Percival Everett’s​ brilliant novel The Trees (2021) offers a heady mixture of comedy and horror. The depiction of race, crime and policing in the American South is too parodic to be true, and too true to be only a parody. His earlier work Erasure (2001) took us to the same territory, although not so far south, and with more precarious modes of balance. Some of the comedy was transformed into straight horror and many of the horrors were not parodic in the least. They were all the more desolate for being so ordinary.

Basing American Fiction, his first movie, on Erasure, Cord Jefferson decides to take the tension even further, and the film keeps threatening to come apart, almost unable to juggle its sorrowful realism with its wild farce. It doesn’t come apart, though, and the survived threat is part of the unshakeable discomfort we feel, even when we are laughing. The medium itself is part of the difficulty here, and part of the film’s ultimate success. An ironic first-person narrator in a novel will always want us to share the irony, but a character in a film, often funny but also angry, created by an actor and a director and not talking intimately to us, doesn’t have to share anything.

Here is how the narrator of the novel talks to us:

I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.

There is an element of arrogance here. Our narrator is after all a literature professor as well as a novelist. We can’t exactly disbelieve in mistaken ideas if they get people killed, but the refusal of the simple definition is useful.

The same is true in the opening scene of the movie. A student in our hero’s class says the use of the n-word makes her uncomfortable, even if a person of colour is using it. He explains that historical understanding sometimes requires the use of such words, and the student storms out. The professor seems sensible, if a bit insensitive. The second scene puts him in a different category. Hauled over the coals for his refusal to listen to the student, he is reminded that he recently asked another student if his parents were Nazis. His response is to say that the class was reading Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, and that judging from the student’s squirming at the question his parents probably were Nazis. Sense and sensibility are not going to help us here. This man likes stirring things up. And his humour has to do with his frequent ill-humour as well as his pleasure in jokes.

The narrator is called Thelonious Ellison – given the echo of a certain version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ in the soundtrack, he could probably have been called Ralph Davis – and is marvellously played by Jeffrey Wright, who keeps us at a distance while inviting us to become his allies. And then disinvites us while still wanting us to feel sorry for him. Late in the film his girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander), whom he cruelly rejects for liking the wrong kinds of book, patiently says: ‘Maybe you should learn that not being able to relate to other people isn’t a badge of honour.’ This line is not in the novel.

Forced to take time off from his university teaching, Thelonious – his nickname is Monk, just in case we don’t get the reference – goes to visit his mother and siblings in Boston. This is not a holiday. ‘I hate Boston,’ he says, ‘my family’s there.’ He seems to get on well enough with his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), who is a doctor and a strong campaigner for abortion rights. She is very close to his mode of thought when she borrows one of the best/worst jokes from the novel. ‘You’re in a boat and your motor cuts out, but you’re in shallow water, but you’re wearing $2oo trousers … Why is this a legal issue?’ Monk shakes his head. ‘Because it’s a matter of Row versus Wade,’ his sister says. Monk does less well with his brother (Sterling K. Brown), who is gay. And his mother (Leslie Uggams) is a source of worry to a degree he has not anticipated since they have long been out of touch. Her developing Alzheimer’s means she will soon need expensive care. Who is going to pay?

The action of the film really gets going when Monk, furious at the success of other Black writers who do believe in race and exploit every cliché about it to the hilt, decides to hit back at the whole publishing world by writing a fiercely satirical, irredeemably ridiculous version of these supposedly realistic novels, born of true life. There is a fine crazy scene where we see Monk writing. That is, we see him sitting at his desk, and in front him are the two badass Black guys he is inventing. We hear them speaking the dialogue he is inventing for them and making appropriate crude gestures. He has earlier defined fiction writers as authors who ‘invent little people’, but we see here that they can invent big, loud people too.

Monk has some difficulty in persuading his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), to take 0n this extravagant book, but Arthur’s loyalty to Monk conquers his doubts. You can probably guess what happens next. The book is a huge success, taken to be an outstanding instance of what it was supposed to be mocking. Monk receives a huge advance and the movie rights attract even more money. All question of how to pay the bills for Monk’s mother’s care vanish.

There are complications, though. Monk has to make some appearances and phone calls as the person who wrote the book. No, as the person who must have written the book, the tough, streetwise mythological Black fellow who would guarantee the authenticity of the work. Monk is reluctant but settles for the role of a criminal on the run, probably a murderer. There is a very funny moment when Monk takes a phone call in Arthur’s office. He’s asked if he is Stagg R. Leigh (this is his pseudonym) and responds: ‘This is he.’ Arthur gestures at him wildly, and Monk quickly switches into proper tough-guy talk. Cut to an image of the white publisher in a New York office, much relieved after being much startled.

Meanwhile, on a separate track we know is not going to remain separate for long, Monk agrees to become a judge for a prestigious literary prize. He keeps refusing the invitation until the prize’s director tells him this is his chance to say everything he wants about every writer he doesn’t like. The judges meet on Zoom, and finally in person. They discuss books, and all have desperately conventional views of the whole process. All of them except Monk and one other. This is Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), the author of one of the bestselling ‘real-life’ race books that drove Monk crazy in the first place. In an elegant prelude to Coraline’s remark about the badge of honour, Sintara agrees with Monk most of the time, suggesting that Monk shouldn’t be so narrow-minded even when he is right. A later conversation with his brother leans this way too.

And then comes the coup we weren’t sure we should be hoping for. Monk’s attack on the genre is nominated for the famous prize. Monk has to judge Stagg R. Leigh. He doesn’t for a moment think, in this company, of saying he is Stagg R. Leigh. But then the book wins. Monk and Sintara voted against it, but were outnumbered by the three other judges. There is a virtuoso meta-conclusion to the movie. The story leaps out of the scene of the prize presentation into a conversation about what should happen in the movie made of the story we have been watching. Monk wants it to end without a conclusion. The prospective director says that won’t do. Monk suggests a romantic ending – Monk is reconciled with Coraline – but the director doesn’t like it. Monk then proposes a raid by the police on the presentation ceremony, prompted by the imaginary criminal life of Stagg R. Leigh and his still being on the loose. Much shooting, many deaths. The director thinks this is perfect. Of course it’s only a movie.

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Vol. 46 No. 8 · 25 April 2024

Michael Wood, writing about Cord Jefferson’s film American Fiction, notes many references to American greats – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thelonious Monk, Walt Whitman – but passes over the narrator’s use of the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (LRB, 21 March). This is a nod to the legendary African-American gangster Stagger Lee, immortalised in a song covered by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt and Cab Calloway to Bob Dylan, Neil Sedaka, the Clash, Taj Mahal and – in a terrifying version – Nick Cave.

Adam Lechmere
London SE23

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