There’s something special about re-reading a book that was assigned to you in school after graduating.
I was first assigned to read Erasure during the second semester of my senior year as part of an African American Literature class. The class was amazing, and the professor is one of the people that I still look up to most in life, but when it was assigned I was going through a very hard time outside of the classroom. Because of this, I never gave myself the chance to fully invest myself in the novel. I skimmed, read enough to get the feel, and participate in class, but I knew there was so much more in this book to experience that I never gave myself the opportunity to. Recently I decided I needed to give this book a second look, to give it the time and attention it deserved and I’m so happy that I did.
If I had to pick a word for the emotions this book caused, I could only think of “mind-blowing” or “breathtaking”. You’re on the edge of your seat as if you’re reading a thriller, when you’re reading about a college professor. This is definitely a book I’d suggest to an avid reader. Despite how amazing it is, I feel like for a novice, or someone who says “I’m not really into books”, this book would be overwhelming, and much of the complexities and the thought-provoking way that someone can be on the surface self-aware and intelligent, but not notice their own flaws and need for help until it is way to late, might be overlooked by a reader as vulgarity, or pointlessness by the end.
But, none of this will probably make sense until I actually talk about the book.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
When someone asks me for a description of this book, it’s easy to want to get going, and say well, it’s about this and this and this. Everytime I tried to explain Erasure though, I found myself talked into a corner, oversharing, and not sure where to go or where to stop. It usually ended with me saying, “it’s really good, you just need to read it”.
Now, on one hand, I know it’d be easy to say “This is a book about a frustrated African American author who is eventually driven to insanity by feelings of inadequacy caused by stressors in his personal life mixed with the unfair expectations put upon him as a black man by the book publishing industry”. On the other hand, if I were to say that, it wouldn’t be giving this book any credit for what it is, and I bet whoever I was talking to would have given up listening half way through the statement.
I think the reason why it’s so hard to explain is because it is written in a type of stream of consciousness, so the storyline doesn’t go A to B and eventually to Z. There’s actually an entire novel within the novel. Now that’s a trip.
Normally even the idea of stream of conciousness would be a turn off for me, I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about the struggle it was to try to get through The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, With Erasure, it is done in a more accessible way. At the beginning, he says he’s keeping a journal, at that point much of text is written in a traditional, and largely chronological manner. The thing is, as he becomes more and more undone, and starts his descent into eventual madness, the entries become more disjointed, it jumps in time and theme, and he seems to not notice that it’s a bit unusual. As that begins to happen, I feel that the only way to prepare yourself to read it is to think of the text as stream of consciousness.
In terms of plot, its about a black college professor named Monk who specializes in reading hefty and experimental novels that focus mostly in (if I remember correctly) Ancient Rome. The problem is, nobody understands his extremely dense work and he’s considered unmarketable being a black writer who is not writing about black issues. I want to feel bad for him, and I really do find it frustrating that the publishers keep telling him to make his work more “black”, but the funny thing about it is that Monk isn’t very likable either. Monk is stuck up, and as much as you want to empathize with his struggles, he spends so much of the book thinking he’s better than anyone else, and writing these convoluted, inaccessible essays just for the sake of it, that you end up having a slight distaste for him from the start.
The book starts when Monk travels to his hometown to attend a conference. This gives the reader a kind of baseline of Monk before he starts to go crazy. He’s built up as an intellectual that is disconnected from the average person, having difficulty maintaining human connections, which is largely due to him thinking he’s better than everyone else. You get introduced to his family, which includes a late father who defined perfection, a elderly mother dealing with the recent and severe onset of Alzheimer’s, a brother who has come out of the closet after announcing his divorce from his wife, and a sister who practices in medicine in a clinic that offers abortion and is therefore riddled with protesters outside of it everyday.
At first it appears that the book will be about Monk’s frustration at not being published. He feels the only way he can be published is if he writes that drips “blackness”, which he continually finds confirmed by the success he sees all around him of the novel “We Lives in Da Ghetto” written entirely in dialect about a teen girl growing up in an urban setting. As you see it all through Monk’s perspective, at first you can’t help but roll your eyes either.
The real motion of the book gets started when Monk’s sister is murdered by an anti-abortion protester, and Monk is forced to move home to care for his family’s affairs. He feels stuck in a destructive relationship with his mother, as he isolates himself from all other people aside from her while she is losing grasp of reality and becoming increasingly violent as her Alzheimer’s progresses. To cope, Monk develops an unhealthy obsession with the success of “We Lives in Da Ghetto”. He decides to write his own novel, a satire, of this popular urban fiction books. He write it in a dialect he has never used, about experiences that he’s never had, in a place he’s never been, and he titles it “FUCK”.
As a reader, it’s sickening to see the response to his book, and to think about the fact that it’s not very far off from reality. Monk hides his identity and takes on the pen name “Stagg R. Leigh”, he attends interviews, where he refuses to speak more than a few words at a time, and avoids being seen. And the audience just eats it up. They call it “real” and “revolutionary”, saying that it will someday be taught in high schools. The most gut-wrenching part to me is when Monk, as Stagg, appears on a Daytime talk show where the host reads a passage from “FUCK” where in skin-crawling, disgusting detail the main character describes raping a woman, and it ends with the host commending the book for the raw real writing and for being so real as the audience cheers in appreciation.
All the while the Monk, and at the this point, the reader too, is getting more and more wrapped up with the fact that this as far from “real” as possible, and that not even the most intellectual can see that this book is literally meant to be a joke.
I just have to mention, as I’m typing this, I can’t help but think of an episode of South Park I recently watched where the boys have a competition to see who can write the most disgusting story. When it ends up being discovered and published, it is applauded, despite the fact that no one can get through more than a sentence without vomiting. Everyone is analyzing the book, saying how it is this great social commentary, all the while the boys are there like, it’s not, it’s literally just disgusting. This is Monk at this point in the novel.
From there, it just spirals, his frustration grows and grows. His attachment to reality lessens and lessens. By the end, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the dramatic climax. And the sickest joke of the whole book is, by the end for Monk, the satirical novel he wrote ends up being more real than he ever imagined.