Babies are unlikely, though familiar, narrators in fiction, most famously in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. It's a difficult stunt to pull off, given the limited literary faculties of the under-twos, and the obvious way to approach it is to give the child unnatural, even ludicrous levels of precocity. Percival Everett has taken this route to the extreme. His cuddly protagonist in Glyph, Ralph, is a highly intellectual, compulsively philosophical, pompous and cynical mute with a transcendental imagination.
Everett is a seasoned author of some 14 books, but his award- winning novel Erasure was the first published in the UK. The central character was someone perhaps like Everett, a slightly jaded experi- mental novelist who watches other black writers enjoy mainstream success with unadventurous texts that reinforce stereotypes of black life. Erasure was an angry novel, accusing the publishing industry and its public of short-sightedness and ignorance in handling black writers, allowing them less room for progressive work than their white counterparts.
Whereas Erasure was one of Everett's more accessible books, he has taken many more risks with Glyph. First, it's so far-fetched as to be abstract. Upon his parents' discovery of Ralph's unusual qualities - he reads ferociously and writes fluent notes to his mother - he is taken to an evil psychologist who kidnaps him. He is abducted again, twice, by scientists and then a childless couple who name him Pepe. The action intensifies into a surreal and sinister baby-chase across America through which Ralph entertains himself with his endlessly inquisitive mind.
Throughout his capricious story, Ralph's mind is the only constant. And Ralph's mind is an uncomfortable place to be. He believes wholeheartedly in footnotes, and they are summoned generously in the middle of sentences. They have the effect of confusing the narrative - probably Everett's intention. As well as footnotes, the novel is littered with incomprehensible diagrams, floating vignettes, gratuitous riddles, conversations between God and Roland Barthes, and other literary pranks. Amid all this, plot twists are covered so briskly they are almost inconsequential. And the other characters are mostly people you would never want to meet: the grotesque Dr Steimmel, the spooky Madam Nanna, the paedophiliac priest Father Chacón. The only character Ralph seems to have any fondness for (apart from himself) is his mother, and this lack of warmth makes for a slightly suffocating read.
It becomes debatable whether Everett's former obscurity is due more to a self-indulgent over-intellectualisation than racial barriers in the publishing industry. Glyph is a brave and, obviously, clever book, and Everett's work as a whole makes important points about artistic identity and stylistic freedom. Ralph's eccentric pen allows us to enter new realms of consciousness not generally offered in fiction. At the cost of quite a few potential readers, Everett has granted himself a freedom that most writers would not dare exploit.
Diana Evans's novel '26A' will be published by Chatto next springReuse content