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"A table was a table was a table" : écriture sous rature in Percival Everett's Erasure

Sylvie Bauer
p. 179-188


Erasure, écrit par Percival Everett en 2001, met en crise la notion de perte. Le personnage, Thelonious Ellison, écrivain et universitaire, se trouve en proie à une succession de disparitions qui mettent en cause toute notion d'identité dans un roman dont l'écriture fragmentaire reflète un monde qui ne fait plus sens. Accusé par le monde de l'édition et de l'université de publier des romans dans lesquels sa couleur de peau s'efface derrière des références et des préoccupations trop "blanches", il finit par écrire sous un pseudonyme une parodie de la "vraie vie" des noirs aux États-Unis. Alors que se désintègrent tous ses repères (sa mère est atteinte de la maladie d'Alzheimer, sa sœur est assassinée, son frère finit par disparaître, lui-même perd toute subjectivité), son identité même s'efface derrière une langue à la fois toute puissante et mortifère qui anéantit par la nomination toute forme de présence. Seule reste l'écriture, à la fois effacement du sujet et promesse féconde d'une mémoire collective.

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1Erasure, Percival Everett's fifteenth book, targets the academic and publishing worlds as places where the individual has no proper identity. The main protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, comes to Washington to attend a conference and to visit his aging mother. His aloofness is challenged by the different crises the novel displays: the disease of his mother, the assassination of his sister and the inability of the world around him not to classify people according to their races. With his mother losing her mind, his sister losing her life and himself losing his identity, the novel is structured by disappearances. It takes the form of a fragmented journal and at least three different lines are interwoven that figure as many layers of identity or lack thereof of the main character: the journal of Thelonious Ellison, a writer and a scholar whose writing is deemed "not black enough", the embedded novel, a parody of what critics praise as "black literature" and a story of family disintegration. In all three cases, what prevails is a sense of erasure, of disappearance of the self and of a reality dislocated in spite of, or rather because of, the saturation of the scriptural space by various aliases or alternative doubles that tend to dissolve and dilute subjects to the point of total disappearance. Therefore, the initial text, the journal, appears like a narrative of mourning of the self, submitted to social forces but also to the aporia of meaning, insofar as the world depicted here shows no human coherence or consistency whatsoever. Hence a paradoxical situation, in which voices—especially that of the narrator—are hushed, written over by the written word, which allows personae to become more real than the characters themselves. Writing over might thus be what the text is about: the title is an overt reference to Derrida's concept of "writing under erasure" (écriture sous rature), exhibiting writing as the original erasure of the name and as a means of prevailing over the voice. It is as though a palimpsest of texts—the novel proposes a patchwork of discourses—were here to cover emptiness, what Everett calls "the arduous nowhere" in The Water Cure. Such an emptiness, such a dilution of matter and identity raises the question of meaning: what does it mean to make sense when the written word betrays meaning, or fails to convey a significance other than a fabricated fiction? What access is there to meaning when words merely represent pre-constructed structures? In another paradoxical twist, it is nonetheless through writing that presence resurfaces, in spite of the gradual process of erasure. The intertextual networks that crisscross the text conjure up what remains when self, family and original language are gone: the memory of a shared legacy of literature.

The talk of the dead

2In one of the many analepses of the novel, Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, the narrator, remembers how his father described the dinner party he had just attended: "'Well it was a group of my old friends. A couple of them have been away for years. They're all gray now. We talked about the days when we were not gray, about the things we used to do and how we used to laugh.' He paused. 'It was the talk of the dead, Monk'" (215). These sentences, innocuous as they may seem, nonetheless encapsulate the tensions at work in the novel. This "group of people" is somewhat ghostly, if only because they remain out of view for the son and the reader. Indeed, the fact that "a couple have been away for years" stresses the feeling of absence, a sort of blind spot. It is as if their presence were differed not only because the narrator and the reader have no direct access to them, but also because their presence at the dinner party is already erased by the fact that they are "away". Time ("for years") and space ("away") are to be seen here as marks of separation, as the tokens of the inescapable factor of disintegration of the group or at least of what was and no longer is, the assertion all at once, of original absence and presence. Two images, two "representations" seem to be superimposed here: the image of the gray men and the image of what they used to be. Its seems as though the color gray had erased the former color of their hair, acting both as a supplement—it adds to the color that once characterized them—and as a subtraction. In other words, the initial color is gone, yet still here, if not underneath then at least in the acknowledgment that it once was.

