American Fiction vs Erasure Book vs Movie Review

Erasure by Percival Everett (2001)

American Fiction directed by Cord Jefferson (2023)

This book and movie is about “Monk, a frustrated novelist who is fed up with the establishment that profits from Black entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. To prove his point, he uses a pen name to write an outlandish Black book of his own, a book that propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to disdain.”

Book Review

I liked this book quite a lot and found it very witty and funny, but in a dark humor kind of way. There is a sadness about the character of Monk and the situations in his family, so despite the ridiculousness of the story which is entertaining, it feels like a somber book. It is also interesting commentary on race in entertainment and in general how people will believe negative stereotypes.

The book has a lot of vignettes, some longer than others, and I didn’t always understand what Everett was going for with these sections. I think I just am not knowledgable to fully understand his references.

We do read his parody book as well and that takes up a decent section of this book. I covered Native Son book vs movies in 2022, and his story is a play on that book.

Erasure starts to have a surreal feel to it as Monk kind of begins to become these three different sides of himself-Monk who takes care of family matters, Thelonious Ellison who is the professional writer, then Stagg R. Leigh who is his persona for the new book he has written.

Later in this I will be referencing this essay by Irie Rose de Lily about the book which I found very helpful and highly recommend to anyone who wants a deeper analysis of the book.

Movie Review

I really liked this movie as well. It is a great adaptation-it stays true to the book for the most part, has amazing performances, and it has its own twist in the end which I thought was very clever.

When Monk is writing his book, we see actors appear in the room with him, playing out the scene as he is writing it which was such a fantastic scene and a really cool way to film that. We don’t get his whole story like we do in the book; it is just this section right here.

While the movie does have some dark humor, I didn’t find it as sad as the book was at times. There are so many hilarious scenes, while also having a lot of tender moments and we get some fantastic dialogue between certain characters.

I highly recommend checking this movie out!

From here on out, I will be getting into the details of the plot which means there will be spoilers!

Some of these characters (like the brother, the love interest, and others) have different names from book to movie, but I will just refer to them by their movie name.

Monk and his family

At the start of the book we hear from Thelonious Ellison, who goes by Monk, telling us about himself, “While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough. Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing. I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused…The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it. 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.”

At the start of the book and movie he is visiting the east coast for work related reasons, and while there he will pop in and see his sister and mother whom he isn’t very close to. In the book, he is there for a writer’s conference type of thing and he will be doing a reading. We hear from others that he writes dense books, and when reading what he presents at this conference, I honestly wasn’t sure what he was even saying because it was too dense for me lol. It was a great example for the reader to see what his writing is normally like. In the book his sister tells him she wishes he would write something she could actually read.

In the movie, when he is with his sister, he is saying he wants to write books that change lives and she says his book has changed her life. She then goes on to say that she had a crooked table, but one of his books was the perfect size to put under the leg to fix the wobble. This was a great scene, and in general I loved the scenes when we see him interacting with each of his siblings. In both he isn’t said to be close to them, but he had a more friendly back and forth with his sister in the movie than he had in the book.

Lisa, his sister, is a doctor with her own clinic and she performs abortions and in the book, we hear how there are always a crowd of angry picketers in front of her office. She is also left to take care of their mother since Monk and their brother moved away and the father died. In both, the mom is starting to get Alzheimer’s and Lisa also got divorced recently, so she has a lot of stress going on.

In the movie, Lisa dies when she has a heart attack while at lunch with Monk. In the book, when Monk was back home, he was called and told she was shot by one of the picketers outside of her clinic, and he flies back.

Their brother, Cliff, has also recently gotten divorced because he came out as gay and is on hard financial times as well. Monk has more work freedom and is able to stay with their mom after Lisa’s death.

He wants to put her in a home, but that is very expensive. He hasn’t been able to get anyone to buy his latest book, and so he is in a difficult position.

My Pafology

While all of this is going on with his family, we hear about a new book that is a best seller by a black female author named Sintara Golden. It is called We’s Lives in da Ghetto and Monk hates the book, feeling it gives into the black stereotypes that he finds regressive. Granted he hasn’t read it, but based on the excerpts he has read he feels he knows enough.

