by Percival Everett
A review by Toby Lichtig
Parents who bore their friends with stories of their sesquipedalian toddlers will
be put to shame by baby Ralph. Contemptuous of merely parroting other people's
sounds, the infant teaches himself to write and takes a vow of silence. At first,
his parents presume he is retarded, but they have second thoughts when, aged ten
months, he pens a haughty note demanding books and stressing that "ralph
does not like peas". When the authorities hear of this prodigy, he is abducted
and bundled across America, skidding from mercenary to mercenary. Now a ripened
four-year old, Ralph mulls over his life story, regaling us with his poetry, philosophy
and accounts of his new-found aptitude for making "big-boy poopy".
Glyph was first published in the US in 1999. Percival Everett went on
to satirize publishing with Erasure
(2001) and to parody the Western with God's
Country (2003). Here, he pokes fun at hapless academics, pederastic priests
and the self-consuming monster of deconstructive thought. "Oedipal concerns
aside, I preferred the company of my mother", comments little Ralph. While
Mummy is an unsettled artist, Da-da is an arrogant postmodern professor, "a
sort of involuntary ascetic" who acquires women, books and jazz records
out of a desire for cultural capital rather than for pleasure. The tension between
the semantic dismantler and the artistic creator underpins the story. For Ralph,
the realm of action and expression is where true brilliance lies. He considers
himself "accelerated", rather than a genius. "I cannot even say
that I am smart, only that my brain is engaged in constant and frantic activity."
Though playful, the novel's attacks on leading deconstructionists seem to hint
at genuine antipathy on the part of Everett. There is a walk-on part for Roland
Barthes, who bamboozles his interlocutors to the point of tears, before declaring,
"I'm French, you know". After sex with a student, he unravels the
narrative orbits of his performance in his philosophic patois, before asking,
"Are you certain you didn't have an orgasm?". Everett is an engaging
and clever writer. In Glyph, he combines an acute critique of deconstructive
drivel with a hectic postmodern caper. Via mock conversations between Balzac
and G. E. Moore, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, as well as Ralph's own ruminations,
Everett provokes genuine contemplation. If language induces abstract thought,
as Daniel C. Dennett and others argue, and writing provides a further dislocation,
imagine the abstract capabilities of one who has never spoken but only written.
Having skipped the prelinguistic, symbolic stage in his development, Ralph "actually
understood language better than any adult". Abstraction has created him;
now all he wants is action.
Sometimes the poststructuralist hyperbabble threatens to swamp the narrative.
Though this is partly the point, it is not in itself excusable, and flippancy
also threatens to spoil the show ("I have a feeling there is no such thing
as intuition"). But Glyph is buoyed by its vitality as a tale, as
well as by its colourful caricatures. In the end, our interest in the philosophic
element is upheld by the fictive one. We are warned of academic arrogance, in
a way which recalls F. R. Leavis in The Common Pursuit: literature can
indeed be paraphrased if "one brings to it the general assumption that
poets put loosely what philosophers formulate with precision". This notion
is best expressed in an invented dispute between Socrates and James Baldwin.
Socrates: Suppose I understand the world completely. By virtue of that fact,
would I necessarily be able to write a novel?...
Baldwin: Then you'd have no need for writing a novel...
Socrates: Suppose, I didn't need to, but just wanted to write a novel.
Baldwin: Then you wouldn't understand the world.
is a freelance journalist living in London and an Assistant Editor at the TLS.