3The use of the verbal form "used to" signals the disappearance of not only the things the friends used to do, but also of their laughter. All they do now is talk about a bygone past, as if they were evoking themselves with a distance, as if their words were just a trace conjuring up a representation, the impossible presence, present here and now of what no longer exists. Similarly, their grayness is both a reminder of the presence and of the disappearance of what used to be their hair. It is not that the hair has disappeared, no more than the friends or the father have at this point. It and they are still here, altered by its and their being here while at the same time remaining the mere traces of what is no longer presentable, in the sense of given an unmediated access to. It plays the part of what Derrida, borrowing and analyzing the word used by Rousseau, calls a "supplement". Derrida writes:

But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place [tient-lieu]. As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness. Somewhere, something can be filled up of itself, can accomplish itself, only by allowing itself to be filled through sign and proxy. The sign is always the supplement of the thing itself. (Of Grammatology, 145)

4The grayness of the hair, albeit natural, is indeed a mark of emptiness, a representation, a sign of the people no longer accessible to the father and never seen by the son. It signals absence more than it allows the description of any form of presence. This trace of absence is of course doubled by the fact that, at this point in the novel, the tense used is the preterit, ("It was a group of my old friends", "we talked"), thereby creating another form of distance, induced by the very process of the narrative, as if the words used by the father, themselves included in the story told by his son, were yet another representation, another figuration of the necessarily absent object. The embedded structure of the narrative here serves to imply a chain of mediation that mirrors not only the father's longing for a life that no longer exists, but also the son's narrative of loss, in which all that remains are representations, a différance, as Derrida would have it, of and in language. The only sentence in the present is "They're all gray now", as if to establish a form of equation, They = gray, an equation itself echoed by the similar vowel sounds in the two words (they.gray). Whereas the activities and laughter of the friends remain unspecified, somewhat out of reach and mediated only through the talking Monk has no access to, the use of the present tense and of the verb be tend to reduce the men to their grayness in a sort of unit of time and place that allows Monk's father to conclude: "It was the talk of the dead, Monk". The paradoxical identification of the old friends—whereas they are not described, not even singularized, their grayness has become their essence—leads the father to consider them—and himself—as "the dead".

5And indeed, Erasure can be read as "the talk of the dead", "the book of the dead", even. The novel is built around a sense of disappearance. It is composed of fragments that are as many moments of reminiscences that bring back to life, through the written word, the dead who used to be part of the narrator's personal and imaginary landscape. Monk's family gradually disappears throughout the text: his father has committed suicide, his mother is vanishing into oblivion, a case of Alzheimer's, and will be committed to a nursing home. The word "committed", used in the text, painfully echoes her husband's demise. As for his sister, she is murdered by an anti-abortionist sniper, whereas his brother is nowhere to be heard of at the end of the novel: he no longer answers the phone and seems to have vanished altogether. Whereas the first two paragraphs of the novel are in the present, the narrator uses the past when it comes to his family: "My family owned a bungalow near Annapolis. My father was a doctor. My brother and sister were doctors", as if to stress at once a sense of rupture.

6More curiously, the narrator's voice is itself the voice of the dead. The text presents itself like a journal, by definition "a private affair" (3). But it is also a posthumous affair: "I am afraid that others will read these pages. Since however I will be dead, it should not matter much to me who sees what or when" (3). Hence the disappearance, as soon as the first page, of the character, even though he states that "[he is] not disposed, however unfortunately, to the serious consideration of self-termination". Not only can the text live and be read once and only once the narrator, here an author as well, is dead, but notwithstanding the claim that the character is not prone to self-termination, the text narrates, in fact, a form of self-erasure. Although the story is that of Thelonious Monk Ellison, what the readers will make of it is no concern of his because once the story is read, it becomes autonomous from its author, whose disappearance behind the words he used and behind the reading, is completed. And in fact, that very disappearance is necessary and inevitable if we are to consider that a book, any book, is nothing but the survival of the gesture of writing. As such, it is a trace, a "grayness" of what may once have been a voice. The advent into the world of the text thus signals indeed the end of its author as such, just like the publication of Fuck, the novel within the novel, marks the disappearance of Thelonius Ellison and the creation of a fiction born out of a fiction, Stagg R. Leigh, Thelonious Ellison being himself a fictitious character born out of Everett's imagination. It no longer belongs—if it ever did—to its author, but is now shared, however reluctantly, with readers.

The self under erasure

7Self-termination is thus both denied and enacted, since the condition for being able to read the journal is the death of its author. But there is probably more to this, and the whole novel prompts the reader to read self-termination as self-determination under erasure, as if the prefix had been in a way crossed over, subtracted as many other things in the book. Because of the multiplication of identities the narrator is endowed with, and because of the multiplication of layers of texts and fragments of discourses, it seems as though self-determination, in the sense of the stable delineation of an identity, were impossible. No more than self-termination can self-determination be seriously considered in a novel where in the span of a few lines, saturation prevails over immediacy in the very presentation of the character. What seems to take place in the incipit of the novel is a literal transcription of the idea developed by Derrida "about the essence or the energy of the graphein as the originary effacement of the proper name. From the moment that the proper name is erased in a system, there is writing" (Derrida, 109).