He is also fed up with reviewers and publishing houses who feel like he should be writing books about the “black experience”. We see in both that he gets upset when a chain bookstore has his books kept under “African American studies” simply because he is black, even though his books have nothing to do with African American studies. People want to pigeonhole him and his art due to the color of his skin. And then people like Golden he thinks are just sellouts basically that are giving into this stereotype.

He then writes a book titled My Pafology with a main character named Van Go, and sends it to his editor who realizes it is a satire and thinks it is ridiculous. Monk, in his frustration, tells his editor to send it out and not tell people it is a satire, thinking surely anyone who reads it will be able to see it is a parody. He uses the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. This is a reference to a song called Stagger Lee.

In the book he is thinking how there is art, then there is something that is created for a function and isn’t considered art, such as a chair. We then read, “This was what occurred to me regarding My Pafology. The novel, so-called, was more a chair than a painting, my having designed it not as a work of art, but as a functional device, its appearance a thing to behold, but more a thing to mark, a warning perhaps, a gravestone certainly.”

Much to his dismay, a publisher wants the book and is going to give a huge advance. He doesn’t want to actually publish it, but his editor encourages him to take the money. He is in a tight financial situation, and so he agrees.

When they want to speak to the author, Monk tries to act “gangster” the way these people expect him to be. Again, thinking he is being ridiculous, and yet the people keep falling for it. Then a producer in Hollywood wants to adapt the book.

Monk is so fed up with people loving this book and so before it is published, he tells them he wants to change the title to the F word. He partly thinks there is no way they will go so far as to agree to this, yet they come back and say okay.

The Book Award

In both, he as Thelonious Ellison, is asked to be a judge for a book award. As they are going through the books submitted, his publishers submit F***. The other judges of course love it, and want to give it the top prize despite his vote being against it.

The conversation between the judges reads,

“I would think you’d be happy to have the story of your people so vividly portrayed,” Hoover said.

“These are no more my people than Abbot and Costello are your people,” I said, considering that I had perhaps offered a flawed analogy.

“I learned a lot reading that book,” Jon Paul Sigmarsen said. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with color—black people—and so F*** was a great thing for me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “People will read this shit and believe that there is truth to it.”

In the movie, Sintara Golden is also on the panel. I thought this was a great addition to the movie. She also dislikes F*** and finds it pandering and has no heart. Despite the only two black judges not liking the book, the white judges vote in favor of it and it wins.

Having them both on the panel allows us to see more into Golden’s character and she and Monk have a great conversation. He asks her how F***, which she didn’t like, is any different than her own book. She tells him she did a lot of research and her book comes from interviews she did with real people. He says that even though, yes there are black people in these situations that are told in these “stereotypical” stories, but if black people only write books like that, they are giving the market what they want rather than actually telling true stories. She says that she is simply providing the people supply to meet their demands and just because her books don’t reflect her own life, they are still real experiences. She says how people don’t read Charles Bukowski and think that represents every white man’s experience, but he says that is because we have so many different kinds of stories by white men and see their range of stories all of the time. I didn’t do the scene justice, but that is what they talk about and again, getting this look into Sintara was a great addition in the movie.

Coraline

In both, Monk starts to date the woman who lives next door from his parents’ lake house which he is staying at with his mother during part of the story. In the book this doesn’t last too long, because fairly early on, when they are having sex for the first time, he sees she has a copy of We’s Lives in da Ghetto on her nightstand. He literally stops when they are in the middle of it and asks her if she read the book. She says yes and he rolls off and tells her how he can’t believe she can read that and like it. She tells him he should go and he never speaks to her again. In the book we read, “It was not her lack of taste or possession of questionable taste that caused me to make a scene upon finding that awful novel by her bedside. I reacted because the book reminded me of what I had become, however covert.”

