I recently finished I Am Not Sidney Poitier, a rambunctious comic novel by Percival Everett about the adventures of a young man, Not Sidney Poitier, who spends his childhood and early adulthood squaring off against racism in the South. Much of the book references the films of the actor whom the protagonist resembles—the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? section is a commentary on passing, not relationships between blacks and whites—but the satire is much broader, including mass media, money, and academia.
All three of those subjects—as well as race—are subjects that are ripe for that treatment, though they’re difficult to satirize effectively. Everett himself pulls it off in two ways. First, he’s good with a quick comic jab: Upon first meeting Not Sidney’s father figure, media titan Ted Turner, one character says, “I hate colorization.” Beat. “I’m not speaking metaphorically.” The second and perhaps more important way has to do with the fact that the character speaking is an academic named Percival Everett. Not Sidney first meets Everett while attending Morehouse College, where he teaches Philosophy of Nonsense and spouts smart-sounding blather like this: “Let’s consider art as a kind of desacralization, perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that undoubtedly connected or a the very least traceable to an amalgam of very common yet highly unusual sociohistorical factors.” Throughout the novel, Everett is good for a non sequitur or bit of eccentric, irreverent behavior.
Why go this route? Clearly Everett (the author) means to send up academia (he teaches at the University of Southern California), but he didn’t need to name a character after himself to do that, no more than Roger Rosenblatt or Don DeLillo or Kingsley Amis did. Here, it’s a structural device that at once deepens the identity-crisis theme of the novel, yet provides an absurdist touch that keeps the novel light on its feet. That approach is riskier, but it does have the neat effect of complicating Everett’s satire even while simplifying it—if a writer is willing to poke fun at himself so openly, what’s your problem if you’re not laughing?
Everett has done this before: A 2004 novel cowritten with James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, As Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, was, as best as I can tell, designed to send up the publishing industry much in the same way the new novel tweaks the ivory tower. But overall, the writer-as-character is a device is relatively rare. Paul Auster employed it in City of Glass to help establish the book’s off-center, anti-detective-novel tone; presumably Bret Easton Ellis felt like he had good reasons to insert a Bret Easton Ellis into his 2005 novel, Lunar Park, which I haven’t read. (This is probably a richer genre than I know of, but I’m hard-pressed to think of too many examples. Is it just a guy thing? Joyce Carol Oates, who’s probably experimented with more literary gambits than any other living American writer, never gave this one a shot?)
At any rate, I Am Not Sidney Poitier pushed me directly into Philip Roth‘s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession, in which Roth not only makes himself a part of the story but chases down somebody very like his doppelganger, who’s exploiting his good name while attending the trial in Israel of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. (My timing in picking up the book was fitting, or uncanny, or strange, or something; Demjanjuk, now in his 80s, was deported to Germany last month to face trial again.) Roth’s approach gives him a frame within which to discuss the is-he-or-isn’t-he issues that surrounded Demjanjuk, and one of most powerful and disturbing passages in the book is Roth’s conjuring of the almost erotic joy that an SS guard may have felt being so powerful and murderous. (Operation Shylock is generally regarded as the last novel Roth wrote before he published Sabbath’s Theater and “got good again,” but it’s by no means a weak novel. It may simply be that “memoirs of a horny, bitter puppeteer” is a more appealing premise than “talky metafiction about Israel.”)
But like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Operation Shylock is a comic novel, too: The structure provides Roth cover to skewer some of the sanctimony that surrounds many discussions of Israel and Palestine, and to give voice to ideas about Israel that he’d have a hard time presenting in any other form. Roth’s double, for instance, is an advocate of “Diasporism,” which proposes reducing the role of Israel and instead reintegrating displaced Jews into central Europe. “Israel is no longer in the Jewish interest,” Roth’s doppelganger tells Roth the author (who in this moment of the book is impersonating a French journalist; it gets tricky). “Israel has become the gravest threat to Jewish survival since the end of World War II.” The punchline comes a few pages later, when Roth the author delivers an assessment of Diasporism: “With all due respect, Philip Roth, your prophecy strikes me as nonsense. It sounds to me like a farcical scenario out of one of your books.”
It’s probably foolish to hope that more authors try going down this route, which is bound to produce plenty of solipsistic junk. But it does have its uses; the hard part is finding the appropriate structure for using it. The writer-as-character device is freeing, but it puts you in a bind: It requires that you talk about yourself, but it also demands humility—a subservience to plot, a lack of ego.