This conversation between the artists de Kooning and Rauschenberg
Rauschenberg exchanges a roof repair job for one of de Kooning’s drawings. Four weeks later:
Rauschenberg: Well, it took me forty erasers, but I did it.
de Kooning: Did what?
R: Erased it. The picture you drew for me.
K: You erased my picture?
K: Where is it?
R: Your drawing is gone. What remains is my erasing and the paper which was mine to begin with. (Shows K. the Picture.)
K You put your name on it.
R: Why not? It’s my work.
K: Your work? Look at what you’ve done to my picture.
R: Nice job, eh? It was a lot of work erasing it. My wrist is still sore. I call it “Erased Drawing.”
K: That’s very clever.
R: I’ve already sold it for ten grand.
K: You sold my picture?
R: No. I erased your picture. I sold my erasing.
The novel itself is a dazzling kaleidoscope of narrative, history, art commentary, and philosophy. Much of it is extremely funny. Why there’s so little comedy in writing these days I don’t know. Maybe that quality of the satiric wit is just plain that rare or maybe television has eaten up all the talent. Anyway, if you want some of it, go to Everett. But back to the book.
Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” (what else?) writes obscure novels, eschews any hint of commercialism. His name refers, of course, both to the jazz musician and Ralph Ellison, author of the classic, Invisible Man. The name seems a bit silly and artificial at first, but develops layers and layers of meaning as the book proceeds.
As the book opens, he’s about to deliver a paper to an obscure society of writers. We get the whole paper, which is entitled “F/V Placing the Experimental Novel” Behold the first sentence:
The title perhaps answers any question before it is raised, making it in some sense an anti-title, but a title nonetheless, thus offering the suggestion of negation.
I was pulled in a for a few minutes, thinking I was reading something meaningful and not getting it. Not too much farther along, though, it was clear that we were being put on:
Let us [like Barthes[ designate as hermeneutic code (HER) “all the units whose function is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer. . . “
Amusing, perhaps, only to an academic with a sense of humor, but I’d like to have five dollars for every befuddled intellectual who put shoulder to the wheel and tried to make sense of the nonsense.
What the paper does is establish “Monksie,” as his mother calls him, as a true outsider. He’s agreed to deliver the paper primarily because it buys him a plane ticket to see his family in D.C., where he grew up. His dad is dead. His sister, Lisa, is a doctor, giving her life over to women’s health in a poor neighborhood. His brother, also a doctor, is in Arizona, having just come out of the closet and been divorced as a result.
During course of the narrative, Ellison goes through a number of rather common family tragedies and encounters one rather Dickensian moment. Mother declines, manifests dementia, forcing Monk to move to D.C. to take care of her. And he discovers the existence of a half-sister, the product of an affair his father had.
All of this Everett tells feelingly, and gives us the picture of a man forced to come in contact with his emotions and conscience for the first time in his life. And it’s a struggle. In and of itself, that part of the book would be worth reading. But something else much less conventional also parallels, then subsumes, this main plot.
In disgust over the success of a recent novel purporting to immerse the reader in the language and events of black life, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, by a young fresh-out-of-Oberlin-coed who once spent two weeks in Harlem, Ellison sits down and pens a parody. He entitles it My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh. Main character is a 19-year-old gangbanger named Van Go Jenkins (Everett loves his names, doesn’t he?)
He instructs his agent to send it out, and you can guess some of what happens. But not all of it. And it gets deeper and more complicated than you can imagine. Where does Monk begin and Staggerlee stop, both as individuals and as black men? How could all this possibly connect to the family drama that surrounds it? Complex, fascinating, wonderful reading. I’m on to another Everett. This one another name drama. I am Not Sidney Poitier. There are at least three levels in the title, but you have to read it to know. . . And what’s it all add up to? I offer the last words of the novel, in themselves a quote from Sir Isaac Newton:
hypotheses non fingo