An Introduction to the Speculative Fiction of Percival Everett

Bren Ram

In 2018, a French academic pulled me aside at a conference and asked if I thought Percival Everett was the most important novelist in America. I was surprised—I had only just heard of Everett that year, and while I was ravenously making my way through his prolific catalog of novels and short stories, he felt to me like a well-kept secret. My friend was astonished to hear this, sharing that, in France, young academics were building entire careers around studying the work of this single author. More surprising to me was my friend’s characterization of Everett as a deeply realist author, grounded in the contemporary world and its contemporary issues. For context, I’d just read an Everett novel wherein a man wakes up in his coffin after his own beheading, travels to the desert, and lives with a bunch of clones in an underground government facility.

It’s hard to say what Everett is best known for. As he put it in a 2021 interview, “I’ve been called a Southern writer, a Western writer, an experimental writer, a mystery writer, and I find it all kind of silly. I write fiction.” His oeuvre, which boasts over 30 books (including novels and short story collections), is as consistently surprising as it is vast. There are detective stories, stories about fishing, stories about the publishing industry, historical fiction, romance fiction, and—most relevant for readers of Ancillary Review of Books—speculative fiction. The question of what makes fiction “speculative” is, as we all know, deeply contentious, and not one I’m interested in answering here. My object in this brief introduction to Everett’s novels is to stage a meeting between his work and fans of SFF, who will find much to enjoy in the titles I’ve listed here. He’s one of the most thoughtful and consistently excellent writers of the present day (and, dare I say, my favorite living American novelist), but he seems largely missing from speculative fiction conversations. Reviews and accolades seem to circulate more in the “highbrow” literary world (see my conference encounter for evidence)—his more “realistic” texts, such as Watershed (1996), I Am Not Sydney Poitier (2009), Assumption (2011), and So Much Blue (2017) receive the most attention, while his speculative fiction has remained on the outskirts.

Everett’s own work also accounts for this difference: it’s the racism. In Erasure (2001), a Black novelist struggles to get his publisher to promote his weird, complicated work, but finds runaway success after publishing a satire of a ghetto novel under a pseudonym. The literary world, of course, mistakes his satire for gritty realism—calling it honest, raw, objective, and authentic. Erasure reads like a cautionary tale for readers of Everett, whom the New Yorker characterizes as having “one of the best poker faces in contemporary American literature.”

The books are, even to the point of discomfort, funny. The matter they tackle—race, class, death, religion, sex—might seem unfit for the kind of comedy Everett brings to the table, but the comedy brings a clarity to the issues, illuminating them in the depth of their absurdity. Everett brings a Bob-Dylan-esque sense of both opacity and seriousness to his work, which forces him out of the tokenization that the publishing world often imposes on Black authors. The New Yorker describes him as writing with a “mixture of deadpan wit, slapstick accident, and serious philosophical inquiry”—and indeed, this might be the only honest way to describe him. The most important thing to keep in mind when reading Everett is to let the work speak for itself—and, when trying to take it at its word, to proceed with caution.

* * *

American Desert (2006)

This is the one with the clones in the desert. Theodore Street, a professor on his way to end his own life by walking into the ocean, is decapitated in a car accident, his head severed cleanly from his body. But, during his own funeral, he sits up in his coffin. Thus begins a very serious meditation on the nature of death wrapped up in a kind of slapstick comedy that sees Ted Street carted off to Area 51, estranged from his family, living with a religious cult, and—of course—meeting some very interesting clones, the nature of whom I’ll leave murky to avoid spoilers.

A perfect tone-setter for Everett’s speculative work, American Desert is an absolute joy to read. The humor is dark but precise, and each time you think you know where the story is going, it surprises you again. Underneath the comedy is an undercurrent of refreshingly real horror and existential inquiry, and the sense of place evoked by the title is vividly sketched. Hyper-aware of tropes and conventions, American Desert asks: what’s really interesting about science fiction, anyway? The answer: a lot—but it might not be what you think.

* * *

The Trees (2021)

A series of gruesome murders bring two detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to the rural town of Money, and what looks like an intriguing murder-mystery takes on a ghastly valence as a second body is discovered at each scene. The second body resembles fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in the same town 73 years prior. Navigating the complexities of a town wherein racism is as commonplace as water, the detectives must wrestle with the legacy of anti-Black police violence even as they work to untangle how each murder was committed.

This is as close as Everett gets to true, all-out horror. It’s a chilling mystery that, rather than unfolding as the tale progresses, folds and folds again. With short, urgent chapters that let Everett flex his short story muscles, The Trees is impossible to put down. Its publication in 2021 also adds to its sense of urgency, connecting contemporary police brutality to the history of lynchings in America. What’s perhaps surprising, though, is how funny it is. There is real humor to be found in Everett’s exposure of the mechanics of racism for what they are, and in the way death, murder, and justice are meted out by different hands along different lines. This is a hard book to describe, and its movement between comedy, horror, mystery, and a deadly serious examination of racial violence and murder makes it one of Everett’s most complex and compelling works.

* * *

Glyph (1999)

This novel is proof that sometimes a really interesting premise is all you need. Glyph is an “off-kilter academic spoof” about an infant, mute by choice, who possesses a frighteningly powerful intellect. Astonishing his parents, one of whom is a poststructuralist scholar, baby Ralph voraciously devours the literary canon from Balzac to Joyce to Ellison. The novel follows his kidnapping, his kidnapping from his kidnappers, and his kidnapping from those kidnappers. Relating his tale in retrospect, the now-four-year-old Ralph muses on the nature of genius and truth.

