Satire’s Trojan Horse

Should satirical art have equal measures of heart?

Writer and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison has a successful yet dysfunctional Black family. So dysfunctional that after he’s chastised at an emergency faculty meeting for tormenting his undergraduate students by exposing them to a short story by Flannery O’Connor with the N-word in the title, he balks at his supervisor’s suggestion that he take some time to go home and relax. “If you’re under the impression that time spent with my family will take the edge off, I’m fine,” Monk replies.

Back home, we learn that his mother’s mental state is slipping due to Alzheimer’s, his sister who is his mother’s caretaker fills him in on the situation—and then dies from a sudden heart attack. His brother, a plastic surgeon whose life has recently imploded because his wife (now ex-wife) discovered he was sleeping with men, is back home for the funeral and on a drug-induced bender, reeling from the death of his sister and the pain of feeling like an outcast in his family.

And then there is Monk, a middle-aged novelist with a few books under his belt that have never been commercially viable, and that—much to his fury—are stocked in the African American section of book stores. “These books have nothing to do with African-American studies, they’re just literature,” he tells a clerk at a chain store early on in the film, “the blackest thing about this one is the ink.”

Monk and his family are at the heart of American Fiction, the buzzed about, Academy Award–nominated feature film by former journalist Cord Jefferson. Though the film has been written about by nearly every major magazine and newspaper by now, you may not have read all that much about Monk and the troubles of his lot. That’s because the most-discussed parts of the film are how it skewers the mostly white publishing industry and the way it can often incentivize writers of color to perform comforting caricatures of their lives and backgrounds.

And yet, the satire, in many ways, is draped on top of this compelling, core story about a man who has been distant from his family for quite some time and is forced to confront them, and his long absence, as a result of tragedy. It is a Trojan horse, if you will.

This is as it should be. Because the scenes satirizing the publishing industry are, for me, some of the least memorable. That isn’t to say they aren’t good, or funny. They are. But when I reflect on the movie, the moments I remember most are those in which the real Thelonious Monk is fleshed out on the screen for viewers, alongside his siblings, mother, and neighbors. And, to my mind, it is this human story at the center, which has absolutely nothing to do with the publishing industry or how writers of color feel in it, that make the satirical elements even stronger.

Perhaps the most brilliant choice of the film is that Monk’s family pressures—such as the high cost of a nursing home for his mother or the upkeep of their waterfront property, which is falling into disrepair—serve to push him to dash off the comical book, My Pafology, later renamed Fuck, on which the larger plot is centered.

Shortly after meeting with a doctor who informs Monk his mother will require expensive, around-the-clock care, and reading a profile about Sintara Golden and her best-selling, cliché-ridden novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, taking the literary world by storm, he holes up in his study to dream up a narrative that leans directly into what Monk feels the publishing world obviously wants from him: Black trauma, pain, and dysfunction on a decidedly lower-economic scale than the one his family resides in.

When two stereotypical Black characters spring forth to play out the words Monk types in real time—a young man with a gun, confronting a drunk revealing himself to be his father, who he later shoots as repayment for his absence—it feels like a logical move.

Yeah, Monk wants to raise a middle finger to an industry that he feels is pigeonholing him, but we also understand that he needs money to pay for his mother’s care. These stakes continue to build and end up forcing his hand when his agent, Arthur, reveals that his sham of a book has garnered an offer of a $750,000 advance from a major publisher. When Monk wavers on actually taking the dough, Arthur knows what buttons to push. “Doesn’t your mom need help these days?” he asks. Monk, eventually agreeing, seems less confident than he does confounded. “The dumber I behave, the richer I get,” he says.

These plot elements—the Trojan horse, if you will—are important because they remove the burden of the satire having to hold up the entire film. They also serve to broaden the film’s appeal and reach beyond the relatively small pool of people who think as much about the shallowness of calls for diversity in the publishing and media industry as writers like myself do. Even as much as I do think about the difficult waters marginalized writers navigate to tell stories that feel true to them, to be honest, I don’t really want to watch an hour and a half of jokes and barbs about it. Frankly, I think pulling off a movie like that, and making it entertaining, would be quite difficult.

The outcome will likely end up feeling shallow to whole swaths of readers and audience members (i.e., the majority of this country, despite what social media would have you think) who are not as keyed into the culture wars. The characters would likely remain flat—simple stand-ins for arguments—and the plot would inevitably feel manufactured, forced, and rushed.

American Fiction successfully sidesteps these issues, in my opinion.

I appreciate the execution of the film, and the deft way it handles the satire, because that is something I was preoccupied with while writing my own novel, Victim, which was published earlier this year.

Victim is also a satire about the publishing and media industry, and the virtue-signaling, tear-jerking trauma stories the industry often craves from writers of color. My protagonist, Javier Perez, a poor Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, understands—just like Monk in American Fiction—what that writing world wants (poverty porn, teary-trauma tales, etc.). Unlike Monk though, he has them at the ready: he watches his father, a drug dealer, get shot and killed; he’s raised by a single mother who finds creative ways to pay the rent on time; his best friend growing up gets sentenced to prison for his involvement in a gang. But instead of withholding these tales to make a point, he learns from a guidance counselor in high school how much currency they provide his budding writing career. Like the hustler his pops was, he decides to deliver the goods.

