62 pages 2 hours read

Percival Everett


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Erasure is a satirical, metafictional novel by American author Percival Everett, originally published in 2001. The novel tackles the complexities of language, racial identity, and the publishing industry, exploring how cultural expectations and the literary marketplace regulate African American literature and the Black experience. The novel won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in 2002. In 2023, Erasure was adapted into a film by Cord Jefferson with the title American Fiction.

Percival Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. He has received multiple awards for his literary work, and he has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2015, he won the Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction and the Phi Kappa Phi Presidential Medallion from the University of Southern California. In 2023, he won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the Los Angeles Review of Books UCR Lifetime Achievement Award.

This study guide uses the 2021 e-book edition by Faber & Faber.

Content Warning: The source text discusses racism, violence, sexual violence, anti-Black biases, anti-gay biases, and suicide. It also includes racist and sexist slurs that the guide reproduces only in direct quotations.

Plot Summary

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an African American English professor and frustrated author whose newest work is repeatedly rejected by publishers who think it is not “Black enough.” Therefore, Monk is at odds with the literary industry and feels it limits his artistic freedom. He is enraged by popular novels that exploit Black suffering through stereotypes but are hailed as authentic Black narratives.

Monk travels to Washington for a conference and visits his mother and his sister, Lisa. His relationship with his family is strained and he has not seen them in years. His father has died by suicide and his brother Bill lives away in Arizona. Monk notes that Bill is a gay man, and his sexuality has put him at odds with their parents. When Monk meets Lisa, she informs him that their mother is losing her memory. Monk feels bad that Lisa cares for their mother by herself.

Monk’s life changes after Lisa is murdered by an antiabortion extremist at the women’s clinic where she is a doctor. Monk must now care for their mother by himself. Bill can’t help as he is going through a divorce and facing a crisis at work after his wife discovers that he is gay. Monk takes a break from his job in California and moves to Washington to be with his mother. She is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he must find money for her care. When her disease advances, Monk decides to commit her into a nursing home.

Growing increasingly frustrated by publishers’ rejections of his novel, Monk writes a satirical novel called My Pafology, adopting the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. This new novel mocks stereotypical Black narratives. Its violent and misogynist protagonist, Van Go Jenkins, is the stereotypical image of the “gangsta” and Black machismo. Monk tells his agent to submit this novel for publication, as he wants to reveal the hypocrisies of the publishing industry by throwing hyperbole in their faces. However, My Pafology is quickly accepted for publication and is considered a masterpiece of Black writing. Monk is exasperated, but he is unable to resist the money that comes with literary success.

Though Monk is troubled by the success of his novel, he continues his performance as Stagg R. Leigh in the media. The process makes Monk realize the pervasiveness of racism in society and the ways in which popular culture limits artistic freedom. His identity crisis exacerbates when he tries to return to writing; Monk interrogates the role of the author and his own connection to his writing. Then, he receives an invitation to be a judge for the National Book Award and finds that his colleagues consider My Pafology as the potential winner. In the end, his satirical novel wins the prize, and Monk feels the need to redeem himself and his identity as an artist. During the award ceremony, he decides to claim the award and the novel as himself, hoping that the public would then come to see the novel as hyperbole and acknowledge the racism within popular culture. However, at the novel’s conclusion, Monk realizes that by seeking the approval of inherently racist institutions, he, too, is a racist stereotype.

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