Baby Book

A diagram from Glyph lays out a simple formula for literary success

Ralph, though but an infant, is a child prodigy unlike any other. Because he doesn't begin to speak on schedule, his parents suspect that he might be "mildly retarded." Yet he sets the record straight with dispatch in his first missive to them, penned while he's still less than a year old: "why should ralph speak ralph does not like the sound of it ralph watches the mouths of others form words and it looks uncomfortable..."

As the lexiphanic hero and narrator of Percival Everett's latest novel, Glyph (Graywolf Press), Ralph lives in the kind of metafictional world set up in such worthy tales as David Lodge's Small World and Robert Grudin's little-known wonder, Book. Yet Glyph does these books one better by leaving the musty halls of academia behind. For it is a singular stroke of inspiration to endow a central tenet of poststructuralism--the privileging of writing over speech--in a narrator who, much to his own consternation, isn't even potty-trained.

Everett continues to work this theme by whimsically tracking Ralph's reading list. Beginning with Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Ralph devours everything his mother can put in his crib, from avant-garde novels to technical manuals, assessing as he goes the forms and uses of writing. In response to the now yawn-provoking theoretical proclamation (voiced by his father, a poststructuralist literary critic) that "nobody is fooled by fiction or poetry anymore. Writing is the only thing," Ralph begins his own sophisticated counter-interrogation of the text--in one of the book's ubiquitous footnotes, of course--posing the question: "What are novelists and poets trying to do?"

Readers will no doubt ask that same question of the intricate Glyph. Its action is simple enough: Our superintelligent baby storyteller is kidnapped by the psychologist his hapless parents take him to see, then abducted by another dubious scientist; before she can take him "back to the dissection table," he's taken yet again, this time by creepy caricatures of government agents (Madame Nanna and Colonel Bill of the "Division of Exploitation of Potentially and Reportedly Trainable Mentally Exceptional Neophytic Tikes," a.k.a. the "DEPARTMENT department of the Pentagon"), and yet again by a sympathetic guard at the prison where Ralph is so shabbily held. Is this series of kidnappings-within-kidnappings a play on the theoretical notion of mise en abîme--a plunge into the abyss--or a blueprint for a John Cleese movie? No matter: The final showdown at the Catholic mission where Ralph and his new family have taken refuge (complete with Fathers O'Blige, O'Boie, and O'Meye trying to perform an exorcism on the "devil-child"), is a "messy and unsightly affair" that ends this quirky sendup with vaudevillian panache.

But amid the thin plot, Ralph strews a plethora of nonnarrative devices: imagined dialogues between the likes of Aristophanes and Ralph Ellison (who agree, while debating what causes people to fear art, that "people are more afraid of infants than anything else"); chunks of his own philosophy ("To scribble is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of fuzzy mess..."); and his frequent attempts at poetry. Delightfully "anfractuous," to use one of the novel's recurring subdivisory headings, Glyph ornaments every aspect of its form with the sharp barbs of literary theory. And so we have the punning chapter titles (e.g. "The Straight and Narrative") and the semiotic graphs that follow them, as well as the aforementioned headings that deploy theoretical jargon (e.g., differance, seme, pharmakon) with a seemingly planned abandon.

Although the volume and vagaries of this formal assault will have nontheory buffs scratching their heads and will probably be deconstructed for years to come, Everett (who has previously authored about a dozen non-theory-driven novels) pulls off a winning book because of/despite them. As Ralph says, "The geometry of this text is more than metaphorical...I want the reader to trouble herself over structural analysis." Whether she does or not, she'll find treasures that go beyond mere story. Ralph's cocky take on his limited world ("Books and nipples. Nipples and books.") is relentlessly funny. While being examined by one of the many sets of evil doctors who want to study him, Ralph "purposely shifted [his] thinking from Nietzsche to Ellison to Lowell to Mailer," so that by the end of this process "there was little or no brain activity they could locate." There is also an engaging racial subtext lurking behind the critical follies: "Have you to this point assumed that I am white?" Ralph asks us a quarter of the way through his picaresque tale. (Regrettably, Everett for the most part abandons this interesting line of inquiry.) And if the inclusion of the homosexual Roland Barthes in the role of womanizer is quizzical, his perpetually dizzying theory-speak--"My penis is an extension, not of myself, but of the very signification of my meaning, of my marks on any page, whether made by me when writing or arbitrarily marking. I'm French, you know"--provides a comic counterpoint to Ralph's evaluation of his work: "I threw the book out of my crib, and laid a load in my big-boy underwear." (Reading Lacan, we discover, also helps Ralph perform "his defecatory mission.")

If such theory bashing seems too easy--well, it is. But thankfully it's far from the main impulse behind Glyph. As Ralph puts it: "My depiction of the stories of my life, if you will, is not mere hedonistic practice, no mere anarchism. Nor am I about a self-serving and uncomplex upbraiding of any poststructuralist thinking, however bedazzled such thinking might be by its own reflection." So what is the novelist of this heady novel trying to do? you ask. If the answer is allowed to be something as simple as "entertain," Percival Everett has indeed succeeded.

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