living. One might be reminded of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men", in which a desert landscape represents "death's other kingdom", the other world serving as a pessimistic symbol of the barrenness of modern life (Eliot 60). One picture, which is printed twice (202, 227), perhaps as an allusion to a realm where time has no longer any dominion, represents a deep shadowy valley with a road or creek winding below, doubtless a reminiscence of "the Valley of the Shadow of Death", in Psalm 23. Envisioning the passing of the soul in this way does not necessarily mean a belief in the afterlife; it may just be a projection of the gradual loosening of the grip the departed have on survivors, and foreshadows the end of the mourning process. Accordingly, the last words of the novel are "I'm dead, son. / I know that, Dad. But I didn't know you knew it" (227).

24Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is not atypical among Everett's production, in its probing of the questions of identity, meaning, and reference by means of theoretical asides that threaten to engulf the already fragmented storylines. Everett as usual, then? It can be contended that the liminal inscription, dedicated to the author's late father, adds a specific twist, a mourning supplement to the reading act. The text seems haunted by the father's absence, not in any identifiable confessional material or tone, but in its very themes and structure. A form of tactfulness presides over strategies of indirection, characterized by fictional distance, displacement, and allusiveness. The mise-en-abyme of fatherly narrative agencies and moebius-strip self-reflexivity make for an erasure of origins, yet provide a form of symbolic survival to the father figure as a literary "shade". A meditation on language ushers in an examination of the many degrees of separation that constitute it, and the particular resonance they can take in the context of grief and mourning. Structuralist insistence on language as a closed system runs the risk of losing referentiality; the cultivation of nonsense, in spite of its witty, experimental, heuristic dimension, veers dangerously close to the absurd; all of which reflects the emptying of world and self that characterizes grief and melancholia. The poetic, allusive, metaphorical and formal travails of the text coexist with other philosophical fragments, which (sometimes barely) salvage the possibility of meaning and communication, as well as a "deicitic" function of language and fiction, pointing—merely pointing—at the "hors-texte" of the writer's and reader's plane of existence. Grief can therefore be designated and worked through in the writing process, hopefully leading to the acceptation of the separation, and the ensuing reconnection to the world of desire. The mythic hypotexts of Dante's Inferno and the journey through the Land of the Dead subliminally orient the reading, providing a master plot of sorts to a seemingly plotless novel, blazing a stumbling path through "death's other kingdom", another name for the realm of fiction.

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Regnauld, Arnaud, "‘I Am Afrege This Is true': Puzzling Over Σ Not-Percival's Wor(l)ds", L'Atelier 5.2 (2013). 18-28.

Sammarcelli, Françoise, "‘Hesperus is Phosphorus' : Percival Everett by Virgil Russell et les fins du roman", Revue Française d'Études Américaines 145 (2015), 196-210.

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Bibliographical reference

Michel Feith, « "Death's Other Kingdom": Absence, Loss, and Mourning in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett », Caliban, 56 | 2016, 163-177.

Electronic reference

Michel Feith, « "Death's Other Kingdom": Absence, Loss, and Mourning in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett », Caliban [Online], 56 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 26 January 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Michel Feith

Université de Nantes

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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