When Dr. McCoy instructed the class to produce an aspect of the novel, I Am Not Sidney Poiter, by Percival Everett, to unpack one chilly, October afternoon, I immediately thought about my frustration with the aimless format of the satire. I Am Not Sidney Poiter evades a traditional plotline with each event happening seemingly for no reason and in no particular order.
I Am Not Sidney Poiter begins with an odd introduction for its main character, Not Sidney, where he hilariously explains his mother’s 24-month-long pregnancy in first-person narration, “I am the ill-starred fruit of a hysterical pregnancy…” (Everett, 3). Although unusual, I was able to follow this introduction. However, the novel continues with a quick plot twist where Not Sidney’s mother dies of a mysterious illness by page seven and Not Sidney moves in with Ted Turner, a TV company-owner (not to be confused with the real-life Ted Turner of the same name/occupation). Different adventures ensue from there for Not Sidney, all of which happen in a random order and in arbitrary timelines.
An example of one such adventure is when Not Sidney tries to leave Ted Turner’s place in Atlanta, and promptly gets arrested, leading to a side plot that mirrors the plot of the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones. This quirky transition caught me off-guard while reading. I understand that part of the comical element in this novel is Not Sidney experiencing the same events as the real Sidney Poiter’s roles in his movies, but I feel that the arrest came out of nowhere, distracting the reader from Not Sidney’s personal plot line.
My discomfort with Everett’s choice of structure may be because I’m not as familiar with it. We read about a more common way of formatting a novel in the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Freytag’s Pyramid is a typical structure for plays that can also be applied to novels. This pyramid was constructed by German writer Gustav Freytag in his book, Die Technik des Dramas, in 1863. The Pyramid’s format consists of an “introduction…rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe” (Murfin and Ray, 166). While I didn’t know what it was called, the format of Freytag’s Pyramid is easily recognizable to me. Its design can be seen in many classic Disney movies like Cinderella, where the princess is introduced, is distressed, must do something grand, then lives happily ever after with her prince. It’s satisfying, isn’t it? When you read a book or watch a movie knowing exactly what to expect? I suppose it is a bit juvenile but I still enjoy the predictability of this format.
Unfortunately, real life events hardly follow this clear-cut pyramid’s path. Perhaps Everett is perhaps trying to say something about this fact with his non-traditional format of I Am Not Sidney Poiter.
One theory I’ve developed is that Everett is trying to capture the irony of real-life events. He utilizes an irrational plotline to portray events in the novel like they are happening in real-time. If I go back to when Not Sidney is arrested, it provides further evidence for my idea. When he’s arrested, its at an inconvenient time for the plot, and isn’t that how arrests are in life? They disrupt the life of whoever’s getting arrested and throws him or her off from whatever “plot” he or she is living. Hence, this a perfect example of the contingent plot line lending itself to depicting real life events.
If Everett is, in fact, attempting to demonstrate how real life works through this novel, it allows me as the reader to relate to what Not Sidney is going through more. In my own life, there is certainly no format guide. For instance, when I graduated from high school ending that chapter of my education, it felt like a resolution where a book or movie would end. Except, here I am, continuing my life by beginning a new experience here at college! These seemingly never-ending expeditions in my own life are akin to the way Everett tells Not Sidney’s story. So, even though I am not found of it, the randomly-timed plotline does help me better understand Not Sidney’s life.
Everett’s format adds a layer of complexity to the novel that may not be there in a traditional novel using Freytag’s Pyramid. From outward appearance, the novel seems to be goofy, ironic, and entertaining. However, when given a closer look, the text has a deeper meaning. If Everett uses character names from real people and a plot line that reflects how events happen in real life, then maybe he is trying to say something about life with this bizarre tale. He could want the reader to see Not Sidney’s life compared to young black teens in America today. As Not Sidney was basically arrested just for the fact that he’s black, Everett might be hinting at America’s withstanding unfair treatment of black people. This is speculation on my part, yet, the fact that I was able to interpret the novel this way proves that there are deeper themes in this book than meets the eye.
My annoyance at Everett’s choice of format is what started my thinking towards these profound ideas located in the novel. This shows that every choice an author makes can send a reader in a certain direction. I believe that Everett’s choice was purposeful, intended for further analysis by readers like me.