In the movie we see much more of her and again, I loved that we see her more. She is so likeable, and Monk’s family also likes her. They are together for a while it seems, like months. When while he is dealing with the stress of this double life with Stagg R. Leigh, he sees she has a copy of F*** and she says she liked it. This happens while they are eating dinner, and like in the book, he gets upset saying he doesn’t know how she could be stupid enough to like a book like that essentially. Again, she tells him to leave. She has a great line in the movie where she tells him, “Someday I hope you realize that not being able to relate to people isn’t a badge of honor”. Even though he reaches out to her later in the movie, she doesn’t respond to him.

Cliff

While both book and movie have Monk’s brother who has just recently came out as gay, in the book this is a bigger story in some ways because we get a number of flashbacks that relate to their father and a lot of flashbacks about Cliff being gay but how the family and Cliff too, didn’t acknowledge it.

We see adult Cliff a bit more in the movie, because in a lot of the book he is in Arizona and only comes to the East Coast a couple of times. In the book during one of cliff’s visits, he gets fed up with Monk (who can be pretentious and difficult) and leaves. When Monk returns he sees a note in the dining room which reads that upstairs there is another note will which explain everything. The note Monk finds upstairs reads, “F–K YOU! [Ciff]”

In the movie Cliff and Monk have a few disagreements, and we also have a scene when he is dancing with their mother who isn’t doing well. She says to him, “I always knew you weren’t one of those queers” He immediately shuts down and leaves.

We then see that he didn’t actually leave but went to the family lake house. Monk and them had come back to it, because their housekeeper was getting married there. Monk tells him to leave, but the housekeeper, Lorraine, tells him to stay and she wants him at her wedding. This was such a sweet scene, followed by a very touching wedding scene. This ends with Cliff talking to Monk about Coraline whom he has pushed away by this time. Cliff tells him that there are people who want to love him, and he needs to let them.

(By the way, in the book, Monk and his mom don’t stay for Lorraine’s wedding because his mom has an episode and they leave early.)

He also expresses how their father never knew the full him, because he died before Cliff came out as gay. Monk says but what if he had rejected you? Cliff than says, well at least he would have rejected the real me. This too I thought was a great line. The importance of being who you are seems cliché, but it is a life lesson that can be hard to embrace. Being rejected for our true self is better than being accepted as someone we are pretending to be.

We then see Cliff and Monk together in the end, and I just loved seeing their relationship throughout the movie. Even though the F you note was funny in the book, I like that the movie has their relationship end well.

Their father

In both Monk finds out that their father had been having affairs. In the movie, Lisa tells him, whereas in the book he is the one that finds letters the dad had written to a past lover. In the book, he learns that the dad had a child with another woman, but he never put in the effort to find her and his child.

Monk tracks her down, and she is very poor and seems to have a neo-Nazi relative. He ends up giving her a check for 100k, saying their dad left it to her in his will. This isn’t in the movie.

The ending

In both, he as Thelonious Ellison is at the awards ceremony when Stagg R. Leigh is announced as the winner of the award. Monk then stands and walks to the podium, the man up there saying that Monk must know there whereabouts of Leigh, saying it must be a “black thang”. Monk begins to be delirious. He sees himself as a boy holding up a mirror and in his reflection, he sees Stagg Leigh, he begins to faint but before he does he looks in one of the tv cameras and says the final line from Van Go in F***, “I’m on television.”

In many ways, Everett has created two characters that mirror one another—Van Go Jenkins and Monk—and who arguably are a reflection of his own irritation. By the end of Erasure, Monk has also become Van Go, the self-loathing and self-destructive main character of his acclaimed novel. This transformation can be seen by looking at Monk’s difficult relationship with his own family, his constant struggle with “double consciousness,” and his anger with the larger oppressive system of racial injustice in America, which eventually leads to a tragic conclusion. -de Lily

In the movie, he begins to walk to the stage and takes the award, Coraline, whom he has texted comes in, and he says he has a confession to make. It then cuts to black. Then we see Monk talking to the Hollywood exec. He has told him the truth, and wants to make his story in to a movie rather than adapt F***. The exec is like, “what no we can’t fade to black. What actually happened at the ceremony?” Monk tells him he simply got up and left the room. They go through different ending ideas, then Monk says what about as I am at the podium admitting I am Stagg R. Leigh-who in the movie they tell people is a wanted criminal, police come into arrest him and as he tries to tell him it was all made up, he is dramatically shot. Monk tosses this idea out there, even though it is a cliché he dislikes. Of course, the producer loves it and says it is the perfect ending. Monk then leaves and drives off with Cliff.

