If you’re a long term reader of Sophie’s Edit you’ll know that for the past year or so I have been a huge fan of Percival Everett’s writing. First introduced to me by a lecturer while I was at university, I proceeded to use one of his novels for my dissertation and subsequently have read his shortlisted, Booker Prize nominated novel, The Trees.
they satirically reveal the flaws in a “record of [american] discourses” pertaining to both individual and collective concepts of identity.Derek C. Maus, Jesting in Ernest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019), p. 132.
Everett is known for his satirical, hard hitting writing style where he discusses race, sexuality and social issues. He has a unique way of presenting a story where there it is equally heart wrenching, sometimes distressing, messaging alongside comic interventions and deep rooted connection which makes for a fantastic reading experience. They are also very clever, with Everett often using the form of the novel to his advantage.
It’s like what Derek C. Maus said, Everett draws attention to historical inaccuracies and issues through satirically commenting on them. He makes the reader uncomfortable or does something ridiculous to highlight the very absurd nature of what he discusses. In essence Everett is a master of satirical writing.
Unlike Erasure, which was Everett’s debut novel, The Trees addresses racism more intensely with it being set in the South and focusses on racially motivated murders. Based off of the murder of Emmett Till, Everett builds on this by using Money, Mississippi, where Till was brutally murdered in 1955, to reclaim and put into perspective the lynchings in America. This time around, it is the white people of Money, Mississippi that are petrified as a series of murders take place, where dead white men are found next to a young dead Black boy (with this corpse repeatedly goes missing). The particular bit of interest is the fact that this dead young man keeps appearing next to every victim and appears to have been dead for some time, so the true killer is proving difficult to find. Not only that, they are brutally disfigured and as things escalate, subsequently crimes of similar styles are found as lynchings around different States. In that sense, this is a piece of fiction that is retelling history but flipping the narrative. As often found in Everett’s novels, the double standards of society are scrutinised to bring back the harsh truths of the world we live in. Like stated in the LA Times, Everett flips the usual one dimensional characterisation of Black people in Southern stories, through placing the white characters as senseless, one dimensional, clueless folk. He is continually playing with stereotypes to emphasise the holes apparent in so many made up ‘standards’ for different cultures that should, blatantly, just not exist.
A particularly powerful point in the novel is when ‘Mama Z’s’ list, a 105 year old woman who has been collecting the names of those lynched in America, is displayed in the novel which spans 10 pages. This references the ‘say their names’ message that was so powerfully attached to the Black Lives Matter movement. Everett’s novel brings history forward, and puts it very much into perspective.
In reading ‘Mama Z’s’ list, Damon Thruff, the academic in the novel who was asked to write about the events, summed up perfectly what had happened:
the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sigh.Percival Everett, The Trees, p. 189
This morally ambiguous tale puts into perspective the ‘crimes’ apparent in the novel. Yes, there is some sort of cultural awakening happening where ethnic minorities reap revenge on white Americans in Everett’s novel, so as a reader, and as a novel which positions itself somewhat as a piece detective fiction, you begin as a ‘inspector’ looking for answers. But quickly Everett makes it apparent, that there is no need for answers. They were not required in 1955 and thus, they should not be required now. The deaths of those people are at the hands of White America, who deemed it acceptable for this to happen in the first place.
Everett’s novel brings attention back to these horrific acts and in doing so, ensures that in part, they are remembered. Everett’s flipping of events, emphasises the absurdity of them and also the emotional attachment to such a situation. In putting it onto white people, the reader is aware of not only how the African American community felt but also how unnecessary the lynchings were. Black people weren’t getting killed because they had done something wrong, they were getting lynched because they existed.
‘Everyone talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices’ (p. 318)
Unlike Everett’s other novels, there’s nothing overtly ‘clever’ about this – there’s no metafiction (a story within a story to put it very simply), the prose is relatively simple and the form is not overly complicated. But I think that is for the right reasons, it satirises the detective fiction genre whilst having a rather ambiguous moral compass. To that extent, I think that is what this deserved. The reader should know exactly what is happening and why. They should be uncomfortable when presented with the facts and it should provoke discussion. With this rather abrupt ending, I hope it does, because that is exactly what the unjust nature of these atrocities deserve – to not be forgotten.