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Barthes, Simpsoned 

Deconstructing the academy

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
GLYPH | By PERCIVAL EVERETT | Graywolf | 208 pages | $23 hardcover

FIVE SHOTS AND A FUNERAL | By TOM FASSBENDER and JIM PASCOE | Ugly Town | 277 pages | $7 paperback

MANIFESTO FOR THE DEAD | By DOMENIC STANSBERRY | The Permanent Press | 182 pages | $22 hardcover

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP. THE PERNICIOUS GLOBAL corporate techno-plutocracy failed to self-destruct as scheduled, but on the bright side, Percival Everett's Glyph is still available at your local independent bookseller. If only one novel of Glyph's wit and intelligence is written in Los Angeles every year -- which is a fairly safe bet, given that Everett, who teaches at USC, has written 13 books in the last 17 years -- this new millennium may just prove itself bearable.

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In the tradition of Nabokov's academic satires and, perhaps more immediately, Don DeLillo's unsung masterwork Ratner's Star, Glyph takes on not just the vulgarities of recent fashions in academia, but the enduring philosophical questions of language and its relation to knowledge, the self and the world. It is also a very funny novel.

Glyph is narrated by 4-year-old Ralph Townsend, looking back on the adventures of his early infancy. It's the late 1960s, and poststructuralist literary theory is just beginning to take hold in the American academy. While his literature-professor dad and painter mom worry about Ralph's alarming failure to speak even a simple syllable, the kid, from his crib, has developed a working knowledge of the English language. His "poststructuralist pretender" of a father, whom he nicknames Inflato ("He was not a fat man, but he was bloated"), continues to think that Ralph is retarded until long after he writes his mom a note on the sheet of his crib: "why should ralph speak . . . lips look ugly to ralph when they are moving ralph needs books in his crib ralph does not wish to rely on the moving lips for knowledge ralph does not like peas."

The first book she gives him, notably, is Wittgenstein's Tractatus. He thereafter devours more philosophy, as well as great quantities of literature, history and magazines. Inflato finally cottons onto his son's talent and insists they have him looked at by a specialist, who turns out to be the evil Dr. Steimmel. Thus begin Ralph's adventures: Steimmel (who calls the baby "that shit machine") kidnaps him, planning "to uncover the secrets of language acquisition and the mechanism of meaning by cutting open [his] brain"; the military fancies him a potential secret weapon in its Cold War arsenal; a Catholic priest thinks he's possessed. The ever-silent Ralph remains gloriously levelheaded: "They thought I was a genius and this I found laughable. I reserved that designation for someone who could drive a car or at least hold his shit."

But the sections of Glyph that advance character and plot make up barely half the book's bulk. Most of the novel -- which, mimicking pomo pretensions, is broken up into eight lettered sections that are, in turn, broken up into fragments, some only a sentence long, with titles like "ootheca," "ens realissimum" and "libidinal economy" -- consists of meditations on language, literature and philosophy that are often hilarious, frequently nonsensical and occasionally wise. It is also interspersed with Ralph's anatomically themed poems (from "The Hyoid Bone": "Arch of bone,/greater cornu, reaching,/reaching, stretching/above the lesser"); frequent footnoted asides; invented correspondence between Wittgenstein and Russell; bits of doggerel verse; conversations between Aristophanes and Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others; lists, usually alliterative, of apparently unrelated words; single sentences in French, Latin or code; and the occasional short story about piglets.

Everett's target, through much of this, is the French literary theory of the '60s and '70s still popular in stateside lit departments today, which dislodges a single, unitary meaning from literary texts in favor of infinite, and infinitely shifting, readings. While Derrida and Lacan are subjected to brief turns at the whipping post (baby Ralph dismisses Of Grammatology as "a sick discussion at best" and contemplates Lacan while sitting on the potty), â Everett takes particular pleasure in flogging Barthes, who appears as a character in the novel, speaking incomprehensibly, stealing Inflato's grad-student mistress and getting kicked in the balls by Ralph's mom. It was Barthes who notoriously declared the author dead, an announcement that seems to have rankled the prolific, apparently living Everett.

Glyph is thus, in part, a sustained effort to reassert some authorial prerogatives. "I, personally," Ralph tells us, "do not adhere to the logical necessity of many or even one extra interpretation or decoding of a given story." Elsewhere he warns the potential deconstructionist, echoing Twain's famously unsuccessful author's note to Huckleberry Finn, that "attempts at filling in my articulatory gaps with a kind of subtext, though it might prove an amusing exercise, will uncover nothing." Everett even articulates a brief literary theory of his own ("Ralph's Theory of Fictive Space"), which is mainly valuable for its parody of the early Wittgenstein's axiomatic style. But if it doesn't quite stand up as literary theory, and if even as a novel it's got some holes in it, I suspect it will be some months before I have to stop saying that Glyph is the smartest and funniest novel I've read this century.

  • Deconstructing the academy

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