8Conversely here, writing, whose outcome is the novel and its various embodiments, entails the effacement of the proper name that is disappearing, if it ever existed, under the saturation of names the character is given. Yet, there seems at first to be a strong affirmation of the narrator's identity: "My name is Thelonious Ellison", he says (3). This form of designation, through a complete proper name, spells out like a truth, a statement of identity. But it is very soon qualified. The name itself opens up a number of images the reader is affected by at once—another instance of superimposition. In short, the name creates a series of associations in the reader's mind, the first being that with Ralph Ellison. And in fact, the various aliases under which the character of Everett's novel is designated transform him into a somewhat invisible man, as if naming him deprived him, in the end, of any recognizable identity whatsoever. The irony here of course, is that Ellison's character remains nameless, submerged as he is by the different functions attributed to him by different characters and by social pressure.

9So as soon as Thelonious Ellison is named, he in a way disappears behind the act of naming, becoming a figure constructed by the references the reader has in mind. This process is strengthened by the fact that his first name is Thelonious, and his nickname Monk, blending music into the picture and adding, "in addition", as written on the first page of the novel, a new possible level of connections. And of course, the final injunction, "Call me Monk" partakes in inserting the character into a network, the direct reference to Melville's Moby-Dick inscribing the narrator into the fabric of literature. Never a character of flesh and bones, Monk is rather a sedimentation of words, a corpus more than a body and as such he becomes meaningful, or at least open to meaning. To put it differently, through the act of naming, the character becomes a body of work, which, as Jean-Luc Nancy might say, "isn't'proper'". Rather, "it opens onto the possible sense of this body's proliferating corpus, its creator corpus" (Corpus, 99). It is the very proliferation of sense induced by the referential network that all at once effaces the character as such and creates him as text. Or, as Derrida writes, its meaning "is the engagement and the appurtenance that encompass existence and writing in the same tissue, the same text. The same is here called supplement, another name for differance" (194).

10The gesture of naming is therefore here anything but innocent or transparent. On the contrary, it acts like a decision, delineating from the outside, imposing on the subject a series of names that, in the end, deprive him of any singular or personal identity. In spite of or because of the plurality of naming, the access to the identity of the character is forever delayed, Monk, or Ellison or, later Stagg R. Leigh appearing as a polymorphous being, as ungraspable as Theodore Street, the neither dead nor alive third person narrator of his own story in American Desert. Multiplicity leads to a constant feeling of displacement, of dissemination even, of estrangement of the character from himself, belying any unity of the subject whose nature is multifaceted, unstable, undecidable in the end, when fiction, that is the construction, through words, of a persona, takes over, writes over, so to say, the original name and, when Monk becomes Stagg R. Leigh, the person he despises most, his own creature. He realizes this at one point:

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. (276)

11In other words, the multiplication of names results in the dilution of the self, in the annihilation of presence. By not only writing the embedded novel, that is, by creating a language that does not exist —My Pafology later known as Fuck is written in a pseudo vernacular language, a parody of what is expected from black writers—but also by signing "a book on which [he] knew [he] could never put [his] name", Thelonious Ellison has made it real, more real than his own presence. Hence the violence that stems from this absence of a fixed identity, the gradual disintegration the reader witnesses, the very violence of language that, by imposing names on the character, suspends, Derrida would say, "the vocative absolute" (Derrida, 113), therefore denying "self-presence, [being] in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance" (Derrida, 113). All the character is left with is nothingness, because the representation, the image he has created in spite of himself has paradoxically deprived him of substance. All that remains are words that supplement his own body and self:

So, I had managed to take myself, the writer, to reconfigure myself, then disintegrate myself, leaving two bodies of work, no boundaries yet walls everywhere. I had caught myself standing naked in front of the mirror and discovered that I had nothing to hide and that lack was exactly what forced me to turn away. Somehow I had whacked off my own willy, stick, dink, doink, rod, pecker, poker, member, prick, putz, schmuck, tallywhacker, johnson, thing, little friend and now I had to pay the price. I had to rescue myself, find myself and that meant, it was ever so clear for a very brief moment, losing myself. (285-286)

Sounds strung together

12The "two bodies of work" have substituted themselves for his own body, the words he has used as a writer having reduced him to a mere reflection maimed by the two bodies of work alike. It is not only that he has "compromised his art", which he tells his mother he had promised himself never to do, it is also that words, by constructing universes of their own, have gained more reality than he who has fathered them. In the process, he has literally lost his manhood, the symbolic self-castration described here being perhaps more an acknowledgment that despite being "a writer", he is not in control of his words, which have, in a way, turned against him. As shown by the list of words designating his penis, the inexhaustability of language and the multiplication of signifiers only serve to reveal the absence of a signified. It is as though naming created a feeling of saturation, as though the act of designation were inextricably linked to the inevitable absence of the object. Derrida again:

