The book confirms white America's simultaneous impulses toward social work and concentration camps as answers to all questions of race; it offers its black heroine uplift and its white readers the certainty that no matter how far the great mass of black Americans might lift themselves up, it will never be to their level. As the book hits the best-seller lists, as huge sums roll in for the paperback rights, then the movie rights, it burns in Ellison's mind. He's read this before. He's read it all his life. This is the opposite of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man never holding still for the reader; this is what the critic Albert Murray, writing in 1965 about Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Landóembraced by the literati as proof that while one young black man might have escaped from Harlem, almost everyone else would have to remain thereócalled social science fiction.
To drive out the horror of his sister's death, the fatigue that falls on him every time he tries to guide his mother through her days, the sorrow that escapes the smugness with which he has always regarded his brother, in a fit of cool, measured rage Ellison offers an answer book to the one all America is reading. "When I was twelve I went to visit some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days and that's what the novel comes from," Juanita Mae Jenkins tells Erasure's Oprah about We's Lives In Da Ghetto. Ellison may never have been to Harlem, or for that matter Comptonóbut if this is authenticity, who needs it? Any Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, or Zelda Lockhart can pony up the rape/incest/prostitution/black-woman-enslaved-by-the-black-man trope; let's hear it for the guy who has to do all the work! In what seems like a tranceó
I sat and stared at Juanita Mae Jenkins' face on Time magazine. The pain started in my feet and coursed through my legs, up my spine and into my brain and I remembered passages of Native Son and The Color Purple and Amos and Andy and my hands began to shake, the world opening around me, tree roots trembling on the ground outside, people in the street shouting dint, ax, fo, screet and fahvre! and I was screaming inside, complaining that I didn't sound like that, that my mother didn't sound like that, that my father didn't sound like that and I imagined myself sitting on a park bench counting the knives in my switchblade collection and a man came up to me and asked me what I was doing and my mouth opened and I couldn't help what came out, "Why fo you be axin?"
óhe writes a novel in the voice of Van Go Jenkins, a nineteen-year-old black man in California with four babies by four women. The babies are Aspireene, Tylenola, Dexatrina, and Rexall. The chapters are "Won," "Too," "Free," "Fo," "Fibe," "Sex," "Seben," "Ate," "Nine," and "Tin." The title is My Pafology. The author is "Stagg R. Leigh."
What transpires is a wonderful, hideous jokeóbut no matter how hard Thelonious Ellison tries, My Pafology, included in full in Erasure, is not a joke. Ellison can disrespect anyone who might read an idiot satire like My Pafology as real life, who might believe in spellings like Aspireene and Fibe, who can't tell Stagg R. Leigh from Stagger Lee, but he cannot disrespect words. The novel is stupid and ridiculousóbut no more so than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and just as carefully made. It is relentlessly stereotypedóbut no more so than Richard Price's Clockers. It is absolutely self-referential, its world reduced to the size of a paper cupóbut no more so than David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day. In other words, you, like Ellison, enter the novel with a feeling of relief, leaving his dead sister, his broken brother, his ruined mother, for another day, and like Ellison you rush right through it.
Ellison gets inside the stuffed doll of Juanita Mae Jenkins's book and of all the books like it and pulls the doll inside out. What he hasn't bargained for, though, is what his book will do to him. "The work inhabited no space artistically that I could find intelligible," he saysóbut the world has no such problem. It finds Stagg R. Leigh, whom Ellison presents as an ex-con unwilling to speak to anyone, perfectly intelligible. A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious: As an experimental novelist, Ellison has never made sense, but as My Pafology turns into a property, as it becomes clear that society will pay anything to hear the story it tells, Ellison ceases to exist. We's Lives In Da Ghetto, it turns out, was more than a dishonest, exploitative, self-congratulatory piece of shit; it was the tar baby.
Here Erasure becomes a great yarnóa tall tale worthy of Mark Twain. The American joke, Twain wrote in "How to Tell a Story," "is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." But the mystery at the heart of the novel is the phony novel inside itónot because of how it illuminates the condition of the African American in the United States at this time, but because of how it illuminates a fictional character named Thelonious Ellison. Can his story really end where Everett leaves it, with Ellison stepping onto a stage to assume a new, fictional identityóor to force his country to acknowledge the person it has always refused to believe is real?Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum and the author of The Manchurian Candidate (British Film Institute/University of California Press, 2002).