Book title

There are a lot of vignettes throughout this book as I said, and near the end we read this one, “Rauschenberg: Nice job, eh? It was a lot of work erasing it. My wrist is still sore. I call it “Erased Drawing.”

de Kooning: That’s very clever.

 Rauschenberg: I’ve already sold it for ten grand.

de Kooning: You sold my picture?

Rauschenberg: No, I erased your picture. I sold my erasing.”

This clearly seems to reflect the title, Monk erased who he really was to “become” Stagg Leigh. But it could also represent the industry erasing stories by people of color and selling their “erased” version. This also makes me think of a line in the movie when his editor is telling him how white people think they want the truth (meaning about the “black experience” in America”) but really, they want to be absolved.

Similarities between Monk and Van Go

all of this section comes from the de Lily essay

These two characters also share a sense of hopelessness and anger with the interlocking systems of oppression that make it nearly impossible for them to be themselves or truly succeed. Both men blame everyone else except themselves for their failures. Monk is frustrated with the publishing industry, with the reading public, and finally with his newfound love interest [Coraline] for reading the book he hates. Van Go feels like he “coulda been out there wif a good job, makin some good money in a office or sumpin” and graduated from high school if one of his old teachers had not kicked him out (Everett 2001, 67). Neither character could change, defeat, or outsmart the system, so they succumbed to it. It is at this point in his writing career that Monk “considered [his] motivation in creating Stagg in the first place, felt again [his] anger and dissatisfaction with [his] world” (Everett 2001, 262). He had tried to write something worse that would possibly open people’s eyes to the flawed and racist writing of authors such as [Golden], but by creating something worse, he only made things worse…

Although he loves his mother and does not want to send her to a convalescent home to die, with each of her outbursts, his patience grows thin. Eventually, he makes the difficult decision to send her to a retirement home. “Given her condition,” he says, “I wanted very much to commit her…I was also troubled by the word commit. One commits murder or suicide, permanent things” (Everett 2001, 192). Similarly, as Van Go did by stabbing his mother in his dream, Monk “murders” his mother by sending her away…

His paranoia about discovery eventually catches up to him. Likewise, in My Pafology, Van Go realizes that he can no longer run from who he has become. He is trapped the same way Monk finds himself trapped. The most comparable moment, however, comes when Monk finally steps on stage and the “lights were brighter than ever…constant, flooding light. I looked at the television cameras looking at me” (Everett 2001, 265). At an earlier date, Monk had written about the very same event. Only he was sitting in a get-away car as the 19-year-old Van Go, crazed and excited that “the cameras is pointin at me. I be on the TV” (Everett 2001, 13). The tragic ending of My Pafology mirrors that of Monk’s own literary career and potential sanity…

Book vs Movie

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this book. This is another one that should be read in school because there is so much you could delve into and discuss. I love the layers have here, and the way we can dissect the parrells between Monk and Van Go as wa done in the de Lily paper.

Overall though I would say the movie wins when it comes to book vs movie. This was a fantastic adaptation and was so clever in the meta way the story is told. It is very funny, while also being touching. I liked the intensity of the book and how things don’t work out for Monk-he doesn’t make amends with his brother or Coraline, they aren’t about to enjoy Lorraine’s wedding, his sister is shot by a protester which is darker than a heart attack, Monk is even suicidal part way through the book.

So, while the movie is faithful, I think the changes they made served the movie well.

This movie is an awards contender this year, and if you want more content about a popular movie from 2023, I will link to The Killers of the Flower Moon which is based on the true story about the murder of the Osage people and was directed by Martin Scorsese. Both this and American Fiction are up for various acting awards. Jefferey Wright who plays Monk, and Sterling K. Brown who plays Cliff have been nominated for different awards so far.