We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it. In the experience of the "robber robbed" that Starobinski admirably describes in L'œil vivant [Paris, 1961], Jean Jacques is subjected not only in the play of the mirror image which "captures his reflection and exposes his presence" (p. 109). It lies in wait for us from the first word. The speculary dispossession which at the same time institutes and deconstitutes me is also a law of language. It operates as a power of death in the heart of living speech: a power all the more re-doubtable because it opens as much as it threatens the possibility of the spoken word. (Derrida, 187)

13Ironical rewriting by Everett notwithstanding, what stems from this is is the inability of language to connect with reality. As shown by the consistency gradually gained by Stagg Leigh, it is the name that fabricates the presence of a subject to the world, along with a language more often than not misread as the transparent mimetic agent of reality. Hence for example the fact that My Pafology is never read by the public or the critics as a piece of fiction or a parody but as "true to life" (155). The true meaning of the book, the angry gesture of its author pass unnoticed, because language is considered by the readers as transparent, the mere transcription of a reality that does not exist. The irony is not lost on the narrator, who reflects at one point that "language never really effaces its own presence, but creates the illusion that it does in cases where meaning presumes a first priority" (51).

14What takes place in Everett's novel is therefore the inadequacy of language, whose indifference to the world is made manifest many a time. The disconnection between the word and the world entails a somewhat paradoxical relation between words and meaning, as though language and meaning were two separate things, toying with each other and never reaching an agreement, much less when meaning is attempted by an utterer. In The Water Cure, the narrator realizes that "nouns and names behave badly and play loose with meaning" (7), a remark that echoes the thoughts of Thelonius Ellison, who states: "It's incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean some thing, but the meaning need not and does not confine to that intention. […] Meaning is internal, external, orbital, but still there is no such thing as propositional content" (50-51). In other words, meaning is never captured by language and is therefore forever deferred. Or, to put it in the words of Derrida, " [w]e are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it" (187). As a result, language is as impotent as Thelonius (a "private affair", once again) yet as all-powerful as the character, able to create worlds out of words. Because it always tries to make up for absence, language can never coincide with the reality it refers to. As a writer, Thelonius Monk is therefore caught in a sort of dead end: he will not manage to make sense of the mess his life has become, he will not even manage to find words audible for the other characters. Even his keeping silent, because it is part of language, fails him, when confronted to his fellow academics, to his readers, but also to himself.

15The novel is interspersed with evocations of fly-fishing and woodworking, because "the wood, the feel of it, the smell of it, the weight of it. It was so much more real than words" (159). Words are indeed weightless, as suggested by Jean-Luc Nancy or by Everett himself, whose narrator in The Water Cure states that "words are like feathers". Yet, they cannot be avoided, even in the woodworking workshop or by the banks of the river. Because only language establishes our link, however weak and unstable, with reality: "Damnit, a table was a table was a table" (159). All one can do is stammer, as Deleuze would say, enacting over and over again the impossibility of reaching meaning, the insuperable gap that exists between words and reality, the inevitable différance inherent to language. Repetition and tautology seem therefore to be what human beings are bound to experience in their attempt at connecting with reality.

16In a way, it is reality that seems to be obliterated as soon as there is language. Yet, it is also language that creates reality, in the endless circulation of meaning it allows. Because it remains ungraspable, meaning is also what ensures the circulation of thought and, perhaps more importantly, the creation of desire. By being endless and boundless, language overcomes us: "all we ever do is circle where we think language might reside", says the narrative voice in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Everett's latest novel. Yet the circle is never closed, and in spite of the failure of the character in Erasure, what remains is a meditation on the power of language which can never be mastered yet is inseparable from those who use it. Or, as the narrator of Everett's last novel to date says: "it exists without senses, without medium, without intention, without reflection or deflection, but not without us, as it makes us human, yet has no feeling toward us […] and it is all-powerful and without judgment and it can state its own inadequacy and then overcome it, revealing that we are the site of the failure".

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Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 (1967).

Everett, Percival, Erasure, London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

—, American Desert, London: Faber and Faber, 2004.

—, The Water Cure, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2007.

—, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008 (2006).

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Bibliographical reference

Sylvie Bauer, « "A table was a table was a table" : écriture sous rature in Percival Everett's Erasure », Caliban, 56 | 2016, 179-188.

Electronic reference

Sylvie Bauer, « "A table was a table was a table" : écriture sous rature in Percival Everett's Erasure », Caliban [Online], 56 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2016, connection on 03 December 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Sylvie Bauer

Université Rennes 2

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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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