Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison In ‘American Fiction,’ Explained: Does Monk Reveal His Secret?

What is a perfectionist’s biggest dilemma? Is it keeping oneself restricted to an artistic niche, or does one compromise one’s vision by catering to the interests of the masses? As a musician with a never-ending artist’s block, I find that some nuances of my own artistic approach align with the protagonist’s disposition portrayed in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction.

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The narrative is a commentary on the post-modern capitalistic interests of White America—the section of an elite privileged society hidden behind the guise of liberalism. Cord Jefferson sheds light on how America’s literary and visual art institutions choose to dissect the struggles of Black people and the tenets of Black liberalism. Their portrayal of the African-American minority in art is often restricted to stereotypes of them being marginalized. On the flip side, the public empathizes with this portrayal and prefers being inside this echo chamber, which sometimes patronizes the Black community.

I also think that Cord Jefferson’s vision isn’t just restricted to the Black community. For instance, this capitalist agenda is often the reason why workplaces around the globe, which couldn’t really care less about the community, suddenly become “more inclusive” during Pride Month. Even the Western portrayal of India comes from a place of exploitation—not like their portrayal is far from reality. We’re so much more than this as people. But guess what? The elites in the West love seeing our dirty streets. They love seeing the vibrantly graded struggles of the underprivileged. They also love the fact that they are not a part of this and that it makes them feel better about their own circumstances. I can find myself relating to Thelonious Ellison’s anger towards being under the White man’s gaze, even in the world of art. I don’t think there is anything wrong with making art that sells, at least morally. But back to being a perfectionist indulging in the nature of their art, and that goes even for a wannabe like myself—making art solely for other people is simply not gratifying enough.

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Spoilers Ahead


What Is Thelonious ‘monk’ Ellison’s Story?

Also referred to as ‘Monk,’ a homage to the jazz legend, Thelonious Ellison is a middle-aged writer and professor of African-American origin. He works at a university in Los Angeles and belongs to a rather elite family of overachievers in Boston. Following the death of his father, he has become distant from his family. Monk’s career as a writer has stagnated. Nevertheless, being a highly intellectual man, Monk not only struggles to adhere to popular opinion but is also a hardcore critic of being a sellout. His works receive acclamation from critics but do not meet the financial success he deserves. What annoys him even more is that publishers reject his latest work, ‘Echo,’ on the note that it is not “Black enough.” Following an altercation with a student at his university because of his view on a certain racial remark, the university asks him to take some time off, placing him on a sabbatical. During a writer’s conference in Boston, all the attention from his panel was taken away by Sintara Golden. Sintara, a fellow Black writer, has been in the limelight for her bestseller ‘We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,’ which affirms the stereotypes of Black people. Monk finds it absurd that even though Sintara hails from a privileged background and education, she capitalizes on the victimization of their community.

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Following the conference, he returns home after what seems like a really long time. His sister, Lisa, a doctor who recently got divorced, and their housekeeper, Lorraine, now take care of their aged mother, Agnes. Agnes also has the onset of Alzheimer’s, which puts financial strain on the family. Growing up, Monk was really close to his father, which made him distant from his siblings Lisa and Cliff, who found company in each other instead. According to Lisa, Monk has always been self-sufficient in that regard, but in reality, he struggles with opening up. After returning to Boston, however, he hoped to reconnect with his estranged siblings again, but Lisa unfortunately died of a heart attack. This further puts strain on the funds needed for their mother’s care, as Cliff’s divorce from his wife has almost bankrupted him as well. Cliff was caught cheating with a man, which led to his divorce.


Why Does Monk Write ‘My Pafology’?

Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison is an intellectual but also a critic of society. His commercial failure, along with his struggles with depression, has stunted his ability to efficiently write another book. The rejection of his latest draft for not pandering to Black stereotypes pushes him further into scorning the market. I think a part of him finds it unfair that, despite his critical acclaim, he is sidelined by a new face in the industry who caters to the demands of the market. The other part of him, perhaps, still feels a sense of responsibility toward the expression of his individuality and his community through his passion. At one point, he even loses his calm, seeing his books lying in the African-American Studies section of a bookstore. Nothing about the nature of his book suggests its association with African-American studies. The financial constraints following Lisa’s death and their mother’s deteriorating condition put more pressure on Monk. This prompts him to start writing another novel, a satire to scorn the stereotypes expected of him by the publishers. ‘My Pafology’ includes themes like melodrama, violence, drug abuse, and parental neglect—all the narratives that Monk despises. Honestly, this instance reminds me of how the electronic musician Joel Zimmerman (Deadmau 5) became famous.

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Why Does Monk Adopt An Alias For His New Work?

Monk, being a purist in literature, has ideals that he adheres to. His reputation as a writer, even though not a popular one, has been associated with brilliance and respect by those who follow his work. Even though he wrote ‘My Pafology’ out of spite, he knows that the draft is a tarnish to his artistic approach. Geniuses like Monk often prefer staying true to their nature and reputation. There is nothing wrong with adapting, but again, adapting to what? The people who control the market? The society? Either way, Monk wishes to avoid embarrassment and therefore uses the name “Stagg R. Leigh” to hide his real identity. To his surprise, the publishers actually like the work and offer him an insanely massive amount of money. His agent, Arthur, convinces him to accept the offer under the pseudonym of an escaped fugitive.


Why Does Monk Want To Sabotage His Own Work?

Following his discussion with the publishers, he is offered a movie adaptation deal for ‘My Pafology’ by Wiley Valdespino, a young director whose name and directorial vision remind me a bit of Tarantino. For his meeting with Wiley, Arthur asks him to behave like an escaped convict. This makes Monk feel like he is being reeled into a web of lies that he started. In the meantime, his mother is moved into a care facility as her Alzheimer’s progresses, which requires an amount of money he cannot afford. Being a person of principles, he finds himself in a personal conflict, seeing himself as a hypocrite. Monk had been a staunch critic of other people’s attempts at selling out, but now he has become a part of the system. Hoping to sabotage the book deal, he assertively renames the title of the book to ‘F***.’ But it only adds to the comedy when the publishers accept his requests and proceed with publishing. In the end, he was becoming what he disdained.

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Does The Monk Reveal His Secret?

The hype around this book that he hates keeps on increasing, forcing Monk to make anonymous interviews with talk shows. His persona as a fugitive even garners attention from the FBI. In the meantime, Monk is invited to be a judge at the New England Association’s Literary Award; he takes up the offer, seeing it as an outlet for his interests, even though Santara Golden would be a co-jury. After a few days of judging the works of different artists, his publishers submit ‘F***’ to the competition, which the jurors agree to accept despite Monk’s protests. Unsurprisingly, the panel’s White jurors love the book. Sintara and Monk protest about its stereotypical panders, but the rest of the panel decides to declare the book the winner instead, adding to the perfectionist’s dilemma. At the award function, when the book is publicly announced as the winner of the award show, Monk walks up to the stage, declaring that he wishes to confess, but then the movie cuts to black. It turns out that Monk does not reveal Stagg’s real identity. He, instead, finds a better opportunity and presents Wiley with a screenplay about his entire experience, which he decides to leave rather open-ended. The Tarantino-esque director loves the screenplay except for the ending, and he asks Monk to change it. I find it funny that even Tarantino loves making his own endings about real-life incidents. Wiley finally agrees on an ending, which Monk half-heartedly imagines as a joke. According to this ending, the FBI breaks into the award venue and shoots Monk, thinking he is actually Stagg R. Leigh, an escaped fugitive. I feel this scene refers to police brutality incidents like George Floyd’s.

Monk once again finds himself caught in another dilemma. He thought this screenplay could be a testament to his creative expression, but it succumbs to the interests of a White man’s vision, instead. In its rebellion against the stereotypical victimization of the Black community, American Fiction points at the subtle racism that permeates through neoliberal America.

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Shrey Ashley Philip
Shrey Ashley Philip
A teacher, photographer, linguist, and songwriter, Shrey started out as a Biotechnology graduate, but shifted to studying Japanese. Now he talks about movies, advocates for ADHD awareness, and embraces Albert Camus.


 

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