Once he realizes that mining his own, real trauma, and later simply making up compelling trauma he’s never actually experienced, are effective means to opening doors of opportunity, Javier cashes in—pimping out his identity and putting himself on the fast track to the success he so desires.

This plotline is certainly the main thrust of the novel and what is heavily advertised in the marketing copy. But like American Fiction, and some of my favorite novels with elements of satire and explicit cultural commentary, I also spent a lot of time making sure there were layers of depth around Javier, his family, and community, too.

Even as much as I do think about the difficult waters marginalized writers navigate to tell stories that feel true to them, to be honest, I don’t really want to watch an hour and a half of jokes and barbs about it.

In fact, the entire story started as a friendship story between Javier and his best friend, Gio. Two kids who grew up in the same neighborhood in the Bronx but take drastically different paths in life: one goes on to become a famous (and later infamous) writer, and the other joins a gang and serves a long prison sentence for a drug conviction. The story of their friendship—and how, in Javier’s case, having strong, real relationships outside of the media and publishing industry, with people who care far less about Twitter than they do about paying rent on time—is essential to playing off of and deepening the larger satirical plot.

After all, it is Gio who helps Javier see the error of his ways and brings him back to reality. After being released from prison and reuniting with Javier, who by then is a well-known magazine columnist anxious and reeling from the pressure of having to gin up fresh trauma porn to feed his editors, Gio hits him with a dose of reality about the stories he’s been writing and getting famous for: “You know your ass was lying Javi,” he says, confronting him about a particular story he read in prison, a story that Gio, who knows Javier’s background intimately, could tell was entirely made up. “That shit wasn’t even close to the truth.”

It’s a moment that serves to slowly wake Javier up and begin to help him realize that the lies he is spinning may not just be read by the hipster, intellectual crowd who purchases the magazine he writes for and that he feels distant and sheltered from by living in the Bronx, but by people who actually know him or walk the same path as him; a disconnect that eventually helps him understand just how far he’s been led astray from who he really is.

Scenes like these, and characters like Gio, were always important to me. Because my aim, all along, was to write a story that obviously pokes fun and critiques important issues, but also, a story that feels human and real—even if the novel is thought of through the lens of satire.

I like to call this sort of satire—the kind I aim for in Victim, and the kind that I believe American Fiction succeeds at—“satire with heart.” My models for this are a handful of contemporary novels I believe handle this delicate balance extremely well, such as Loving Day by Mat Johnson, New People by Danzy Senna, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

All of these fabulous books weave critiques and barbs about our culture and its handling of race, class, and privilege into their pages, but they are also full of characters who feel fully fleshed out and grapple with things like new love, parenthood, and secret desires, among other things.

Loving Day, one of my favorite novels of the past decade, is, on its surface, a novel centered on the quest of one man, comic book artist Warren Duffy, to make sense of his mixed-race identity, and the pressure of having to conform to being white or Black, when he really feels somewhere in between. The theme was certainly timely when it was published in 2015, and the novel received a lot of positive coverage for its exploration of identity in an age when everyone was keen on defining and clinging to seemingly set identities in op-eds, essays, and Twitter bios.

But, like American Fiction, that was only the surface level. In fact, what I remember most about Johnson’s excellent novel is the tender, comical, and broadly human father-daughter story at the very center of it.

Early in the novel, Warren meets a teenage girl named Tal at a comic book convention, who turns out to be his daughter from a past relationship. Raised to think she was white, his daughter’s introduction into his life challenges his own biracial identity and forces him to grapple with what he wants to pass on to her—or which side of himself (white or Black) he should pass on to her—in a society where racial lines seem to be rigidly drawn and exploring a multiracial, hyphenated self is looked down upon.

But like Monk’s mother, and her bills, Warren doesn’t embark on the journey of trying to make sense of his identity in an identity-obsessed world for no reason. He does so because he understands that for his daughter’s sake, it must be done, so that he can help her journey be easier. His quest to become a better father to his new daughter, then, parallels the one he’s on to accept his multifaceted identity. It gets at the fundamentally human insight of how much parenthood can be a driving force for personal change—forcing parents to confront hangups for the sake of their kids.

As a parent of two small children now, I feel compelled to revisit this story—regardless of whether or not I think an excavation of mixed-race identity still feels as palpable as it did in 2015.

I feel that way with all of the novels I mentioned above. What makes them work, and what makes them memorable, is that the commentary and skewering of our culture embedded in them spills forth in a genuine manner because it’s distilled through interesting, compelling characters with real issues, concerns, and desires outside the realm of politics or the online insanity of the day.

They have, in other words, equal measures of heart as they do scathing critique.

Striking this balance is difficult and really damn time-consuming. I’m not sure that I’ve quite done it myself. But it is certainly a goal that feels worthy, and that I aimed for. I was quite pleased to see Cord Jefferson aim for it in his film, too. For it is the rendering of the struggles of this one, interesting and complex Black family—completely outside of a familiar, Hollywood-style racially charged plot—that I suspect many will likely remember most about his film. icon

This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.

Featured image: Jeffrey Wright and Leslie Uggams in “American Fiction.”