Percival Everett’s Abstract Art

Percival Everett’s abounding talent is in an inverse relationship to his popularity, as the novelist’s small cadre of fans and scholars have long known. Aspects of his writing that go a long way toward creating his appeal also probably forestall wider recognition: his irreverence toward race relations, his impiety toward the veritable civic religion of identity, his formal unpredictability and experimentation, his willingness to take risks (which sometimes do not pan out). Readers who love one of his books sometimes don’t care for the next, and so reputational momentum may get lost. Yet Everett, also a longtime professor at the University of Southern California, is sanguine about his critical reception. In a 2015 interview, he remarked: “I have pretty strict rules about interpreting my own mission or my own works. It’s not my place. I’m a writer. I make novels, and then I stand away and let the novel do the work.”

Everett’s new novel, So Much Blue, has dashes of his signature quirky comedy, but it’s not one of his roaring, monster-truck satires that soar through the air and crush their targets, as with Glyph (1999, on literary theory), Erasure (2001, on the cynical marketing of black pathology), or A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond (2004, an epistolary novel written with James Kincaid). Nor is it one of his hilarious formal experiments, such as I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009, about a ringer for Sidney Poitier named Not Sidney Poitier), or his fun—if somewhat manic—study of storytelling, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013). Nor is it much like his darker novels, such as The Water Cure (2007, about torture) or Assumption (2011, a fine detective yarn with a shocking twist).

So Much Blue is the story of a man—an average one, except for his talent as a painter—coming to terms with his past in the hopes of creating a better present for his wife and children. Kevin Pace is the narrator and protagonist, introduced in the midst of a crisis, in 2009, at the age of 56 (“if I died today everyone would comment on my youth and yet if I broke my leg trying to leap the back fence everyone would call me an old fool”). There are three strains on his psyche that are affecting his marriage: an incident that occurred in El Salvador in 1979, before he got married; an affair that he had in France in 1999, with a woman much younger than his wife; and his daughter’s choice to confide something personal to him rather than to his wife. A giant mystery canvas in Pace’s detached studio is the subject of speculation, in his family and in the art world at large (which is not subjected to as much satirical attack as might be expected from Everett). The questions raised by this painting—what it is, how it is, and what it does or does not mean—as well as their tentative answers are intertwined with Pace’s gradual transformation from a tormented enigma (in the eyes of his wife) to a better husband.

More than the story of a man and his family, though, So Much Blue is an extended meditation on seeing. Pace is an abstract painter who is also African-American, and in that way, the novel could not be timelier. In March, much controversy swirled around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting representing the murdered Emmett Till, which was displayed at the Whitney Biennial. In June, Sam Durant’s 2012 sculpture Scaffold, which sought to comment on the mass executions of Native Americans in 1862, was dismantled and burned, following an agreement between the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the local Native community, before the exhibit even opened. In 2015, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, in a quest to extend his practice of “uncreative writing,” read aloud a poem titled “The Body of Michael Brown,” in which he used text from the Ferguson teenager’s autopsy report. Protesters against these works have argued that the use of black and Native tragedy as source material by white artists represents an appropriation of real trauma—manifestations of white supremacy, not attempts to confront it. Endeavoring to make art from another person’s pain isn’t the same as cultural appropriation, but such pursuits, as generally conceived today, share a relationship to notions of identity-based ownership—of certain histories, certain cultural expressions. But while a different culture’s history shouldn’t be declared categorically off-limits to an artist, there are meaningful questions of quality, context, understanding, power, and purpose to be considered—and, along those lines, each work of art must be evaluated on its own terms.

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