Trey Ellis’s 1988 debut novel Platitudes begins with a typical metatextual conceit: the novel-within-a-novel gambit. Our story starts with Earle, a nerdy, idealistic high school sophomore who lusts after True Love (and some sex if he can get it). After about a dozen pages though, the “author” shows his hand. Depressed divorced Dewayne Wellington is Earle’s creator, and he’s stuck in his novel-in-progress Platitudes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what more to write,” Wellington declares, before soliciting help from his readers.
Wellington soon receives manuscript pages from bestselling author Isshee Ayam, who transplants his story from 1980s Manhattan to 1930s rural Georgia. When Wellington introduces worldly and gorgeous Dorothy as Earle’s romantic foil, Ayam’s rhetorical interventions take on a new intensity as the two authors duel to guide the spirit of the novel-in-progress.
The plot threads and styles intertwine, with Wellington’s experimental mode clashing with Ayam’s “Afro-baroque” style (as Ellis described it in a 1989 Los Angeles Times profile). A parodic pastiche of competing Black American artistic voices, Platitudes ultimately synthesizes polyglossic tones into a strangely endearing romantic comedy. Sharp but breezy, ironic and earnest, and utterly metatextual yet soaked in pathos, Ellis’s first novel seems to be an overlooked late-postmodernist gem.
Although Platitudes remains in print (via Northeastern University Press’s New England Library of Black Literature series), I have never seen it mentioned along with its contemporaries—books like David Foster Wallace’s 1989 collection Girl with Curious Hair or Bret Easton Ellis’s 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction. Instead, Ellis’s novel seems to be connected more often along with the works of Ishmael Reed, particularly his 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing.
Reed’s novel concerns an experimental playwright who finds his career under attack from feminists. As Itabari Njeri pointed out in the LA Times profile mentioned above, many readers “assumed that Ayam is a thinly veiled Alice Walker and that Wellington is the novelist, poet and playwright, Ishmael Reed.” Ellis told Njeri that he hadn’t read Reckless Eyeballing until after he finished Platitudes. He also stated in the profile that he hadn’t read Walker’s The Color Purple. Before I read the Njeri profile I was almost certain that Ellis was parodying (lovingly though at times sharply) Reed and Walker.
Ayam’s “Afro-baroque” style is a particularly purple prose, telegraphed in the oh-so-unsubtle titles of her bestsellers: Chillun o’ de Lawd, Hog Jowl Junction, and My Big Ol’ Feets Gon’ Stomp Dat Evil Down. Here’s the first sentence of Ayam’s version of Platitudes:
Earle awakened to a day as new and as fresh as Mama’s hand-starched and sun-dried petticoat, a huge, plain garment as large and as fresh-smelling as the revival tents that bloomed every summer along Route 49 in Lowndes County, Georgia.
What an awesomely bad awesome sentence! The simple sentence is there: “Earle awakened,” but the adornment tacks on and on, a traffic jam of adjectives glommed onto a simile growing out of another simile, like a lichen that grows on a moss that grows on a rock.
Here’s Ayam’s next sentence:
Yes, from out of those wide Baptist thighs, thighs that shook with the centuries of injustice and degradation, thighs that twitched with the hope of generations yet unplanted, thighs that quivered with the friction of jubilant, bed-thumping, and funky-smelling lovemaking, emerged Earle.
“I’m speechless, Ms. Ayam,” responds Wellington by post after receiving her pages, and offers up as a return gift a list of Earle’s favorite things (to be sung to the tune Coltrane’s take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein song):
All kinds of tanks, Janey Rosebloom, Cream of Wheat, neighbors, Corinthians, toast-r-waffles, his own bean-fart vapors,
Schefflera, balsa wood, and Pay TeeVee.
Eff. Ay. Oh. Schwarz, lingerie straps, cowboy boots and hats.
Sunggle sacks, Chap Stick tubes, BeeBee guns, and films!
Sci-fi, cars, dance—Slurpees.
This list, printed in the console font that demarcates the many other lists, charts, menus, etc. that populate Platitudes then gives way to a brick list paragraph in whatever font Vintage Contemporaries are printed in. This second list might also comprise some of Wellington’s (and perhaps even Ellis’s?) favorite things, and includes “Jamaican accents, cleavage, efficiency, artificial cheese-food product” and
the way a pretty woman’s high heel dangles insecurely from the big toe of the crossed leg always near falling or—from a slight kick—flying spike-over-toe—an exotic Oriental weapon; but never doing either, just dangling, the toe of the shoe covering just enough to promise…
The back-and-forth of the two authors plays out as a personification of the tensions between two modes of Black literature that Ellis seeks to parody, synthesize, and ultimately transcend in Platitudes. While appreciative of the traditions and anti-traditions that came before him, he sought something new in his novel. A year later after the publication of Platitudes, Ellis published his essay “The New Black Aesthetic” in the journal Callaloo. Here, Ellis argued for a new kind of Black arts, evoking the concept of a ludic “cultural mulatto,” an artist free to borrow from both tradition and popular culture alike: “We no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please either white people or black,” Ellis declared in his essay.
Platitudes is not an essay—far from it—but it does enact the radical hybridization that Ellis put forth in his New Black Aesthetic manifesto. In his LA Times profile, Ellis declared Platitudes an “anti-novel,” adding that “It’s satirical and primarily about language performance, which has its own delights, as opposed to traditional narrative.”
And yet there is a traditional narrative here. Call it boy meets girl or coming of age or classical-in-the-Aristotelian-sense comedy or whatever you want, but Platitudes offers its reader a satisfying conclusion without selling out the ambiguities and ironies that course through its 180 or so pages.
In his back-cover blurb for Platitudes, Ishmael Reed wrote: “I was zapped by Trey Ellis’s humongous talent. His book, Platitudes, is delightfully rad.” Zapped and delightfully rad are perfect descriptors, and I feel like I’ve neglected to share enough of Ellis’s prose, which at times approximates linguistic channel surfing (at one point, quite literally). The book is both fun and funny, and while the book has not been neglected in academia (Christian Schmidt devotes a chapter to it in his study Postblack Aesthetics, for example), it deserves a wider readership from those who enjoy satirical postmodern novels. Highly recommended.