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By Percival Everett. Graywolf Press, $15.
Everything Percival Everett writes appears to be something of an elaborate practical joke—each tale a volley of virtuosic nihilism to drown out life’s existential absurdities. He plays with different styles of fiction, toying with notions of identity to explore literature’s limits in reconciling the vagaries of the human condition. In what the author calls the “preface” to his latest title, one of the book’s narrators—who is possibly a fictional construct of a different narrator—writes, “your book might seem to begin in the manner of a definition dialogue, setting out to identify rhetorical stratagems, but concludes, as perhaps all things conclude, appearing as little more than an attempt to discern how one can best find some happiness in this life.”
The writer of the above is an old man addressing his artist son. Or perhaps it’s the son assuming the persona of his father. Or maybe the father is pretending to be his son. In this novel of mortality, family and memory, straight answers are difficult to come by. The first section of the book, for instance, is under the heading “Hesperus,” which is a reference to Frege’s Puzzle, a slightly dizzying philosophical argument concerning the cognitive value of proper names. Percival Everett is the name of the author, but it’s also the name of his late father (to whom Everett dedicates this book), and even an unrelated character in his wonderful, semantically stimulating 2009 novel, I’m Not Sidney Poitier. Can the same name refer to different entities and remain true in all instances? Like Frege’s Puzzle, Everett’s challenging novel—a curious, melancholy mix of Beckett, Sebald and Everett’s own mordant inventiveness—defies simple interpretation.