American Fiction review – entertaining comedy collision of race, class and envy

<span>Photograph: Claire Folger</span>
Photograph: Claire Folger

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a middle-aged black humanities professor in Los Angeles, roundly disliked by students and faculty colleagues, who is the author of many intellectually demanding and commercially disastrous novels based on classical myth. Depressed by his career and by money worries – including an elderly mother needing residential care for dementia – Monk is finally triggered by the bestselling triumph of a new novel by black author Sintara Golden, entitled We’s Lives in da Ghetto, which apparently panders to all the illiterate black-victimhood cliches beloved of white cultural gatekeepers. Enraged, Monk writes a spoof hood-violence novel, My Pafology, by the supposed convicted felon Stagg R Leigh, and sends it to his agent, assuming the obvious crassness will signal its satirical intent. But then … well, those acquainted with the Broadway career of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom might guess what happens next.

American Fiction is the highly entertaining new literary comedy from film-maker Cord Jefferson, a TV writer making his feature directing debut with his own emollient adaptation of the metafictional masterpiece Erasure by Percival Everett, published in 2001. Jeffrey Wright is an excellent Monk: sensitive, morose, prickly and idealistic in a gloomily self-harming way. Tracee Ross Ellis is his shrewd physician sister Lisa; Sterling K Brown is his cosmetic surgeon brother Cliff, who has just come out as gay; Leslie Uggams is affectingly dignified as Monk’s mother Agnes; Issa Rae is Monk’s nemesis, Sintara Golden. It all works very enjoyably, despite Jefferson sugaring the original a little, including changing the specific kind of medical practice that Lisa has.

American Fiction succeeds in spite of arguably flunking a particular challenge, faced up to more candidly by Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell-Boyce with their adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in A Cock and Bull Story from 2006, or Harold Pinter with his screenplay version of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981, adaptations which explicitly attempted to reproduce in realist movie terms the originals’ meta-levels of narrative. This is because the midsection of Everett’s original novel includes the text of My Pafology in its entirety; it is long enough for readers to immerse themselves in it, to register how absurd and exaggerated it is but also see its thrilling gusto and energy and maybe even, who knows, wonder if the author perhaps toyed with the idea of attempting a bestseller like this himself but settled for presenting it in quotation marks.

So in transposing this to film, Jefferson must surely have pondered the possibility of making his Monk a highbrow film studies professor whose My Pafology is not a novel but a screenplay for something like New Jack City (which is referenced here). Well, Jefferson engages with these ideas at the end, and it is an amusing and absorbing fantasy of how class and race and literary taste collide, and a parable of career defeat ironically redeemed by society’s hypocrisy and absurdity. It is also a mordant study of literary envy: Monk’s angry imitation of We’s Lives in da Ghetto reminded me a little of Kingsley Amis’s description in his memoirs of being rattled by the superior success of a despised rival, and his fleeting fear that he should simply swallow his pride and imitate this person’s style.

Related: Jeffrey Wright on finally being up for the best actor Oscar: ‘I was frustrated, but I’m not frustrated now’

At one point Jefferson invents a confrontation between Monk and Sintara in which Sintara stands up for her novel, and this is perhaps a loss of satirical nerve (the author’s name is incidentally more obviously parodic in the book). Wright and Rae play the scene with conviction, however, and make us see a kind of snobbery in Monk’s reaction to her success, and maybe something gendered too. Then there is something a bit farcical when Monk has to pose in public as the slouching imaginary badass Stagg R Leigh – but perhaps no more farcical than the real-life case of the author Laura Albert, exposed in 2006 for inventing phoney abuse survivor JT LeRoy, who had written thrillingly authentic fictions about her supposedly troubled life, and got her sister-in-law to put on a wig and sunglasses to be this reclusive literary genius. (Erasure in fact predates this case.)

Broad-brush American Fiction might be, but its approach to race and racism is oblique and unexpected, and it’s very funny about publishing’s literary ghetto.

• American Fiction is released on 2 February in UK and Irish cinemas, and will be streaming on Prime Video in Australia from 27 February.