Glyph is a challenge, mainly because it’s just so dense! Ralph’s genius causes him to veer wildly between ideas, interrupting his own narrative with semiotic analysis. But it rewards sustained attention with a wildly funny and also deeply fascinating tale about knowledge and expertise. The fact that Ralph is a genius baby is funny—but it also invites inquiry into innocence and experience, asking why it’s important that he’s a baby (and a Black baby) in the first place.

* * *

Frenzy (1997)

Retellings of Greek myths have been having a moment. Frenzy, though, predates this moment, coming out in the late 90s—before the Percy Jackson YA zeitgeist and the more mature stories that emerged as that generation grew up. Frenzy is definitely not a YA novel. It’s the retelling of the story of Dionysus and Pentheus, king of Thebes (and grandfather to Oedipus). Told from the perspective of Dionysus’ servant Vlepo, the novel flits between myths, telling the story of Dionysus’ birth, the tale of Theseus and the minotaur, and the tragic demise of Eurydice. Vlepo, who starts the novel as a mere observer and recorder of the wild god’s antics, begins to exert a sense of self as he bears witness to more and more frenzied acts.

This is a weird one. I understand why reviewers call it “uneven;” the prose does come across as distracted, but this seems to stem from Dionysus’ characterization as a perpetually-unsatisfied seeker of pleasure. Dionysus tries to use Vlepo to understand his own experiences, but Vlepo—and the prose—continually come up short. Packed with strange eroticism and a fragmented sense of narrative, time, and identity, Frenzy is provocative in its tackling of the relationship between myth and culture, even if it doesn’t accomplish the Herculean feat of fully untangling it.

* * *

Zulus (1990)

This is also a weird one, and one I have some qualms about recommending. One of Everett’s earliest stories, Zulus is the tale of Alice Achitophel, newly pregnant in a world where every adult has been forcibly sterilized after a catastrophic war. The post-apocalyptic world Everett constructs is perfect in its satirical pointedness, with a kind of banal bureaucracy as its driving force (“YOU NEED SOMETHING TO DO,” admits one of the government’s most ubiquitous slogans, overseeing workers who move empty boxes from warehouse to warehouse). As a pregnant woman, Alice poses a threat to the government and joins some rebels in the hopes of making a life for herself and her child.

It was a difficult novel for me to revisit because I had forgotten two of its most important conceits: that Alice is overweight, and that the reason she is pregnant is because the very first scene of the novel is a rape. The prose in the first half of the novel seems obsessed with Alice’s body, taking every chance to remind the reader that she is fat and as a result struggles both with everyday tasks and with societal acceptance (a weird point to make, since we are also reminded again and again that her weight is 260 pounds, only 90 pounds over the US national average). There are some confounding factors: the third-person prose is extremely limited, so we might be getting a glimpse into Alice’s own warped perception of her body. Furthermore, this post-apocalyptic world includes “reduction camps” where overweight citizens are sent against their will, which might be warping Alice’s view of the acceptable levels of fatness. However, something really strange happens about halfway through the novel, when Alice has run away and joined the rebels living outside her city: her body breaks open and another, thinner version of Alice emerges from it. This is troubling, especially considering the pervasive diet rhetoric of today that tries to convince us that inside everyone is a thinner, better version of ourselves. Diet culture is not a part of this book, and the emergence of the thinner Alice occupies a very specific narrative function that has more to do with pregnancy than weight loss, but the parallel persists. Some have argued for the novel as an allegory for the prison system and the mistreatment that people face therein, a perspective I find fairly compelling. The ending of the book is genuinely startling in its clarity and power, delivering one of the strongest critiques of modernity I’ve seen from speculative fiction. That said, the beginning of this book rubs me the wrong way, evidencing some of the unevenness that characterizes Everett’s early work.

* * *

Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013)

Reading some books, you get a sense of how special they are—they’re not like anything you’ve read before, and it feels like they’re in a category by themselves. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is one of those books. It’s a novel—it says so on the cover—but it’s dedicated to Everett’s father, who died in 2010, and tells the story (stories?) of a father and son who share other stories at the end of the father’s life. It’s a twisting maze of a novel, with the speaker often unclear, trying to do the seemingly impossible—make sense out of death.

There is an entire constellation of stories contained in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. The father and son share tales of a ranch owner, a painter, a speech writer, and an escape from a nursing home. Most of the stories don’t finish, but it’s the telling of them that makes them meaningful—and perhaps the novel’s phobia of endings speaks to its underlying motivations. The tellers take on different roles, trying to figure out what a story is and what it means to tell one. I can’t say much more about this—is it overly literary? Is it too experimental? Is it speculative fiction at all? It’s hard to say. But I do think this is the novel for anyone with a little bit of patience and the emotional bandwidth to handle a novel-length meditation on death, family, fatherhood, and storytelling. It’s a challenge, but a potent and poignant challenge that makes me cry even when I look at the cover.

Bren Ram (she/they) is a PhD candidate at Rice University where she studies the intersection of risk and ecology in literature. Her scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, and the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and her book reviews can also be found on the eco-themed publication Correspondences. You can find them on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This guide was commissioned from an emailed pitch; the author had previously reviewed for ARB.  It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange any review copies.

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